Kubatana, a Zimbabwean non-profit organisation committed to democratising access to information, was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant in May 2008 for its Freedom Fone software development project. The Freedom Fone project aspires to help civic organisations extend their information in an audio format to mobile phone users.
In Zimbabwe the mass media is monopolised by an entrenched and unpopular government. There are no licensed radio or television stations outside the direct control of the government. There are no community radio stations. There are no independent daily newspapers. Voice over Internet (VoIP) has not been legalised and wireless networking is tightly regulated. Working in this environment Kubatana realised the importance of leveraging the growing access to mobile telephony by people across income and interest groups. Frustrated by the limitations of SMS, Kubatana investigated the potential for manipulating call-in voice menus to convey frequently updated rather than static information. The primary objective was to add to the information outreach capacity of organisations in the non-profit sector by providing them with easy to install and use software to deliver their information, in languages of their choice, to phone users in the general public. Since interactive voice menu (IVR) systems incorporate voice mail or ‘leave-a-message’ functionality Kubatana also recognised the potential for developing rich two-way communications with communities and for facilitating citizen journalism.
With the Knight News Challenge award, we have been able to commission the redevelopment of our platform to incorporate lessons learnt to-date and the latest advancements in open source telephony development.
Since software development is an involved process, Kubatana was keen to work with an interim solution to facilitate experimentation with IVR in Zimbabwe whilst full-scale development progressed. We investigated commercial IVR providers in South Africa and were delighted to find a responsive company in Pretoria: Molo Innovation. Charl Barnard, a director in the company, was very interested in the innovative ideas we had for extending the use of IVR into the non-profit and development sectors. Importantly, he was prepared to assist us at heavily subsidised rates with quickly re-gigging an existing Asterisk-based product for our interim use.
The value of Molo’s support cannot be measured in dollar terms – it goes well beyond that. Our expedited productivity gave birth to an innovation called ‘Inzwa‘ which means ‘to listen’ in the vernacular. For the first time in many years in Zimbabwe, the general public were able to call-in, at their convenience, and access non-state controlled audio information via their phones.
Our Inzwa experience enabled us to quickly and constructively feed into the planning and development of the Freedom Fone platform as well as test the waters in Zimbabwe and start to assess local interest in phoning in for information. It gave us hands on experience and the ability to speak with greater conviction about the potential of Freedom Fone as a useful product; an appreciation of the skills and resources needed to run an information on demand audio service and allowed us to share a real-life deployment with others interested in doing something similar.
And Zimbabwe is just the start! A deployment partner, Farm Radio International, has been keen for some time to experiment with IVR as a support for and extension of their community radio programming for small-scale poultry farmers. They installed our interim version for training and pilot purposes in Tanzania and Ghana in November 2009.
Commercial support to non-profit initiatives can have far-reaching and rewarding results and we would encourage others to follow in Molo’s socially responsible footsteps.