Technology, in the hands of the youth, is proving to be the equaliser the continent has needed to resolve persisting challenges. Where previously problems had to be prioritised based on reach and resources, technology has offered solutions for issues like mental health to also be prioritised and easily accessible to most.
How do you solve a problem like mental health care on a continent like Africa? It’s pretty difficult to throw it at the top of the priorities list when we are trying to reclaim land, wrestle for free education, get neo-colonial fingers out of our pockets, stop gender based violence, get governments to decriminalise homosexuality and correct all the marketing material that sold the idea of Africa as some vast backwater whose only value is in her natural resources.
Making that job even more difficult is the fact that mental health is not always taken particularly seriously on the continent, given the aforementioned problems. In an article appearing on the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) website on depression among black South Africans, Professor Dan Mkhize mentioned that “for a long time, depression has been thought not to exist in and around Africans”. In another time, that statement would have simply been an extra layer of doom to add to Africa’s gloom but as of late things have been looking up for us and the field of personal mental health care is no different. Just ask the CEO of Vimbo Health, the all-African mental health tech start-up co-founded by Tafi Mazikana.
The origin story of Vimbo Health is entangled in Mazikana’s own struggles with mental health. Having studied in the UK, Mazikana got into finance after university and dove head-first into the stresses and strains one associates with a career in that industry.
“I experienced what I interpreted as burnout… so I decided to look out for different mental health options,” he says.
As people often report with therapy, Mazikana went in expecting to solve one issue and found it connected to a tapestry of others whose symptoms had presented themselves time and again in different forms. More surprisingly was that his journey into mental health care sparked an advocacy that would, in turn, evolve into a company with a focus on mental health in Africa with his fellow co-founder Sherrie Steyn.
“We coalesced around a common passion for the issue [of mental health] but more importantly around the idea of who is looking at Africa. It is all very good and well to say that digital health is becoming big… but how is it looking for Africa? We decided to be those people and develop a platform and a program targeted specifically at rolling out here,” Mazikana says.
For a long time, depression has been thought not to exist in and around AfricansPROFESSOR DAN MKHIZE
It is a good thing they did. As a general rule, it would seem that there are very few good statistics in the world of mental health. For example, according to Vimbo’s research the treatment gap (which is the number of people with a condition who need treatment for it but who do not get it) in the US and UK it is between 50-60%. In South Africa where stats aren’t available Mazikana puts the treatment gap at 75%, at best and 92%, at its worst. Then there is the problem with men. According to a Mail and Guardian piece on suicide, South African men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than women. It is a stat that echoes Mazikana’s observations.
“According to the SADAG numbers of 2017, based on calls coming into them, only 24% of them were from men yet men make up a vast majority of suicides. This shows that the problem is real but getting people to talk about it is a major challenge. Until we start to see mental health as being as important as physical health, we are going to have a hard time dealing with the problem,” Mazikana says.
Using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques which have been shown to help with depression, anxiety and various other mental health disorders, Vimbo helps users spot problem areas in how they are thinking and/or behaving and equips them with the skills to cope at a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy. The company’s founders have specifically targeted Africa because it has a young population and technology is increasingly becoming the key with which Africans free themselves from their various yokes.
“Smartphone penetration is growing and the continent has a young population which is good for the adoption of technology. Going digital also helps eliminate the issues of clustering of health care workers in big cities. People in smaller and more rural locations can also have access when you go digital,” Mazikana says.
Currently, Vimbo are looking to partner primarily with employers and offer them more employee wellness options. Despite what a lot of tech companies usually promise when discussing their more traditional antecedents, Vimbo is not looking to replace old school psychology but rather to be used in tandem with it.
“We still need psychologists and everything. We (Vimbo) are really talking to the 75%-92% that fall into the treatment gap and we’re saying let us get them on the first step at least,” Mazikana says.
Whether Vimbo goes on to become the duo-lingo of African mental health care remains to be seen, but whether it does or doesn’t is unimportant. For generations now, Africans have been force fed second-hand solutions from people and places that didn’t much care about our problems, let alone understand how to navigate them. Harnessing technology has allowed us to tailor make our own answers. In a world where the mental health of an entire continent has gone largely unnoticed, Vimbo Health may just be the first brick in a digital foundation that sees Africa take her place as one of the world’s leading lights.