Asking questions about one's physical or mental health publicly (in newspapers or forums) always came with the stigma of 'what would people think?'
But thanks to innovation in technology and the need to prioritise health issues, especially women's health, asking questions is no more a social 'hush hush topic' - in the form of Maya Apa, a virtual platform where questions related to health, psychosocial or legal assistance can be posted by users anonymously.
Maya was initially a blog, run by founder and CEO Ivy Huq Russell, who established it back in 2010-11 stemming from two personal experiences.
The first was her mother (whose name is Maya and is the basis of the brand name), who was suffering from breast cancer and going through a depressing recovery process with no motivation being offered. Secondly, she was nine months' pregnant, but had difficulties accessing to pregnancy-related information.
This struck her mind as to where will women go to for advice or information, which is safe, secure and non-judgmental?
After conducting much research, she established the blog where she reached out to her doctor friends, who offered their experiences and advice related to pregnancy and other women's health issues.
‘By 2014, I could understand from the website views that a snowball effect was slowly in place and word of mouth was indeed helping her cause,’ Ivy said.
Recollecting what made her take things to the next level, she recalled a question posted by a pregnant woman, which was more of an emergency situation. ‘It was a one-off case in Dhaka, where the lady was in great pain and needed immediate attention, while going to the doctor was not an option for her. Our information helped to soothe her pain, but it also served as a wakeup call for us that not all our users can go seek help all the time, due to a variety of reasons.’
‘Our site was a very bare-bone one, and on a whim, I added a very basic comments box on the homepage with the call to action,’ said Ivy adding, ask Maya Apa anything. ‘We started to get a few queries every day, and this eventually led to us responding to 15-30 questions a day. I was routing these questions to my friends who had relevant expertise. We realised quickly that this was the 'killer feature' and in 2014, Maya pivoted to focus primarily on the 'Maya Apa' service.’
After receiving a grant from BRAC in early 2015, they launched the first ever one-touch help service app for women in Bangladesh. 'Maya Apa' is an android-based mobile application, designed, developed, and implemented by female engineers, doctors, and entrepreneurs.
Users can log in via their email address to post questions, allowing them to retain their anonymity. The platform is curated both in English and Bangla, where experts - a team of doctors, lawyers and psychosocial counsellors - respond in the language preferred by the users. With the service developed for basic smartphones, BRAC Maya team is aiming to reach women and girls in both urban and rural areas of Bangladesh.
The app has been a blessing for many, especially women who had problems that no one else was willing to discuss in a conservative society. The community takes part too and thus constructive discussions take place on matters people generally shy away from discussing.
Ivy also shared her experiences about the ups and downs as an entrepreneur, which she found to be ‘highly demanding’. But the highs easily outweighs the lows, as since the first year, user growth has been at an astonishing 300 percent, engagement is high - with half a million queries so far. ‘This is released the floodgates, which was entirely organic in its process,’ Ivy observed.
2018 is the year she deemed to be fixing Maya's business model. It has earned the distinction to be the first Bangladeshi company ever to be part of the Google's Launchpad Accelerator, where 3 of Maya's engineers went to Google (who fully financed their trip and trained them up) and helped them develop Artificial Intelligence and other technological innovations, which they take back with them to work on in their local context.
As access to healthcare is becoming tiresome due to teeming public hospitals and expensive private hospitals a smartphone is all that is needed to use Maya.
Currently, they are encountering 2000 queries a day on average, with the top query categories being menstruation, contraception, pre-pregnancy/post-pregnancy issues, child nutrition and such.
Ivy revealed that mental health is the new topic which is experiencing a sharp rise in queries.
Sensitive topics such as Yaba addiction, suicide contemplation and such are being asked about, so they have to earn the trust for people to value their responses.
Getting expert doctors and therapists, contrary to popular perception, were easier to acquire. ‘People have a good heart and most offered their services for free,’ Ivy added.
Word of mouth also helped them get in touch with other doctors, graduate Dhaka Medical College (DMC) doctors, DMC interns or those in their 4thyear of study, stay-at-home mothers with years of experience, etc.
As far as expansion plans are concerned, Maya is all set to test itself internationally with operations to commence in Sri Lanka soon.
After the Google Launchpad Accelerator concluded, they are in the process of fixing their Business-to-Customer (B2C) model to bolster Bangla communication internationally, with an overall intent to make their business stronger, while aiming to reach out to the millions of Bangladeshis across the globe.
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