How Motorcycles Are Reducing Maternal Deaths in Kenya

Faced with a lack of ambulances, a community in western Kenya launched a motorcycle program that transports expectant mothers to health centers.

Judith Chebet, right, at Kopsiro Health Center's maternity ward after giving birth. She is seated next to her birth companion, who accompanied her to the health center. (Photo: Anthony Langat)

Jan 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Anthony Langat is a Kenyan freelance journalist who has written for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The road on the slopes of Mount Elgon is steep and rugged. Trucks and tractors drive maize and vegetables down the mountain to sell in the town of Chwele and other parts of Kenya’s Western Province. Motorcycles are the main mode of transportation and are often used as taxis. Every few minutes one whizzes by carrying a passenger, sometimes even carrying three people at a once.

Before the motorcycles, getting anywhere, even to the few health centers in the area, was done by foot. Patients and pregnant mothers had to walk long distances or be carried. Because of the hardship of walking, many women opted to give birth at home with the help of traditional midwives.

Judith Chebet, 37, is a mother of six who gave birth to her first three children at home because the health center was too far. Though all of those births were successful, she gave birth to her next three children at Kopsiro Health Center, as the facility provides trained nurses and free maternity services—a program launched by the government two years ago. But the journey is about four and a half miles each way.

The gate to the health center. (Photo: Anthony Langat)

Difficult roads and long distances to health centers are some of the biggest contributors to the high maternal mortality rate in Kenya. According to the World Bank, Kenya’s maternal mortality rate in 2014 was 525 deaths for every 100,000 births. These statistics put Kenya among the worst places in the world for a woman to give birth.

Wanting to change this situation, Chebet’s community, through the initial support of USAID and Save the Children, launched a motorcycle ambulance initiative. Community members handpicked half a dozen reliable motorbike taxi operators.

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Each driver was vetted and had to have a license, insurance, and a mobile phone. He also must show ownership of the motorcycle and be available 24 hours a day. “Only then would Save the Children enter into contract with the motorcycle owner and employ his services as a motorcycle ambulance operator,” said Herbert Ogoti, the nursing officer who oversees the Kopsiro Health Center.

Upon arrival at the health center, the motorcycle ambulance operator has his voucher signed by the nurse in charge, who then forwards it to Save the Children to process payment. “We are paid $5 for every night trip we make and $3 for every daytime trip we make to the hospital,” said Bradley Sobett, a 37-year-old motorcycle ambulance operator.

Bradley Sobett, a motorcycle ambulance operator, in his local shopping center. (Photo: Anthony Langat)

Sobett has been a driver since the initiative started more than a year ago. He says the roads get worse when it rains, sometimes making it difficult to get to the health center in time. He recalls being notified at three in the morning to pick up a woman in labor several villages away from his.

“It was raining, and I had no option but to start my motorcycle and go pick her up. Her village was inaccessible even via motorcycle, so she was brought to the road,” he said. At times, because of delays and bad roads, the patient delivers along the way, as was the case on that rainy night in August last year. Birth companions usually accompany expectant mothers to the health center so they can assist in these type of emergencies.

“We were lucky that a birth attendant’s home was on the way to the health center, so we decided to take the woman there, as she couldn’t make it to Kopsiro. She delivered there, and I took her to the health center the next morning,” Sobett said.

Chebet, who gave birth to her sixth child in late November, has used a motorcycle ambulance for her last two births. “When I compare it to the past, I see that it has really been helpful, because it takes one and a half hours to walk from my house to this hospital. It can take more when one is pregnant,” she said.

Ogoti hailed the program, saying it has reduced the number of maternal deaths and increased the number of women who deliver in the health center. “We now have between 80 to 100 deliveries a month, as compared to between 35 and 45 deliveries a month. Our maternal wards are always full, and we might need more space,” he said.