© Vodafone Institute
28.11.2018

From Uganda to Berlin: Ruth Nabembezi

  • Name: Ruth Nabembezi
  • Industry: Health & Technology
  • Position:  Ask Without Shame Founder and Director

23-year old Ugandan Ruth Nabembezi is harnessing the power of technology to make a life-changing difference in the health and wellbeing of young adults in her country. Having lost her parents and sister to HIV, she recognised people in Uganda couldn’t easily access vital sexual health information. Her Ask Without Shame app provides an accessible platform to anonymously ask qualified medical experts sexual health questions in a safe space.

The result? Since launching in 2015, Ask Without Shame has responded to more than 200,000 questions from over 60,000 users. They’ve debunked myths, improved the health of many users and helped stop the spread of STDs, HIV as well as prevented unwanted pregnancies. In February 2017, they also grabbed the attention of Berlin-based Vodafone accelerator programme F-Lane.

What inspired you to create the Ask Without Shame app and how does it work?

The app provides emergency sex education via mobile through an android app, WhatsApp, Hotline and SMS. Medical experts and counsellors are available 24/7 to assist users with accurate information about their sexual health. 

I grew up in an orphanage in Uganda because my parents passed away due to HIV when I was young. My sister was born with HIV and developed severe skin rashes. However, the neighbours in my village believed she was possessed by demons and took her to a witch doctor for treatment. As a result, she died. She could have been saved if she had access to accurate information and had been treated by medical doctors.

It frustrated me that people in Uganda didn’t have the right information when it came to sexual health – and were not supposed to even speak about it. So while I was studying medicine in 2015, I started working on ideas about a sex education app and the text service emerged. I wanted people to be able to ask medical experts any kind of questions regarding their sexual health - without judgement or shame.

Ask Without Shame offers sex education at the fingertips of every youth in Uganda from the age of 12 to 35 years. It’s a totally free, confidential service – and the app and the toll-free number can be used anonymously.

© Ask Without Shame
© Ask Without Shame

Why did you choose to come to Berlin as an African entrepreneur?

Being a woman in technology and using tech to create exceptional change in Uganda, I was given the honour to be part of the seven-week Vodafone Accelerator Program F-Lane. It focuses on accelerating social ventures that use technology to empower women worldwide. They give impact-driven entrepreneurs like me the tools we need to become even more successful. The six-week Accelerator Programme helped me hone my business model to get it ready for investment, so I could present it.

In addition to the funding I received from Vodafone, I also received a mentorship from the founders of CareerFoundry. Impact Hub Berlin also provided opportunities to network and exchange ideas with other innovators.

Today, I still stay in contact with the Vodafone accelerator via a slack group we use to chat about our work and highlight opportunities. 

What do you feel Berlin offers to entrepreneurs and startups like yours? Would you recommend the city to other social entrepreneurs?

Berlin is so unique. It’s a no-nonsense, business-friendly environment and has a wealth of financing options, incubators and a multicultural workforce. It also offers endless opportunities for networking and putting yourself out there.

Yes, I would recommend Berlin to other social entrepreneurs. There’s lot to learn here and you can draw inspiration from ambitious, yet talented professionals who are totally open to sharing their ideas – even if it’s over a cup of coffee.

I still benefit from the connections I made. Though I don’t currently receive funding from Berlin, I’m still able to find out about opportunities and get business advice through the people I met here.

What’s next for Ask Without Shame? What are some of the key future goals for the app and the company?

We’ve completed the final implementation of our cloud-based call centre system and today we can handle 100 users per hour. We plan to release our second version of the app within the next few months, which will be highly interactive and dynamic. We’re also looking forward to automating the system. This technology will allow us to provide auto responses to people who don’t need to speak to a real person. This allows our call agents to focus their time and energy on users who need their one-to-one guidance, such as someone who has suffered rape.

Our plan is to expand the team through recruiting medical experts who can speak the most common languages used such as Swahili and French. We’ll then be able to move into Rwanda and Kenya.

1 December is World AIDS Day. How is your app helping to raise awareness and give people access information about sexual health?

I’d like to answer this using a real-life example: a young girl contacts Ask Without Shame after having been raped by someone she believed was her boyfriend. She’s scared to tell her family or friends what’s happened because she fears being rejected by them. She’s also scared to relate she had a boyfriend in the first place – and to reveal that due to the attack, she is no longer a virgin. She has no idea what to do and is devastated.

Our Ask Without Shame team listens to her empathically and is able to give her specific step-by-step support, such as telling her that she can choose to go to the pharmacy to get the morning after pill. They help her evaluate whether she wants to see a doctor to prevent possible HIV infection and provide facts about legal steps she can take. Ask Without Shame never tell her what to do but instead empowers her to make her own informed decision.

© Ask Without Shame
© Ask Without Shame

Text: Trish Elms for Uhura Creative Media
Header image: Ruth Nabembezi © Vodafone Institute