In many parts of Africa, talking about sex is a taboo and Uganda is no exception. Therefore, nobody talks about it. And nobody gets educated about it. This educational deficit also includes sexual diseases, such as HIV. And since especially young people and young adults are not adequately educated, they are given medical care too late. In 2015 there were approximately 1.5 million people living with HIV in Uganda and about 28,000 AIDS-related deaths – and that only accounts for one year.
Today, we would like to introduce you to Ruth Namembezi. Ruth is 22 years old from Uganda. She lost her parents to HIV when she was very young. And not only her parents. Her only sister also died of the disease and she was not even diagnosed for it. When Ruth’s sister fell ill, she was thought to be bewitched and taken to a spiritual doctor. But he couldn’t help her and she passed away. After her sister’s death Ruth knew she needed to act. And so she did.
Ruth is the founder of Ask Without Shame. It’s an app that answers questions but also directly connects people to doctors and clinics in case of a possible illness. Ask Without Shame has medical experts at hand and there is a hotline that allows teens and young adults to get accurate information about sex. The app runs on Android but even without a smartphone, everybody can reach out to Ask Without Shame and the medical experts via WhatsApp. Since the launch in December 2015 Ask Without Shame has 25,000 users.
How did you come up with the idea for Ask without Shame?
Ruth: Ever since I was young I wanted to raise awareness for sexual education and more importantly for sexual diseases such as HIV. Both my parents and my sister died of HIV. When my sister got ill I was just in highschool and I believe, if she had been diagnosed correctly and treated, she would still be alive. It was pure lack of information and education that cost my sister her life. This was the moment I knew I wanted to make a difference and educate people. I wanted to raise awareness for sexual topics but I first took a very different approach.
When I was just out of highschool I had the idea of joining an organization to support them first hand with the education of people. This meant going from village to village and speak to the people in person. But I felt it was not efficient enough and it took too long. When you visit one place, you tell people what they need to know. But then you move on and it can take a very long time until you come back to that same place – and by then most of what you have taught, will most likely be forgotten.
And when did you change your focus?
Ruth: I started to attend the Social Innovation Academy instead and learned different strategies and ways to create products that are designed to fit the customer‘s demands. This is where I first had a concrete idea. I wanted to create a platform where people could not only get general information but where they could also call with their specific questions. I just didn‘t know yet, how this platform would look like.
Was there a special moment when you knew „This is it! This is what it’s going to be!“?
Ruth: My idea started to shape through associative thinking. Someone was talking about apps and I have to admit when I first heard the word – I didn’t know what an app was. I wasn’t a tech person so I asked around and learned the first basics. I did more research and slowly realized that this might be exactly the tool to use for reaching a broader target group. I also took classes on design thinking and started to make my idea worth solving the problem.
I also realized the potential of an app. Everybody is always typing in their mobile phone and I wanted to give them information at their fingertips. I wanted to make sure it was easy for everyone to get access to information about sex and sexual diseases. I wanted a medical app.
How did you start to build Ask without Shame? And how did your friends and fellow students react to the idea?
Ruth: I spoke to a lot of people at the beginning explaining them my idea. But most of them didn’t know what an app was (as did I at first). I not only had to explain them my idea and how it could work but I also had to explain how an app works. I would use examples, such as Facebook, and explain how through a platform I would reach many people at the same time. A lot of my friends doubted my idea – they didn’t see the added value but mostly they didn’t understand how it would work. And this actually pushed me even more – I wanted it to work and become a success.
At first, I created a menstrual app, focussing on female menstruation. But then I did not just want to focus on this one topic. I wanted to have a medical app focussing on sexual education and prevention of diseases.
The key turn for Ask Without Shame was when I created a team of three, myself, a mentor and a third person, and we took part in the „Ampion Venture Bus“ – a program that enables entrepreneurs to launch their own business. You basically drive through several countries in Africa on a bus and meet with other entrepreneurs. During that time the three of us also came up with the name for the app: Ask without shame.
Was there a highlight moment at the beginning that you clearly remember?
Ruth: Not a particular moment, no. But I remember while telling my friends about my idea I felt their doubt in my project. And it was their doubt that made me want it even more. And then, of course, when the first calls came in during our starting phase, that was amazing.
How did you finance building the app?
Ruth: At first, I had no money. But I told a friend about my idea. She told her parents and they donated 450 Euro to kick off my project. My friend lives in Germany by the way. With this money we bought two mobile phones and created a prototype with my laptop. And we produced masses of stickers – we basically plastered lampposts, shops and any place where people could see them with our stickers. And then we got calls. More than 300 news calls every month – after three months we reached 1.000 callers that got their questions answered by medical expert we had won for the project. It was incredible. People were using the platform I had created. With this attention and my network at the Social Innovation Academy and the support of my mentor, I got more and more supporters and money to build the actual app. By now, we have more than 25.000 users and we started at the end of 2015.
Ruth: As the app has so far only been available for Android we are currently building an IOS-version. And then we continue to reach out and make sexual education accessible. Hopefully sometime in the future it will not be a taboo anymore.
If you could give a tip to aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Ruth: Be driven by passion! Your purpose should matter, money should not be the key reason why you do it!
The interview was conducted by Christina Richter from FIELFALT, the community and blogazine for female empowerment. FIELFALT wants to encourage women to leave their comfort zones to dare something and to achieve their goals and realize their dreams.