Three Text Messages That Are Changing Africa
Friday, August 16, 2013
As President Obama traveled to Africa earlier this summer, his administration heralded the power of geeks to reshape America’s approach to global poverty. Rather than hand out money to corrupt governments or rely on creaky international bureaucracies, a new notion is emerging that if the right technology gets to the world’s poorest people, they can lead their own development. Where Washington and Brussels have failed, it seems, Silicon Valley might yet succeed.
The innovations are coming fast and furious: a power-generating soccer ball, a merry-go-round water-pump, and high-profile projects which arm villages with laptops and smartphones. To date, however, these splashy technologies that delight TED-conference attendees have yet to catch fire with the people they’ve been designed to help.
What if these geek-friendly interventions were designed around a technology the developing world already had? Mobile phones — chiefly the cheap, unsmart variety — are used by at least three times as many people in developing countries as in the industrialized world. Could the most transformational technology in Africa also be the least sexy?
This is the proposition UNICEF is testing with its “U-report” network, developed in Uganda and set to launch in five other nations this year. Under the leadership of new executive director Tony Lake, a local team of engineers designed the tool — a free SMS service with outgoing poll questions and a computer algorithm to distill incoming information — and let their Ugandan partners figure out how best to use it to promote child health.
Fifteen months later, in a country whose most widely read newspaper has a circulation of 33,000, over 200,000 Ugandans have already signed up by mobile phone. Why?