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When twitter just isn’t enough

Sometimes 160 characters just isn’t enough.  When an SMS won’t do it, where do you turn?  Especially when the people you’re talking to don’t have smart phones and can’t access the mobile web. Enter the freedom fone. Recently, Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe introduced Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to Zimbabwe. Called freedom fone, the system integrates a content management system (CMS) with information services via SMS and voice. It is based on a model commonly used in private companies and adapted for development purposes – a telephone tree where users call in and dial specific numbers to find the information they need.

Charities and development organisations who work with people in low-income areas are always asking the question – how do we communicate with those who need it the most? It’s pretty easy to reach your newspaper-readers in cities, TV-watchers in areas with electricity, and even radio-listeners in urban hubs.  But what about the millions of people beyond those networks?

Kubatana has created freedom fone with the express purpose of reaching marginalized groups of people.  In Zimbabwe, where 30 years of independent political rule started out as a magical time but has descended to “political stalemate and economic stagnancy”, Kubatana has had to use alternative media to voice their opinion.

“The people who need information the most live on the margins of society without access to the internet, email, pod casting and all the other sexy new innovations in ICT. But technologists, media and development practitioners keep ignoring the fact that the majority of poor people don’t have access to computers and fancy gizmos, and continue to innovate in ICT without the communication needs of marginalized communities in mind”

Globally, more people now have access to a mobile phone than a toilet. The rise and ubiquitous use of the mobile phone has given the world a platform to reach the previously unreachable. However, technological advancements most often follow the money.  And finally, it seems, there is commercial value in providing information to the poor. Amy Saunderson-Meyer, media and information officer at Kubatana – spoke to Kiwanja:

“Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) strategies are viewed in many contemporary business circles as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. BoP refers to the 2.6 billion people who live below the $2 a day breadline and many business strategists argue that if targeted correctly, these consumers can offer businesses a main line into one of the fastest growing markets. Even if the price of products and services has to be reduced, profits can be made up and surpassed in volumes sold.
A more neutral view of BoP strategies is that they are not simply a means to make millions, but a pragmatic appreciation that through commercial profit making activities, sustainable solutions can be developed that help alleviate poverty. With thought, the poor can be incorporated into the system in a mutually beneficial manner – not only as consumers but also as producers, partners, entrepreneurs and innovators.”

Kubatana advocates that the system is easy to use, and can be applied in a variety of circumstances.  They give examples of how freedom phone could be used, to:

• Enhance civic engagement in electoral and voter registration campaigns
• Broaden access to HIV/Aids information
• Provide health information during an epidemic
• Offer information on demand
• Record community feedback to a radio station
• File audio reports from citizen journalists in the field

The system was piloted in Zimbabwe for 3 months in late 2009, and launched in April 2010. Freedom fone doesn’t have language limitations, and also doesn’t require an internet connection to operate. This is invaluable in rural Africa where full connectivity is constrained by cost or availability.

When twitter and SMS just isn’t enough, then freedom fone may provide us with the opportunity to interact and communicate with large numbers of mobile phone users who are otherwise difficult to reach. Try the demo or listen to an example of how it works here.

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