And so the Innovation Unit started working on a simple group SMS messaging system that could tie into the internet and a server. Instead of relying on paper forms, field workers could use text messages and a database to track food supplies. "It took us three to four weeks to build and deploy," Kochi says.
Soon, Kochi says, other country officers were coming and asking to try RapidSMS for various projects. If it could track food stocks, the thinking went, why couldn't it be used to track, say, children's nutrition?
The platform has come a long way in a short time. From the very beginning, Kochi says, she wanted it to be open source, so that anyone could use it, modify it, and then share those modifications more broadly. "We want it to be able to travel, to scale," Kochi says. "We've been able to use things others have developed, and vice versa." Kochi notes that people outside the humanitarian sector are using RapidSMS – for example, there's an entrepreneur in Ghana who uses it to track sales of cookstoves.
Back in Malawi, Dr Mon decided to see if RapidSMS could improve the diagnosis and treatment of children with HIV. She wanted especially to tackle that time lag between lab test and delivering test results to patients. She started a couple of years ago, and dubbed it Project Mwana, after the swahili word for "baby" or "child."
The results, she says, have been promising. Instead of relying on human couriers to deliver test results, simple text messages can be sent to health care workers. Through a series of codes, the results of the HIV test, along with any instructions for treatment, can be sent out quickly. As Dr Mon says: "The delivery speed of lab results was increased significantly, and the number of results lost was also reduced by up to 20 %."
In addition, notes Dr Mon, health care workers in rural centres can use the RapidSMS system to relay the results of ongoing treatments of infants, and their mothers, back to public health officials in the capital. Because the platform stores all the text messages, important health data is kept and can be analysed.
"Every transaction is captured," says Unicef's Erica Kochi. "So it produces data that's useful for management and decision making at a higher level."
Earlier this year, Project Mwana was adopted at the national level in Malawi and RapidSMS has been rolled out to tackle other problems.
"It's being used for pre-natal and post-natal care, and for immunization, growth monitoring and nutrition promotion," says Piyali Mustafi, who serves as Unicef's Nutrition Manager in Malawi.
I asked both Mustafi and Dr Mon if using a new SMS based system was difficult for health care workers. Both said that workers could be trained to use the system in just a few hours, and that "many appreciate the technology".
There are, as you might imagine, network issues. Dr Mon says that in some places, coverage is spotty and messages take a while to send and receive. Unicef says its working with mobile providers in Malawi to solve some of these issues.
But even a short delay in delivering a critical - and potentially life-saving - diagnosis via text is far preferable to the consequences of never getting those results at all.