African mobile technology services developed for news and empowerment: Universal access

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“No Internet needed.”

Those three words are seen more and more often promoting new mobile phone applications in Africa, where the newest apps are more likely than not to be free, to run on cheap low-end phones, and to function even without Internet access.

In Africa, you can also use your cell phone to listen to “radio” programs from sources ranging from broadcasters to public service providers – and again without Internet access.

Written by programmers from Nairobi to Harare, African cell phone apps are geared to a mass audience, so programmers tailor their software for cheap “dumb” phones and slow or nonexistent Internet service.

Consider email: In the rest of the world, access to your Gmail account requires Internet access. Not so in Africa, where since July GMail has become available on cell phones via SMS – no Internet required.

“We’re excited to be making this new service available in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya,” wrote Geva Rechav, Google’s Product Manager, Emerging Markets, in a blog announcing the new service. “You can now send and receive emails as SMS messages using your mobile phone, regardless of whether or not your phone has an Internet connection, like Wi-Fi or 3G. Gmail SMS works on any phone, even the most basic ones which only support voice and SMS.”

Public service information providers are also shifting to add SMS-based services for low-end mobile phones. For example, the MFarm service developed in Kenya lets farmers go to SMS 3555 to get the latest price information about their crops – and which markets have the best price for them. Then, according to its web site, farmers can use MFarm to join together to sell in a group and to buy supplies collectively.

A similar service for dairy farmers is offered by iCow, which provides animal health information and helps farmers to monitor nutrition and milking calendars, right down to an individual cow. Developed at Nairobi’s iHub, iCow received wide attention after winning the Apps 4 Africa Challenge award.a4a_2012_trans.png

For cities, an example is the M-Maji service, which aims to provide real-time information to urban slum dwellers about clean water – prices, suppliers and availability – all on cellphones. As the developers explain on their web site, “Many slums like Kibera lack access to clean drinking water, but they don’t lack access to mobile phones.”

Newer African-developed cell phone tools for empowerment and social change are less known in Europe and North America. One example is Hatari, which lets Kenyans report bribes and corruption by email, text or tweet, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor. Hatari and similar services could develop capabilities traditionally associated with investigative journalism and independent media.

Another innovation for micro-local news over mobile phones is Mimiboard , a virtual notice board service that according to news reports won the most votes at this year’s Open Innovation Africa Summit. Users can participate on their mobile telephones via the web or using SMS, posting events and information about social and political issues, sports and entertainment in their micro-local communities.

Mimiboards are attracting interesting partners in the media and NGO worlds, including The Zimbabwean, a digital news provider published in London by Zimbabwe journalists in exile. That news service has already begun Mimiboards for several local regions, hoping to connect more often and more deeply with its readers, according to an article in The Zimbabwean.

NGO’s including Freedom House, which has two regional field offices in Africa, are aggressively exploiting opportunities in new media based on mobile telephones.
“We use mobiles for new media campaigns for public awareness,” Sam DuPont, the Freedom House program officer for Internet freedom, advised me. “The tools we use are predominantly mobile-based. The groups we work with use the web, email, and social media to certain degrees. But for any communication for mass scale, we use SMS.”
And for spreading the word to Africans continent-wide, mobile phones have become the medium of choice. DuPont described one that combines dial-up radio with what amounts to a universal help desk.

“There’s a tool called Question Box, originally deployed in India,” DuPont said. “It is something like a free pay phone, set up in a remote village. People living way out in the boonies can pick up the phone and make a call to a centralized call center and ask anything, whether it is weather information, health information, or how to cure an illness in their livestock. It could be applied very broadly, certainly within a city for those without ready access to the network.”

And according to its web site, Question Box has become more than just a source of information for callers with questions. It is also a platform for reporting.
“Question Boxes are useful both to get tips and reporting from citizens on the ground, and to give citizens a point of access to learn the latest news updates live.”

So in Africa, mobile phones are the new mass medium, combining the capabilities of radio and interactivity – but no Internet required. But there is a downside: in countries with repressive regimes, any communications via cellphones have a huge vulnerability.

“Mobile is a scary platform,” said DuPont. Cellphones “are one of the least secure technologies we have for secure communications. Any SMS that bounces off the [cellphone] tower can be read by the mobile operator – but also by anybody sitting beneath the tower with a thousand-dollar piece of equipment.”

However, despite this drawback, there are few alternatives as effective as mobile ff_logo.giftelephony. For example, DuPont pointed to another free application used by Freedom House, a tool operating from headquarters in Zimbabwe called Freedom Fone. It was designed from the start as a part of the independent media community, linking citizen journalists to a central resource with a do-it-yourself toolbox.

“Create information-on-demand services with this free, open source telephony platform directed at mobile phone users,” reads its web site. No internet needed.”

“You can call a central number and make reports, documenting human rights violations or something less political in nature, sharing a bit of news, best practices for farming,” DuPont explained. “Then you can call another number to listen to reports. It is very much an open platform that could be associated with any type of problem. Originally it was to address the lack of citizen media or independent media. It caught on very well in Zimbabwe.”

Again from the Freedom Fone web site:

“There are no geographical limitations to Freedom Fone. By taking advantage of both audio and text functions, Freedom Fone makes it easy to create and share information across literacy barriers in any language. We provide an effective, user-friendly and low-cost solution that helps empower marginalized communities and bridge the digital divide.”

No Internet required.

NOTE: This report was based on research for a project for the Center for Independent Media Assistance. You can see a more detailed version in the project final report here, CIMA-Africa Digital Media – 09-18-12.pdf