Can mobile phones change behaviour when it comes to nutrition?

Published on 24 February 2017

Inka Barnett

Health and Nutrition Cluster Lead

The world’s first ever mobile phone weighed in at a staggering 1.1kg. It gave you 30 minutes of call time, as long as you were happy to wait 10 hours for it to charge. That was 1973. However, jump forward to the present day and more people have access to mobile phones than toilets.

Mobile technology is ubiquitous. The past forty years have seen major advancements not only in mobile devices, but also the advent of the internet and the rise of online social networks. Mobile phones are now affordable and accessible even in remote rural communities. They are also no longer just a means for communication. They can now enable access to information anywhere and anytime. As a result, mobile technology can offer new and cost-effective approaches to providing information, raising awareness, changing attitudes and triggering behaviour change, especially in settings where access to information and services is limited.

Behaviour change and mobile technology

Behaviour change is central to the effectiveness of many interventions aiming to improve nutrition-related behaviours and address undernutrition. For example, early and exclusive breastfeeding and optimal complementary feeding (for children between 6 months and 23 months) often requires changes in child feeding and caring practices, food choices, preparations and consumption. Similarly, for agriculture to become more nutrition-sensitive and promote nutritional well-being more actively, farming decisions need to be more well-informed. For example, decisions need to be made with consideration of crop cultivation, livestock choice, food storage and processing.

Despite the enthusiasm about the potential role of mobile phones in behaviour change interventions, to date there have been no rigorous evaluations of such mobile services at scale.To address this gap in the evidence base, a consortium of researchers from GAMOS, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), has just started an evaluation to assess the impact of m-Nutrition on children and adults and explore some of the commercial, community and implementation level factors which may influence the uptake and effectiveness of the programme.

A Global initiative to evaluate mNutrition

mNutrition is a global initiative- organised by GSMA, supported by DFID and implemented by local mobile network operators- that uses mobile phone-based advisory services to provide information and promote behaviour change around key areas related to nutrition, childcare and agriculture. It has been implemented since 2013 through existing mHealth and mAgriculture programmes in 10 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with the aim to improve the nutritional well-being of children and their households.

The team will conduct two impact evaluations of m-Nutrition. In Ghana mNutrition is implemented through an existing mAgriculture programme. In Tanzania mNutrition is implemented through an existing mHealth programme. Both evaluations will use a mixed method approach, consisting of an experimental quantitative design (Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT)) in Tanzania and randomised encouragement design in Ghana and led by IFPRI), three rounds of in-depth community-based qualitative research (led by IDS) and a cost-effectiveness and business model assessment (led by GAMOS). The first data collection rounds for all three components will be completed in April 2017 and first set of results will be available in summer 2017. The final results from the evaluation are expected to be available at the end of 2019.

The evaluation offers the chance to analyse if and how mobile phones can positively change nutrition related behaviour in ways that could not have been envisaged 40 years ago. As with all new forms of technology, its impact, its successes and failings, need to be thoroughly evaluated and understood before it is proclaimed to be the next silver bullet.

Follow the findings and lessons from the mNutrition Evaluation on the IDS Project Page and on Twitter via @IDS_KSNutrition.


Related content