M-mama, a health care triage and transport service for new and expectant mothers, is reframing childbirth in Tanzania.

The initiative, a public-private partnership led by the Tanzanian government with the support of USAID and Britain’s Vodafone Foundation, has transported more than 35,000 mothers and saved at least 1,700 lives. When a patient calls the m-mama service, a dispatcher assigns the closest volunteer driver to provide transport to a health facility, followed by referrals for specialist care as needed.

When Miza Juma, a mother experiencing prolonged labour, needed help, m-mama operators arranged for her to be taken from Tumbatu, a remote island, to the port of Unguja and onward to the main island’s Kivunge District Hospital. Her daughter Umulayman will now be a part of Tanzania’s future. “I expect my baby to be a teacher,” said Juma.

The Tanzanian government began m-mama in 2013 as a pilot program to coordinate fast, reliable transport for labouring and postpartum mothers and their infants in rural areas. Tanzania achieved nationwide coverage in December 2023, when the m-mama service reached the islands of Zanzibar.

President Samia Suluhu Hassan championed the program, which has reduced maternal mortality by 38% and newborn deaths by 40%. M-mama also provides meaningful work and reliable income to the health care workers, dispatchers and transport workers aiding mothers in their communities.

Crucially, drivers receive prompt payment from program authorities after the completion of each trip. This approach eliminates fee negotiations between patients and drivers, which can delay care.

Through community drivers, m-mama can provide transport for patients in remote areas. “When growing up, I saw mothers having difficulty,” said Haji Ali Haji , a water taxi operator in Tumbatu.

“So when I got this boat, I decided to use it not just for passengers but for emergencies.” Deborah, a nurse dispatcher at Shinyanga Regional Referral Hospital, said: “I have witnessed many women with my own eyes, who I have helped with my own hands, to save their lives, and their children too.”

The m-mama program has dramatically improved the odds of a positive outcome for new mothers and their families. Countries throughout the region, including Kenya, Lesotho and Malawi, are now adopting this model.

In Malawi, the annual operating cost of m-mama, once established, is expected to average $350,000. This will cost the national government less than the price of two new ambulances.

M-mama is one of many initiatives the U.S. sponsors to improve health care outcomes and well-being at every stage of patients’ lives. During her visit to Tanzania last year, USAID Administrator Samantha Power celebrated U.S. support for m-mama.

“I can think of no program or project that I have visited anywhere in the world that is as exciting and as cost effective as m-mama,” Power said. Addressing Tanzanian officials, Power went on: “You, collectively, are showing the Tanzanian people what it actually looks like for democracies to deliver.”