Because of taboos around sexual health, many Kenyan adolescents lack the correct information and at times even spread false information among their peers. Without access to reliable channels providing accurate information on sex and sexual health, youth are prone to making ill-informed decisions. This phenomenon is even more prevalent in rural Kenya, where young people may have access to updated and reliable sources of information on the internet but are less likely to know where to turn with their questions about sex and sexual health, feeling too ashamed to mention this topic to adults.

The consequences of these information gaps are a huge public health burden to Kenyan society: early and unplanned pregnancies; unsafe abortions; a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS; the spread of STIs; and incorrect usage of the morning-after pill among young women. Technological innovation can fill these information gaps and increase access to reliable, approachable sexual and reproductive health resources in Kenya. In light of this, our goal was to leverage technological innovation, and in doing so, offer a solution to these problems.  With the support of Women Deliver, and technological assistance from HP, the idea of developing an AI empowered bot called LucyBot who lives in Facebook Messenger was born.

LucyBot  is filled with verified facts about sexual and reproductive health which she shares with users who can ask her whatever questions they have on the subject. According to the latest report from the Communication Authority of Kenya (CA), almost 88% of young people between the age of 18-25 years in Kenya who own smartphones have got the Facebook messenger app installed, making it a vital tool for young people who don’t have access to updated and reliable sources of information. LucyBot will be a reliable source of accurate information for everyone who doesn’t have access to proper sexual education, by giving them the opportunity to ask sex-related questions in private, and getting instant real-time answers.

LucyBot shares information with its users through conversations driven by instant messaging and voice chats and can also direct users to additional resources, including health facility locations and live educators. LucyBot helps relieve the awkwardness surrounding discussions and discourse around sexual and reproductive health (SRH), particularly in conservative African settings. Since LucyBot is powered by artificial intelligence she will become more knowledgeable the more she is used. As she learns about young people’s sexual wants, needs and concerns she will become more capable of addressing complex questions and needs. It’s worth noting that, through this approachable and popular medium (Facebook Messenger), 700 users out of 900 users who interacted with the automated artificial intelligence Chatbot within two months  after the launch reported feeling more comfortable asking questions about their sexual and reproductive health than getting the same information from their peers, friends and family members which are sometimes misleading. With expensive internet costs in Kenya, our findings show that young people prefer using the Bot to access information. Very few initiatives of this nature have been developed since the technology is so new. We see great potential in using a Facebook chatbot to reach young people in institutions of higher learning including; Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Siaya Institute of Technology and Bondo Medical Training College in Siaya County, where this project was piloted

To ensure the success of the project, 30 young girls (Teen Connectors) were identified, mostly students from the Math, Engineering, and Science fields, to test various product concepts and the chatbot branding. They undertook intensive training in groups of 15 people per training session, each of which lasted for five days. The training topics included family planning services and contraceptive methods, communication and advocacy skills, research method techniques and understanding of machine learning and how Facebook messenger Chatbots operate.  The connectors we tasked with conducting research and performing community outreach to gather a range of questions that adolescents might ask the Bot. They then populated the Bot with the information collected from peers and the Bot was finally launched on 1st  January through a week long exhibition where the students had the opportunity to ask questions and recieve information on family planning, birth control methods and HIV/AIDs.

“We are now able to speak up and demand the sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights we deserve’, says Susan Watitwa one of the teen connectors.

The major win  for this project was the weekly community advocacy meetings targeted at policy makers to ensure that they formulate laws that allow young people to access sexual health and HIV/AIDs information without stigmatisation or discrimination. Also a  referral system that has been enabled by the Bot, resulting in a high number of young people being referred to health facilities to get additional services. 15 religious leaders and 35 local leaders teamed up with us and are adding their voices to the fight for young people’s access to reproductive health services and supplies.

Another win of the project is that every hall of residence in the three targeted institutions, got a champion (The Teen Connectors) who acts as custodian of the SRH commodities such as condoms. This has greatly eased access and therefore uptake. “ With services nearer to young people and easily accessible, there is a high chance that they can be taken and adopted by young people’, asserts Goerge Mitema – a student.

Through our research we realized that young people visiting  health facilities have experienced some form of stigmatisation and discrimination from the healthcare providers once they are referred to the health facilities by the Bot.  This is a major gap and there is urgent need to train medical professionals on how to handle adolescents visiting the health centers. To curb this, we have put down measures by training medical health professionals on how to handle adolescents visiting the centres.

Another major challenge we experienced was that because our program is technology based, the uptake in the rural areas was slow since a few youths in this area didn’t have internet enabled phones and therefore could not access the chatbot. To curb this we rolled out digital training programmes in the communities to ensure that young people who have internet enabled phones help those who do not, so that they all have access to the information in the chatbot – LucyBot.

Due to the huge success of this project, we call upon policy makers to increase investment in technological innovation, such as  the use of Mobile Technology and artificial intelligence, to reduce the barriers that young people face in accessing quality reproductive health education. This will help to strengthen access to comprehensive SRHR information and services among young women in highly conservative and restrictive societies.  

 

 

Nick Oketch is an advocate and a Women Deliver Young Leader. The Women Deliver Young Leaders Program is a catalyst for rising advocates, providing access to small grants, training, a digital university, speaking opportunities, and networking. Since 2010, a total of 700 young people from 138 countries have increased their impact through the award-winning program so far. Many will be coming together in Vancouver this June for Women Deliver 2019, the world’s largest conference on gender equality. This piece was produced in partnership between Women Deliver and Wellbeing for Women.

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