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But when Esther Eruchie decided on launching FriendnPal, her specific application of AI, she wasn’t gunning for just another ‘solution’ that’ll end up lost in the myriads that have emerged in the past few months. She was aiming to solve what is a huge problem for Africa, one that’s been neglected for the most part: the mental health challenge. She wanted to build an AI-powered app to make life easier for people with mental health issues. Esther currently works as a Product Quality Assurance Officer with Sweden-based Landell Games. This role is a terminus of her phased switch to tech, which she’s been deliberate about. Her previous professional engagements have seen her take on duties in marketing, finance, public relations, and business development. It now seems that these experiences have prepared her for her latest mission of tackling Africa’s silent mental health crisis.
The Making of an IdeaThe problem Esther is trying to deal with is huge. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 20 million Nigerians suffer from various mental health troubles. However, between 75% and 95% of persons in low and middle-income countries such as Nigeria are unable to access mental healthcare services. They are held back by several things, including widespread stigmatization of people with mental health conditions. Esther has no illusions about the enormity of the issue. In an interview with Connect Nigeria, she explains that the idea for FriendnPal
“emerged from recognizing the growing need for accessible and personalized mental health support in Africa due to several factors such as the scarcity of mental health professionals, the cultural stigma surrounding mental health, and limited accessibility to traditional therapy, as well as the potential benefits that AI technologies can bring to the field.”She goes on to say that
“FriendnPal would reach individuals even in the most remote areas of Africa, considering the wide usage of smartphones in Africa, and the increasing availability of internet connectivity. And with the potential for AI-powered solutions providing scalable and personalized support, we will bridge the gaps.”Her aim, she says, is to present people living with mental health challenges on the continent with a truly personal aid, engage them in their mother tongue, and guarantee anonymity, while addressing some of their greatest needs. The fact that the AI app would deliver content and interact with them in their language would provide them with a “sense of comfort and connection”—things which Africans living with mental health challenges often desperately desire.
Developing an App that CaresWhile FriendnPal presents itself as Africa’s first AI-supported mental health app, it’s one of a number in its category. Esther and her team can look at AI-powered mental health apps from elsewhere in the world as models. They include Wysa, an anxiety and therapy chatbot; and Woebot, a wellbeing app. However, she says that she and her team have been keen on making something that would fit its users’ African cultural contexts.
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There was also some input garnered from mental healthcare professionals, specifically those in Africa, in the lead-up to creating the app. These engagements “included consulting with mental health professionals, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and counsellors, to gain insights on the specific mental health challenges in Africa” (in Esther’s own words). The process saw the team
“conducting focus groups or user feedback sessions with individuals who have experienced mental health issues in Africa, (and) engaging cultural advisors familiar with the nuances of the African context to help align with local cultural norms, beliefs, and best practices.”As a founder with technical knowledge, Esther lays out some of the tech that makes the FriendnPal app run.
“We have developed an AI system by harnessing the capabilities of the OpenAI model, which excels in processing and generating text,”she says.
“This model empowers our AI to comprehend and respond to various types of textual inputs.”In simple terms, the app’s conversational feature enables it to ‘chat with’ its users because it’s built atop the same technology that undergirds platforms like ChatGPT (which OpenAI created).
How FriendnPal Could Transform LivesWhen asked about how FriendnPal could impact its users, Esther notes that its features are all primed to achieve just that. She points to its journaling, mood tracking, and goal-setting tools, which she says give users insights into their well-being, allowing them to identify patterns, and make informed decisions about their mental health journey. Thanks to it, they can avoid long wait times at understaffed health centres, and regain control of their health.
There are even more benefits
“FriendnPal offers personalized recommendations, coping strategies, and self-help exercises based on individual’s specific needs and preferences”,Esther adds.
“It also offers a wealth of educational content on various mental health topics, empowering individuals with knowledge about mental health conditions, symptoms, and available treatment options.”Another feature gives users of FriendnPal access to a community of individuals who have had experiences similar to theirs. Its support groups provide them with a safe space in which they can share their stories, seek advice, find comfort, and be encouraged by the fact that they aren’t alone.
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FriendnPal isn’t designed to be a direct replacement for professional help. So it does supply its users with information about local mental health resources, including helpline numbers, counselling centres, and support organizations available in Africa. They can also book virtual therapy sessions for a fee. Ultimately, they get the help they need without having to disclose their identities or ailments to non-professionals. A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) version of the FriendnPal app has been tested out with a trial group. The feedback has been largely positive, although a few minor changes have been suggested. Barring any unforeseen holdups, the FriendnPal team expects to officially launch the AI app early in August. It could be a game changer for the tens of millions of Africans who require the sort of help it’ll deliver.
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