VUNA (formerly Ububele).

Impact Area:

Safety and Protection

Year of Investment and Stage:

2020 | Proof of Concept

Current Stage

Piloting and refining to validate product solution fit

Investment Amount:

R824,000

Financial Instrument:

Grant

Have we reinvested:

Yes

Status:

Open

VUNA is a psychosocial support service aimed at pregnant women and parents of young children, which is delivered either in-person or via WhatsApp Business. VUNA, which means “harvest” in isiZulu, supports the wellbeing of parents and their children in their 1st 1000 days of life by offering affordable and easily accessible psychosocial support services, as well as information about why such services are important. 

 The foundation of VUNA is built on evidence that psychosocial support services, that help promote quality infant care, are critical for buffering the impacts of stressful environments on children.

The Problem

Consistent high-levels of stress, which is also known as toxic stress, leads to increased tension and conflict in families and is especially harmful to the developing infant brain. In utero, the cortisol hormone released by the highly-stressed mother crosses the placenta and can damage the brain of the growing foetus. Post-birth, high-levels of parental stress trigger a similar response in the baby’s brain, and this early exposure to heightened cortisol has lifelong implications for the child’s mental and physical health, as well as learning and social functioning.        

Parents and infants living in impoverished communities are most likely to experience toxic stress, and therefore require psychosocial services. These services are based on a trusting, supportive relationship with the service provider where the parent feels seen, heard, and understood – and where they are equipped with coping mechanisms.  Unfortunately, low-income parents often don’t know where to find such services, cannot afford them, or may be predisposed not to use them due to stigma around psychological care. Fathers are least likely to make use of these services, for all the reasons stated above, and because these services are very rarely targeted at men. 

 

The Innovation

VUNA is easily accessible and affordable, non-stigmatizing psychosocial support for pregnant women and parents of children under two years, which is delivered either in-person or remotely via WhatsApp Business. VUNA’s development comes on the back of a R400,000 grant awarded to the Johannesburg-based NGO Ubulele in 2020. During this first investment phase, the Ubebele team investigated how best to package and deliver their extensive experience and knowledge in delivering psychosocial support in low-income communities within the context of the pandemic, which made in-person contact difficult. 

VUNA Parent Club is the hybrid solution developed for use during the pandemic and beyond. Referral Champions, usually healthcare workers who are already in touch with at-risk families, help onboard parents to VUNA through a WhatsApp Business account. Parents select a language, provide the date of birth of their baby, and then start to receive twice-weekly psychoeducational messages. As requests for services are made, Ububele is able to assist either in person or through telephonic or WhatsApp-based support. VUNA Parents have free access to these services.

These standardised-for-quality psychosocial services attempt to reduce parental stress, educate parents about quality infant care, and promote infant-parent bonding – all through the context of a trusted relationship. 

Why we Invested

Trusted relationships are at the heart of the VUNA, as trust is a prerequisite for learning and positive behaviour change. It is the development of these relationships through a hybrid model of service delivery that is of great interest to Innovation Edge.  Lessons about how trust is built and fostered in an online environment with a view to onboarding and retention of customers may be applied to a number of other investments in the Innovation Edge portfolio. 

The team will also use this current grant period to investigate how VUNA can offer father-specific messaging and services, thereby addressing the significant dearth of psychosocial parenting support designed for men.  

The Project Team

VUNA is developed by Ububele, which is a diverse and dynamic NGO with over 20 years’ experience in providing psychosocial services.  Their team of permanent psychologists are racially diverse and have on average 10 years of experience working clinically in infant mental health services. The venture lead’s PhD focused on infant mental health service provision. The team also comprises eight local lay counsellors. These team members speak a multitude of local South African languages between them.