Witnessing a stab victim bleeding on the Durban beachfront inspired a young entrepreneur to develop a smartphone app that promises to cut emergency medical response times.
The app, Respo, has commercial potential, says Blessing Nzuza, who spent the past year on the project, which is due to be launched in July.
It all started one Saturday afternoon when the 28-year-old was enjoying an after-work ice cream at Dairy Beach.
He noticed a crowd, including police officers, gathered around a young man who was lying on the ground after being knifed by a drug addict.
“What amazed me was that people really didn’t know what to do,” he said.
Fortunately, a lifeguard was able to stabilise the victim, recalled Nzuza, but the problem was getting him to hospital.
Calls were made to emergency services, but, after more than 20 minutes, an ambulance still hadn’t arrived.
Eventually, an Uber was hailed and, despite reservations from the driver about blood in his cab, it set off for Addington Hospital, barely a kilometre away.
Nzuza wondered if he could develop an app to link paramedics to people who needed them.
It would better match ambulance supply and demand, plus there was scope to add features to improve service and reduce the risks faced by paramedics, who were increasingly targeted by hoax calls and ambushes.
Finally, after “many sleepless nights” and “so much stress”, Nzuza believes Respo is ready to do just that.
It uses smartphone location data to link end users with the nearest available emergency service provider.
The app will be available to the public on Google Play and iStore, and another version will be rolled out to the emergency services.
Setting up the app will be as easy as providing your particulars, including details of chronic illnesses and medical aid membership.
To log an emergency – yours or a third party’s – you tap the Respo icon on your phone and it prompts you to choose from a list of medical emergencies, from snake bites to heart attacks.
Meanwhile, Respo alerts the nearest ambulance and puts you in touch with emergency response personnel. You can get immediate updates on the ambulance’s progress, which has your exact location.
Nzuza said the plan was to initially target rural and township areas in KwaZulu-Natal, where emergency services were thin on the ground and communication more difficult.
The service would be free to the end user, but he said he was looking at ways to commercialise the product.
He plans to meet with the department of health and hopes to bring private ambulance companies on board.
He also sees scope in marketing the app to medical aid companies.
Nzuza has walked an interesting path since matriculating in Eshowe in 2008. It’s taken him from civil engineering studies in Durban (which he hated), to selling anti-ageing products and then to an “incredible” two-and-a-half years touring the country with Chinese traders looking for offal for export, and learning how to do business.
Later, he tried to develop an online marketplace on a shoestring budget while building websites and doing graphic design work.
During this time, he was based at SmartXchange, a Durban-based incubator and enterprise development hub, and he applied to it for funding for other projects.
However, Nzuza said, those projects were deemed insufficiently innovative.
Finally, in July last year, Respo got the nod. Nearly R500 000 from SmartXchange and the Technology Innovation Agency followed, allowing Nzuza to take on six staff members to develop the app.
In March, he won R250 000 in business support in a competition run by Ithala, a KwaZulu-Natal-based development finance corporation.
Independent software developer Brendon Symonds said Respo sounded like a useful product, but the challenges were generating revenue and building trust. It would be easier if the product had a major partner, he said.
“Generally, you develop applications for other people and they do their own marketing,” said Symonds.
He felt Nzuza faced a chicken-and-egg scenario – independent developers need partners to help develop their products, but it’s hard to secure one unless they have something tangible to offer.
Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx, said big institutions such as banks and telecoms companies typically developed apps in-house or contracted developers to do the work for them.
Independent developers therefore faced a tough time bringing their products to market.
Goldstuck said the success of Respo would also hinge on the degree to which it could differentiate itself from other “panic button-style” apps already on the local market, such as Namola.
Knowledge Mentoring Institute technical director Des de Fortier warns that developers face significant technical and compliance hurdles, which must be overcome before their apps are allowed on Google Play or iStore.
He estimated that 70% of South African apps “don’t work properly”, and developers needed to thoroughly test their products across different platforms or risk backlash from the market.
Have you had to wait long for an ambulance before? Would you use Respo?
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