Scholar Innovation Initiates Dialogue on Safer Sex
“Oluwatoni is from Nigeria, I’m from South Africa. These are countries that do not have amicable political relations,” laughs Maputi Botlhole. “To have people from these different parts of the continent collaborate, we believe that it speaks to the many enriching relationships that Africans can form to drive innovation and transcend turbulent political relations.”
Maputi Botlhole and Oluwatoni Fuwape are the creators of CondomCraze, an app that aims to educate, promote and destigmatize conversations about safe sex, especially among young people. And it’s an app that is increasingly gaining steam, with 1,500 users in its first month, most of them based across the United States, Latin America and Africa. CondomCraze was also recently recognized by USAID’s AIDSFree Project with mention on both the USAID website and Twitter channel, as well as by Ubuntu’s CEO Jacob Lief.
Maputi and Oluwatoni met as students at West Virginia University, where Maputi studied as a MasterCard Foundation Scholar as part of its partnership with the African Leadership Academy. As seniors, Maputi (Biometric Systems) and Oluwatoni (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) designed a prototype of a health kiosk that would provide screening and diagnostic services to people from low-income communities who often lack access to quality healthcare. This meeting of minds was the first step in a budding partnership that has seen them claim their voice as young African innovators.
“After our undergraduate studies, we set out to acquire skills that would help us transform our ideas into innovative products,” says Oluwatoni. “CondomCraze is an expression of our shared passion for sexual health and technology. Sexual health is extremely important to us because we come from Sub-Saharan African countries that are devastated by the impact of HIV/AIDS.”
“We worked for three years as resident assistants at West Virginia University,” continues Oluwatoni. “We managed hundreds of student relations and often had to address incidents that were linked to risky sexual behavior. Coupled with our academic backgrounds in engineering, these experiences sparked a desire to build an engaging tool that would educate and have a global reach.”
“Technology is very, very powerful – it has to be used in a manner that benefits or addresses some of the social challenges we face,” says Maputi. “One of those challenges appears to be condom fatigue. Last year, the CDC published an annual report on Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance, and highlighted a significant increase in STDs they attribute to the use of dating apps like Tinder and Grindr.”
“The worsening STD epidemic in America is a clear call for engaging prevention tools such as CondomCraze,” explains Maputi. “Current mobile apps do not encourage young people to talk to health professionals about sexual health; instead, the apps promote casual and often anonymous sexual encounters. It is clear that CondomCraze is much needed.”
CondomCraze – which can be downloaded for free on the Apple Store and Android Store – takes its users through an educative experience, sharing information on how to use and store condoms, but also features a fun experience where users can design their own condoms and share to Condomgram, an Instagram-inspired feature that allows users to be engaged in a safe sex education community and share their designs.
“Oluwatoni created a Zika virus inspired condom design,” Maputi says proudly. “When the CDC confirmed that the Zika virus could be sexually transmitted, Oluwatoni went on the CondomCraze app, took a picture that symbolizes the Zika virus, put it on a condom design and then published it to Condomgram- to make sure [that our users] stay safe and are aware. Our users were very impressed and that was a quick and efficient way of spreading awareness.”
Maputi and Oluwatoni are determined to take CondomCraze to the next step by working with manufacturers to produce the condoms designed by users of the app. They are also now chatting with USAID’s AIDSFree project to spread the word and grow their audience, and contribute to a global dialogue on safer sex.
To both Maputi and Oluwatoni, their formal education was key to ensuring that they could take their rightful place as voices in Africa’s fight against HIV/AIDS. To Oluwatoni, for whose community talking about HIV/AIDS continues to be taboo, education was about the ability to independently pursue his passion for change. For Maputi, who after her older sister is only the second in her family to go to university, education was about survival, family and community.
“Growing up in a South African township, you know, HIV/AIDS [has] really torn apart communities and families,” Maputi explains. “It’s very important to create tools such as CondomCraze to encourage conversation on sexual health. Even parents can use the app as a way to initiate conversation with their children. If there was a safe space for people in my family or in my community to talk about safe sex practices like condom use, then many of the challenges that we currently face could have been avoided.”
To Maputi and Oluwatoni, CondomCraze isn’t just a fun and creative app, but a vision for how education can shape the future of young Africans. And it’s a vision they have every intention of seeing to its positive conclusion: a world where young people can empower themselves to take their sexual health into their own hands.