In Africa, linking technology and health

Guest post from Emeline Cokelet Meneken, a writer
and editor at PATH

Kenyan Janet Karani got her first email address a decade ago. It was a way to stay in touch with friends who had moved from Kenya to the United States and was far easier than waiting for the public telephone in a local shopping center—the standard mode for international communication at the time. For Karani, a young college student in a new city, email became a lifeline.

Ten years later, email and a host of other technologies play a central role in Karani’s work as a regional systems administrator for PATH, a Seattle-based global health nonprofit organization. Karani manages all computer and network systems for PATH’s field offices in eastern Africa, supporting about 300 staff. A grant from Microsoft has enabled PATH to standardize its information technology (IT) systems across its 32 field offices so that, from her desk in Nairobi, Kenya, Karani can solve a technology problem in Tanzania, Uganda, or any of the other countries she supports using Exchange and other Microsoft tools.

“It makes it much easier to troubleshoot and get solutions,” Karani says.

Microsoft and PATH_image_Janet Karani in server room

Janet Karani manages IT systems for PATH’s offices in eastern Africa. A grant from Microsoft helped PATH standardize its IT systems across its field offices. Photo courtesy of PATH.

Karani is part of PATH’s hub model that puts systems administrators on the same continents and in the same time zones as the offices they support. The model boosts efficiency across the organization, allowing staff to focus on developing and advancing health solutions for the world’s poorest communities. It is widely used in the corporate world but is still catching on among nonprofits, mainly because of the prohibitive cost. Microsoft’s grant makes the model possible for PATH.

From reactive to proactive

Nonprofit organizations make fulfilling their mission their top priority, and technology has to be calibrated to support that mission, explains Pete Tutak, PATH’s associate director of global infrastructure and support. The Microsoft grant and other Microsoft systems management products, such as System Center Operations Manager and System Center Configuration Manager, enable PATH to provide its staff with advanced technology, shift its operational focus from reactive to proactive, stay on top of IT issues, and keep its field staff connected.

For Karani, that means not only can she solve problems remotely, but she can do so in real time—time zone delays between Africa and PATH’s IT staff in Seattle no longer apply. Her proximity and background also help as she works across cultures and office environments.

Karani knows firsthand what it’s like in PATH’s remote sites where Internet connections are unreliable, or nonexistent, as well as how staff are using technology and what challenges they face. “The way things are done in Kenya is not necessarily the way things are done in Tanzania,” she says. Likewise for Ethiopia, Malawi, and Uganda, the other countries she supports. Karani can judge when to delegate problem-solving to another staff member or when to troubleshoot issues herself.

Using technology for HIV services

Part of Karani’s work involves setting up and overseeing the more than 400 laptop and desktop computers PATH has distributed to its staff, partner organizations, and local health centers to help expand care and support services for Kenyans affected by HIV. Loaded with software licensed to PATH through the Microsoft grant, the computers are used to track the health information of HIV-positive patients, the welfare of children orphaned by HIV, and other data.

For example, health workers use Microsoft Access to store patients’ weight, temperature, and CD4 cell count (an indicator of AIDS progression), which enables them to better monitor patients’ health. Within seconds a health worker can pull up a patient’s health history and then determine appropriate treatment and connect the patient with the right services.

The technology helps to strengthen Kenya’s health system, allows health workers and researchers to obtain reliable data, and makes for a much faster transfer of information among staff working in multiple field offices. The impact extends to individuals in the communities where PATH works—resulting in both better care and better awareness.

“The community around where we are setting up these offices is getting exposure to technology,” Karani says. “So people realize, for instance, that it’s important to go to school, it’s important to take care of themselves health-wise.”

Peer counselors at Mabusi health facility sing an educational song outside of the clinic.

In Kenya, local health centers use computers from PATH loaded with Microsoft software to track health records of Kenyans affected by HIV. Photo credit: PATH/Evelyn Hockstein

Expanding the field

Karani is doing her own part to expose more people, especially women, to IT. She helped launch a mentoring program at her alma mater to encourage girls to consider entering the male-dominated industry, and she sits on the steering committee for a new program through NetHope—an IT group for international humanitarian organizations—to recruit more women to the IT field.

As technology progresses and becomes more attainable for nonprofits, Karani and others are seeing the myriad ways IT advances the mission of PATH. Just as Karani’s first email address connected her to friends across the world, PATH’s technology backbone links communities in Africa and around the world to better health and hopeful futures.


PATH is an international nonprofit organization that transforms global health through innovation. PATH takes an entrepreneurial approach to developing and delivering high-impact, low-cost solutions, from lifesaving vaccines and devices to collaborative programs with communities. Through its work in more than 70 countries, PATH and its partners empower people to achieve their full potential.

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