Women are vastly underserved by healthcare systems in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Limited access to high-quality and affordable healthcare for women in MENA is evidenced by the fact that they face particularly acute and in some cases globally chart-topping health challenges that are getting worse.
Yet, digital health startups in the region are offering potential solutions.
Digital technologies are increasingly being used to offer more accessible, higher-quality, and affordable healthcare solutions and they are also becoming more valuable components of the world’s overall healthcare economy.
According to Statista.com, the global digital health market was valued at $61 billion in 2013, and is expected to increase nearly 300 percent to $233 billion by 2020.
Entrepreneurs are also garnering larger investments to support innovation in the healthcare industry. Recent data suggests that the number of venture backed funding deals for health startups from 2010 to 2014 grew over 200 percent.
In tandem, startups that focus on women’s health represent an immense opportunity to generate sustainable financial benefits and achieve a positive social impact. Several digital health startups in MENA are indicative of these trends and they are beginning to offer solutions that address critical health challenges faced by women in MENA.
MENA’s digital health startups are addressing women’s health.
Here’s a look at a few of these companies, their solutions, location, and founders:
Shezlong increases access to mental-health services in MENA by enabling anyone to privately connect with a psychiatrist online.
Founder’s insight: “Using digital tools, we can be at the front of a revolution in how people deliver solutions that used to come solely from hospitals and clinics.” Ahmed Abu El-Haz (cofounder and CEO)
Dietii is a mobile app that tracks females' dietary habits and recommends healthy Middle Eastern foods based on the user's health-goals.
Founder’s insight: “Outside of Gaza, there are similar companies that are good role-models for us, and we can offer the service in Arabic which is our big competitive advantage.” Abeer El-Shaer (cofounder and CEO)
Timez5 offers the world's first NASA-certified, physiological prayer-mat and corresponding mobile-app tracker to prevent and relieve chronic body pain.
Founder’s insight: “A big challenge in this space is consumer education. Selling an innovative product in a relatively traditional market can be tough path to navigate.” Nader Sabry (founder and CEO)
Supermama is a website that provides Arabic and English content about pregnancy and parenting for mothers.
Founder’s insight: "In MENA, there were no sources of digital Arabic content about health, and especially maternal care. Today, we are helping to fill this gap for women in the region.” Yasmine El-Mehairy (cofounder and CEO)
Mobistine builds interactive health apps in English and Arabic, including apps for prenatal-care and apps directed at new parents.
Founder’s insight: “Smartphones have the potential to be a digital health laboratory in your pocket.” Husni Abu Samrah (founder and CEO)
Globally, health startups aimed at women are increasingly valuable investments.
According to Rockhealth, a prominent US-based seed fund and ecosystem accelerator for health startups, external funding for companies that focus on women’s health has increased substantially in recent years.
In fact, women’s health startups had trouble raising over $2 million in 2011. However, in 2014, the sector as a whole raised nearly $30 million, and increased to over $80 million through 2015. The largest funding round in the space ever, went to the fertility-solutions company Progyny; which secured $34 million in a Series C funding last year.
From 2011 to 2015, women’s health startups raised a collective $178 million: $111 million (fertility), $33 million (cancer), $26 million (pregnancy), $2 million (general health).
In the Middle East and North Africa, women face a myriad of critical health issues.
In fact, according to the IHME, seven countries in MENA comprise the top 10 in the world by rank of depression in women.
Across income levels (low, medium, high) in the region the top three most common causes of early-death and disability amongst MENA’s women are: lower respiratory infections, major depressive disorders, and various non-communicable diseases (as a result of overweight and obesity); primarily ischemic heart disease (the top cause of death in the Arab world), and diabetes.
Interestingly, amongst females in middle and high-income groups in the region, lower back pain is also a leading cause of disability.
Obesity (leading to diabetes) is a major health issue amongst Arab women.
According to the World Health Organization, 13 percent of the world’s adult population (18+) (11 percent of men and 15 percent of women) were obese in 2014.
Obesity leads to adverse effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin resistance.
In addition to increased risk of coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, type 2 diabetes, and also increases the risk of cancer of the breast.
The IHME found that countries in MENA “have already reached exceptionally high rates of overweight and obesity – 44 percent or higher”. In fact, as of 2013 MENA had the highest global rates of overweight and obesity for people over 20 years old.
In MENA, over 58 percent of men and 65 percent of women are overweight or obese. Over two-thirds of MENA countries have overweight and obesity rates of more than 50 percent in adult men and women.
The International Diabetes Federation, claims that, “the greatest increase in the female diabetes population (globally) over the next 20 years will be in the Middle East and North Africa Region (96 percent)”.
In the World Obesity Federation’s World Map of Obesity, the prevalence of diabetes amongst women in MENA is most acute in: Saudi Arabia (50 percent), Kuwait (47 percent), Qatar (43 percent), Egypt (41 percent), Bahrain (40 percent), Libya (40 percent), Iraq (38 percent), Tunisia (37 percent), UAE (31 percent), Jordan (27 percent), and Lebanon (26 percent).
MENA’s digital health startups with solutions for women deserve more support.
In recent years, new funds, accelerators, thought leaders and government policies have all contributed to improving conditions for the region’s startups.
In fact, according to new research published by the Wamda Research Lab (WRL), the number of early-stage startup support institutions in the region grew four-fold between 2010 and 2015.
Moving forward, this momentum that is fueling the growth of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystems ought to be further channelled to grow startups that want to solve some of the most critical health issues faced by women in MENA.
Feature image via Life in Saudi Arabia.