Zimbabweans speak out through SMS

International press interest may be on the wane following the heady heights of recent months, but the daily struggle continues for millions of people living in Zimbabwe. An inflation rate of over two million percent – usually a leading headline in itself – merely serves as a backdrop to the political manoeuvring taking place following the recent flawed presidential ‘elections’.

It would be all too easy for people to lose hope, particularly in such a disempowering and disenfranchising environment dominated by fear, government harassment and a largely state controlled media which pushes out its own unique version of the truth. Freedom of speech is only freedom of speech when it comes with freedom from fear, something that many people don’t yet have.

But hope, it turns out, is one of the few things many people still do have, and freedom of speech has found an ally in the humble mobile phone. I recently blogged about the use of mobile phones during the ongoing troubles, and highlighted the work of Kubatana.net, a grassroots organisation who have been pioneering the use of mobile technology in civil society work. Since 2005, Kubatana have been using a combination of kiwanja‘s FrontlineSMS platform, and a couple of other custom applications developed around the technology. Kubatana continue to use it, and continue to reach out to everyday Zimbabweans through the mobile channel – one of only a few available to them.

Back in April, at the height of the troubles, Kubatana asked everyday Zimbabweans: “What would you like a free Zimbabwe to look like?”. Zimbabweans answered the call through their mobile phones, texting in their hopes for the future. Many people said that the question gave them hope in uncertain times.

Last week, while doubts lingered over the newly signed MDC/Zanu-PF deal, Kubatana reached out again to their SMS subscribers, asking them: Kubatana! ZPF and both MDCs agree to talk to resolve crisis. Send yr thoughts on this & give us yr postal or email addr if u want a copy of their agreement”. Zimbabweans responded with a range of comments and opinions, including:

The talks is good but MDC must be very clever – Zanu PF wants to swallow the MDC

Yes it’s a brilliant idea which shall help end crisis, poverty and all tribulations in Zimbabwe united we stand divided we fall Tsvangirai showed qualities of being a leader by agreeing to talk

Free and fair elections tomorrow with international observers!

It is long over due but we want justice

May be worth the effort but MDC must keep their eyes open. You can’t trust these guys. I agree with Tsvangirai that people have suffered enough

I believe it’s a good idea if they can reason together in order to solve this crisis. But they must recognise the results of the election done on 29 March

We don’t need masters, colonial or nationalist. We want public servants. So respect our votes of March 29. You asked for them

That’s better because we are suffering. We are stuck and something must be done to save the lives of Zimbabweans

The talks are okay but Mugabe must not lead the government & must step down

For as long as it is something that will result in the fulfilment of our wishes and solve our problems no hard feelings

I think it is a very bad idea for ZPF and MDCs to talk coz they are like water and oil as far as policies are concerned. What happened to ZAPU when it merged with ZPF? I dnt approve of the talks unless they start on the March 29 election which means MDC T would be the winner

No problem as long as the talks result in the formation of transitional authority & fresh, free & fair run-off being conducted thereafter

The talks are very important but MDC must not at all accept a gvt of national unity. They must go 4 a transitional gvt and pave way 4 fresh elections. Zanu PF plans 2 destroy MDC just as they did to ZAPU

In addition to direct comments and opinions, over 300 requests came in for the document to be posted to people, and over 200 for it to be emailed. This, according to Kubatana, is a small indication of just how starved most Zimbabweans are for news about their own country.

The numbers may not yet be huge, but mobiles are certainly beginning to make their mark.

Three is not the magic number…

It’s 1.4.7…

One month ago the new version of FrontlineSMS was released. Well over three hundred NGOs responded and downloaded the software, and over a hundred of them have joined the new online community. Apart from the excitement surrounding the software itself, the new community is already proving its worth. I’d easily have settled for a hundred members after one month – hopefully the other two hundred will also see the value and sign up and engage soon.

I’d also have settled for the level of enthusiasm among the practitioner community. As you’d expect, many of the smaller NGOs won’t have had a chance to do much with FrontlineSMS in such a short space of time, other than get familiar with the software and maybe run a few internal tests and trials. Some of the larger or better resourced projects have made some headway, however.

One of the most active users is Josh Nesbit in Malawi, who’s using FrontlineSMS to drive field communications between a local hospital and its six hundred roaming community health workers (CHWs). He’s also managed to set up a number of innovative services, such as automatic cellphone top-ups and a facility which allows CHWs to text in drug names and automatically receive responses on recommended uses and doses. A lot of people seem to be watching what Josh is doing very closely. What makes it so exciting is the fact that it’s so highly replicable, not to mention the immediate impact it’s having on the hospital and the community it is seeking to serve.

In one of the first microfinance-related applications of the new version, FrontlineSMS is being used by Grameen in Uganda to open up text-based communications with their Village Phone Operator (VPO) network. According to the project:

… We have been using FrontlineSMS to survey VPOs on their experiences at our training sessions and events, distributing information to them ranging from airtime to announcements to outages, and inviting feedback on other selected items through SMS. It really makes our lives easier by giving us a clear record of what’s been sent and responded to that can be reproduced and re-used elsewhere. It also helps us promote a culture of SMS use for communications

FrontlineSMS is also being lined up by the Cambodia Crop Production and Marketing Project (CCPMP). Funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, their aim is to improve agricultural value chains as a key to sustainable growth and poverty reduction in Western Cambodia. CCPMP plan to begin workshops and trials of FrontlineSMS in August and September. Further details are available on their project wiki. (FrontlineSMS is already being used to provide coffee prices to smallholder farmers in Aceh, something I blogged about a while ago).

Another project considering FrontlineSMS implementation is a text-based SOS/distress facility for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). The programme attempts to maximize the widespread ownership and use of mobile phones by Filipinos at home and abroad, and provide a 24/7 service in case of emergency. Incoming SOS text messages will be forwarded to numerous organisations and agencies capable of responding to various emergency situations. The project has just completed a round of comprehensive testing on the latest version – 1.4.7 – and posted the results on the FrontlineSMS community web pages.

Finally, Ushahidi have just completed their own period of FrontlineSMS evaluation, and are now putting together plans to integrate the platform into their web-based “crisis alert system”. Ushahidi was recently listed as one of “Ten Web Startups to Watch” by MIT’s Technology Review.

Behind the scenes there’s also considerable activity, and we’re working with a number of large donor organisations and academic researchers to help them understand the FrontlineSMS user base. Expect some interesting field-based research in the coming months. And in a couple of weeks or so we’re releasing the software source code, with a number of developers looking to build on the work we’ve already started.

I’ve always believed in the immense value of building an NGO community around a single powerful, shared, open, flexible mobile-messaging solution. After a couple of years it finally looks like it might actually be happening.