Turning point.

I remember that morning well. A week or so earlier I’d been informed via a random phone call that a group of Nigerians would be monitoring their forthcoming Presidential elections using FrontlineSMS. There had been frantic activity ever since, culminating in press releases and text messages with Bill Thompson, emails with Jon Fildes, and a Skype call with Gareth Mitchell – all journalists connected with the BBC. With the election only a couple of days away, the story had to break now else we’d miss the chance and it would no longer be news.

I woke up early, around 5:30am, and headed straight to my office. I was on a Fellowship at Stanford University at the time, and was living in what I jokingly called my ‘Global HQ’. It was, in fact, a 1973 VW camper van which I parked up on the edge of campus. As a result, it was a very short walk to my desk.

Once I got there I went straight to the BBC website and immediately saw the headline. I remember reading the article over and over, excited, nervous and proud and not yet aware of the implications this breaking story was to have on my future, and that of my work.

As far as turning points go, this was a big one. Almost everything that has happened to me and my work since can be traced back to that 5:30am start. I hate to think where I’d be now without it.

You can grab a PDF of the citizen monitoring report that came out of the process here.

Primates and people: Understanding local needs

Driven by a curiosity and a strong interest in primate conservation, late one night back in December 2001 I arrived in Nigeria to take up my post as Project Manager at a sanctuary in Calabar, Cross River State. The year I spent there – starting exactly ten years ago this month – turned out to be fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Crucially, combined with my previous experiences working on the continent, it also helped shape my understanding of the needs of local people and local NGOs, a focus which remains a central pillar of my wider technology work today.

Chimp rescue, Lagos 2001

I wasn’t the only arrival that December day. A small baby chimpanzee had been confiscated (pictured) from a local market and was waiting to be collected from Lekki, a conservation and education centre in Lagos run by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. Primate rescue was to be a theme of my time in Nigeria, as was a sense that a large part of the ‘conservation effort’ was really damage limitation and control. Rehabilitating orphaned primates was often the easier part – even though it was hugely challenging and distressing. Changing perceptions, overcoming local politics and trying to shift cultural mindsets turns out to be much harder. Not only that, it takes considerably longer, time that increasing numbers of species simply don’t have.

Primate conservation, bush meat hunting and deforestation are all inextricably linked. Tackling one without trying to address the others simply doesn’t work. In its simplest form, the whole thing goes something like this.

Loggers enter the forest and either blanket cut or selectively cut trees. To help get the logs out, paths and roads are opened up into areas which were previously difficult or impossible to access. Loggers need to eat, and many actively hunt for bush meat while working in the forest. Local hunters join in. As more trees are cut and more roads laid, hunters are able to penetrate deeper into the forest, reducing wildlife populations – primates included – yet further

If I were to summarise what I learnt about these complex issues from my time in southern Nigeria, I would break it down into the following categories.

The practical


Although large-scale logging is a significant problem – often carried out by larger (almost always foreign) companies – many poor local people are ‘recruited’ to help in the destruction. Equipped with chainsaws supplied by their employers, they enter community forests and national parks and selectively cut high-worth trees. Roads and paths are cut to remove the logs, which are sometimes cut into large planks before being shipped off. Forestry officials, many of whom haven’t been paid for months, stamp the trees as coming from a legitimate source. I will never forget the haunting sound of distant chainsaws as I walked through those forests.

The cultural

orphanSpeaking with the locals in Calabar, many find it inconceivable that people would ever eat primates. In many communities it’s simply taboo, but sadly the same can’t be said for killing them. As outsiders come in search of work, and as main roads open up alongside the fringes of rainforest, hunters from these communities will go in, track down wildlife – primates included – and sell them at the side of the the road. Bush meat is in great demand, and it’s a brisk trade. If a mother is killed then the infant will be sold as a pet – a double bounty for the hunter. Some of these orphans are incredibly young, and barely alive if they are lucky enough to be rescued, as this picture distressingly shows.

The perception

The many Nigerians I met believed that bush meat was much better for you than ‘farmed’ meat, and given the choice they’d rather eat something from the forest than a farm. This is a major challenge for conservation groups trying to ween people off bush meat and more towards livestock of various descriptions. As a case in point, some Nigerians living in London appear to be willing to pay significant amounts of money for illegally imported bush meat, despite the availability of almost any other kind of meat from legal, local sources such as London supermarkets (see this interesting story reported by the International Primate Protection League).

The response

Conservation groups on the ground spend huge amounts of time on education and alternative livelihoods and farming programmes. In the 1990’s there was considerable focus on the potential for “grasscutters” – a widely-distributed cane rat found in West and Central Africa – and how farming and breeding these could help reduce or replace reliance on bush meat for protein. I’m not sure how many of these projects were successful, although some research has been carried out and there has been some success by individuals in Ghana. From my own observations, keeping livestock of any kind (other than chickens or turkeys, which need little looking after) turned out to be a foreign concept to many people, and efforts to promote it largely failed.

The reality

Dead guenonSpeak with the hunters in almost any rural community and there is almost universal recognition that the wildlife is on the decline. Many fondly speak of overnight hunting expeditions with their fathers, and how they’d return the next morning with a healthy ‘catch’. Evidence of distant permanent overnight camps highlight today’s reality – longer trips, days in length, but ones which still don’t guarantee a single kill. Urban dwellers rarely see this reality. Ask them about conservation and wildlife, and their reaction is one of “the monkeys will never finish” (Nigerians often use the term “finish” to describe extinction). Nigerians clearly have much to learn from each other.

It would have been great to have ended my time in Nigeria with a solution to some of these problems, and even better to be able to outline a few of them in this post. But I didn’t, and I don’t.

What I can contribute, though, is this…

Things you can do

Firstly, take a little time to try and understand the problems – plural. It frustrates me to read blanket condemnation in the western media of local people in African countries cutting down forests and daring to kill cute chimpanzees. Yes, it’s sad and its destructive. I’ve seen at first hand the pain and distress of an orphaned primate who’s had to have an arm broken to release its grip on its dead mother, or the look in the eyes of exhausted villagers struggling to put a decent meal on the table for their children. The problems are complex, but they’re human and animal.

Secondly, join a local organisation working with local communities on the ground. If you’re interested in African primates in particular, a good place to start out is the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), an organisation committed to the conservation and care of African primates through the support of in-situ sanctuaries.

Thirdly, if you’re the volunteering kind, check out the University of Wisconsin’s Primate Info Net, but bear in mind that volunteering is really only productive if the local organisation can’t find, or afford, a local version of you among the communities in which they work. If that’s the case, be sure you have a transferrable skill so you can train a local person to replace you when you leave. Sustainability isn’t always financial – it also has a human element to it, too.

Fourthly, find out about alternative conservation/human strategies such as direct conservation payments – different models do exist. Just as primate species are different, conservation strategies also need to be. One size rarely fits all, and this is true whether you’re an elephant, a forest, a primate or a local villager.

Finally, stay positive. Problems are many and working solutions are few. Something good will happen if enough people commit to conservation in Africa. Many people already have.

Nigerian youth ask: What about us?

I owe a lot to Nigeria. Throughout 2002 I lived in Calabar where I helped run a primate sanctuary. I made many friends and gained a real understanding of many of the problems facing the country. Five years later, in 2007, a loose coalition of Nigerian NGOs took our FrontlineSMS platform and monitored their elections with it, a breakthrough moment for us and for them.

This guest post, by Nosarieme Garrick, speaks volumes for the strength and character of the many Nigerians I’ve met over the years. It’s an honour to be able to help spread her message. I hope it resonates with you, too.

“The journey back to Nigeria was unexpected, but the planning came like a hurricane. One day I was chasing a story in New York, the next I was planning my trip back to the capital city of Abuja. So here I am pushing for the youth to truly exercise their civic duties in every sense of the word.

It started almost a year ago with a post on CNN Amanpour’s blog offering constructive criticism to Nigeria’s leaders, which received a deafening response, and persuaded me that sitting from the comfort of my Brooklyn apartment, ranting about that which ails Nigeria wasn’t good enough.

At the time a number kept haunting me – 70% of Nigeria’s population was under the age of 30, that’s 105 million people, yet the educational system is deplorable, food prices are so high that the average student can’t afford it, and millions of kids work the streets everyday hawking goods to help their families out. The majority of the country is disenfranchised. I looked at the political arena of Nigeria, and started to understand why, the lack of representation for the youth, with most of our political leaders way over the age of 50.

I realized the Nigerian youth had no voice. People had been making decisions for us, and we’d let them because we didn’t believe our votes would be counted. Countless times international observers had reported cases of electoral fraud but it never mattered, we’d watched complacently.

Growing up in Nigeria, every kid was aware of one thing if nothing else – children were to be seen and not heard. We didn’t stay in the room when our elders were talking, we didn’t question anything our elders said, and we definitely didn’t hold an opinion on their actions, wrong or not. In a sense there was a culture of fear created, what were we afraid of? Maybe lashes, being reprimanded, I’m not too sure anymore, we just knew that’s how things were. The home was a reflection of our leaders, we knew they were up to no good, but we said nothing for fear of jail, or even worse – death.

In April of 2010, I got together with some friends and came up with Vote or Quench, a youth driven, social media-focused organization seeking to engage our young people in Nigeria’s opaque political arena, and build a bridge between the diaspora and Nigerians at home. Inspired by the monitoring of election violence in Kenya, and the Iranian Green Revolution, we decided that 2011 would be the year young Nigerians would hold Nigeria’s leaders accountable, and create an atmosphere that encourages free and fair elections.

Since my return home, I have understood that we were not the only youths that felt that way. We paired up with a number of youth empowerment organizations (Enough is Enough, Sleeves Up) along with several blogs (CP-Africa, Last Plane To Lagos ) and young Nigeria celebrities (Nneka) to push for a mass awareness campaign for the crucial two week voter’s registration period. On January 11th, 2011 we challenged the youth to dream up the positive change that could happen if Nigerians went out and voted, using the hashtag #IFNAIJAVOTES. The campaign was a success, trending in Nigeria, and garnering massive support around the world to get people out to register. The registration period saw a huge turn out, with a recorded 64.5 million registered voters out of the eligible 76.5 million, despite huge setbacks by the flawed process. This spoke tons on the willingness of young Nigerians to go out and vote.

The culture of intimidation is quickly losing its edge as we have seen through the courageous, death defying acts of the Arab world. The youth have risen up and are standing up for their civil rights, and this is being mimicked through the world, Nigeria being one such example.

We are teaming up with these organizations once again to call for the first ever youth-centered presidential debate. As youth make up the 70% block of registered voters, we understand the power of our vote, and request that our candidates take an evening to address the youth that has been failed by previous administrations. Since the handover to civilian rule in 1999, presidential candidates threw out vague rhetoric about their plans to fix our country, however power outages are still a norm, infrastructure has yet to be developed outside of major cities, and what’s even more alarming is that our unemployed youth are quickly falling to crime, used as political weapons to disrupt elections, used to divide communities as we’ve seen in Jos, or are joining militia groups in the Niger Delta.

We will be utilizing social media and SMS to crowd source questions from Nigeria’s youth. We want to give the youth a platform to have their frustrations heard, and hear directly from our aspirants, in order for them to be held accountable for the promises they make. The problems of a militant youth in the Niger Delta are not dissimilar to those of a child bride in North, nor are they dissimilar to an undereducated youth of the east, resorting to kidnapping to make a living.

We want to know what these candidates have in store for the youth to get them back on track and give them the future that is owed to them by the country. We want to know why they are deserving of the youth vote. We are standing up, and asking: “WHAT ABOUT US?

Here’s how you can help:

Many young Nigerians have no voice, and we are here to provide them with one that is so desperately needed. For one day, we’re asking you to support them and do your part for our collective future.

What: Campaign to Support “WHAT ABOUT US?”
How: Dedicate your profile pictures and social network statuses to “WHAT ABOUT US?” and attend a virtual event at http://tinyurl.com/WAUEVENT
When: Thursday March 3rd, 2011

Thank you.”

A product from around the world, but loudly repping Nigeria, Nosarieme Garrick is a journalist, entrepreneur and activist currently leading the VoteorQuench.org campaign in raising awareness for youth participation in Nigeria’s upcoming elections. You can follow her – @Nosalikes on Twitter – or email her – Nosarieme [at] voteorquench.org

Missions look to SMS in Nigeria

This is the eighth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Mike Blyth – Computer Systems Coordinator at Serving in Mission (SIM) – discusses their use of the software among missions operating in central Nigeria

Jos, Nigeria has been in the news recently because of riots in November that killed hundreds of people. This was the second such episode since 2001, and the situation remains tense. Besides this, violent crime has increased rapidly in the past four years, with frequent robberies by armed gangs of up to 20 or more men.

Part of our response as a group of missions in Jos has been to strengthen our communications network, and FrontlineSMS has become a key part of that network. The mobile phone is the basic means of communication in Jos, where there are few if any functioning land lines, and where Internet access is still expensive and spotty. During the November crisis, we noticed that voice calls on the mobile network rarely connected, probably because of congestion, while SMS messages got through well.

Jos, Nigeria - Courtesy New York Times

Our response

It was shortly after that we started experimenting with FrontlineSMS, and we have so far developed a system with a number of features.

First, anyone can text the system and receive a response with the current status message. In a crisis, this could contain warnings, instructions, announcements and so on. Besides this ‘on demand’ capability, we keep one list of users who receive broadcast alerts.

Anyone can join this “text alerts” group by sending the request as a text message to the system. We ask people to send the message “JOIN” followed by their name. At this point, FrontlineSMS cannot automatically include the name when the phone number is added to a group (only the number is added), but we hope that feature will be included in the future.

We maintain other user lists such as compound security leaders, crisis management teams, and so on. Anyone can broadcast a message to the crisis management team by prefixing a text message with a code that causes FrontlineSMS to forward the message to all team members.

Finally, we use FrontlineSMS to send outgoing SMS messages through the Internet when it is available. They’re sent via Clickatell, which routes them to the actual SMS network. Clickatell is very fast and inexpensive. We can send about 80 messages per minute this way, far more than is currently possible if we were to send messages directly via the mobile phone network.


Real life examples

Fortunately, we have not had actual rioting since we set up the system. However, there have been times when it has been very useful to send warnings and to raise the alert level. Here are some actual examples:

  • @Alerts: Jos is tense, please avoid downtown today
  • @Security: X and Y have been robbed tonight & report the robbers took their Toyota Land cruiser and muttered something about Hillcrest on the way out
  • @Alerts 20Feb 655pm. Serious rioting reported in Bauchi. No problems in Jos. Obey curfew, avoid areas that could be troublesome
  • 22 Feb 8am. *** Rioting on Friday Bauchi, churches & mosques burned. Now controlled. Keep on alert. Report signif news this num or ur security rep
  • SecGrp: Some rumors are going around about unrest planned for Friday, …. Email or txt me if you know more. –Mike


The system has worked quite well. The most serious limitations to date have been problems with the modem and Internet, which have had a tendency to lock up, failing to receive messages, and have to be re-initialized manually. In addition, message delivery is sometimes delayed for hours, occasionally more than a day. This is a fault of the local network and has nothing to do with FrontlineSMS or Clickatell.

In summary, FrontlineSMS has served us very well as a way to communicate quickly by SMS. We would recommend it to others in similar situations.

Mike Blyth
Computer Systems Coordinator
Serving in Mission (SIM)