Innovation of the Week: TXT for AID

By Joseph Zaleski

In her address before the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to alleviate starvation in the Horn of Africa and build a more secure food supply for the future. Governmental organizations and NGOs are not the only ones supplying innovations and assistance – Secretary Clinton also noted several partnerships with private companies.

Mobile messaging services bring the power of information to previously isolated rural populations. (Photo Credit: Martin Godwin/ The Guardian)

One of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) partners is Souktel, a mobile phone service based in the Middle East. Information and communication lines are valuable commodities in a world that is growing more connected every year. The founders recognized the potential for burgeoning mobile phone networks, and began their JobMatch service in 2006. Souktel creates databases, message surveys, and instant alerts that can be sent out and received via mobile phone. The platform tries to better-connect job seekers with employers through basic Short Message Service (SMS) texting.

More recently, Souktel has applied this system to international development work. By expanding their service into northern and eastern Africa, messaging services are being used to connect mobile phone users in previously impenetrable locations with aid and relief workers. This AidLink program allows development workers to create text message surveys with real-time feedback from those most in need. It can be used, for example, to send the location of new emergency relief centers or to make sure that hungry rural populations are actually being served.

Souktel’s services are coinciding with the exponential rise of mobile phone use in the developing world. The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union reports that there were 360 million African and 310 million Middle Eastern mobile phone subscribers in 2010. These recent numbers are up from just 87 and 85 million respective subscribers in 2005. Another statistic shows that last year, those 360 million users represented roughly 45.2 subscribers per 100 inhabitants in Africa. Moreover, Souktel’s messaging services is a cost-effective option for these mobile users in developing countries, with individual charges at around US$0.07 per text.

Souktel’s services are only one example of constructive mobile phone programs. Phones can now be used as ATM cards for Africans without bank accounts, allowing them to build credit. Rural farmers are receiving updated weather alerts, helping protect their crops,and food prices at market,helping eliminate predatory middle men. The BBC also reports that Kenyans have donated roughly US$200,000 via SMS messaging to neighbors affected by 2011’s food shortages and drought.

Mobile communication provides exciting opportunities for international development workers and otherwise isolated rural-dwellers to connect. When seconds can mark the difference between starvation and survival, it’s encouraging to know that instantaneous information is on the way.

Do you have any stories about mobile phones being used constructively in rural areas?

Joseph Zaleski is a research intern for the Nourishing the Planet program.

To read more about mobile technology: What Works: Turning Farmers into Businessmen and Women, Cell Phone Banking Could Lift Africa’s Farmers, Texting on the Farm: Mobile Technology Provides Farmers with useful Information in India, From Phones to Fields.

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