Text messaging is being introduced to the masses in Uganda.
Uganda’s largest mobile phone provider, Mobile Telephone Networks, or MTN, is partnering with Google and a nonprofit organization, the Grameen Foundation, to give Ugandans access to real-time news, health information, farming tips and weather forecasts.
Breaking down barriers to information
Anyone with an MTN phone, regardless of model, can type in a question, send it to the appropriate number and within seconds have a response found by Google’s search technology.
Another application, called Google Trader, allows users to buy and sell goods via SMS, Short Message Service.
Rachel Payne is the country manager for Google in Kampala. "This is the first time," she said, "that users can get the information they want, when they want it, using a phone of any model, anywhere in Uganda.
"The idea," she points out,"is to break down the barriers around access to information, for those who have the most limited form of access."
The project is called Application Laboratory. The Grameen Foundation approached Google about it nearly two years ago in hopes of creating opportunities for the poor by giving them access to vital information.
Eric Cantor, the director of Application Laboratory for Grameen, said the applications are specifically tailored to the needs of Ugandans.
Privacy is Paramount
Google’s Rachel Payne said during their pilot program they found that in Uganda, the biggest need is for information that many consider private, such as family planning.
“The main feedback we received from our users was that they have questions that they don’t feel comfortable asking anyone, and they’re not sure who they can even trust.
"So when they have the privacy of a phone and the discretion to ask whatever it is that they need to know, especially to protect their health, you find that they do and the response is dramatic," Payne said.
And although Uganda’s literacy rate falls just below 75 percent, Payne says this challenge has not diminished the usefulness of the program.
Illiteracy not an impediment
"Even if that person isn’t literate – if I’m a farmer and I’m growing matoke [plantains], and there is a banana weevil and I don’t know what to do about it, I can ask my neighbor. You almost always have a neighbor, or a village operator, or even a child nearby who can speak English, or can write a query and can help interpret results,"Payne explained.
In addition, Payne said, it encourages people to write more and become more active participants in the way they get information.
Internet availability remains low in Africa, but the continent has the world’s highest mobile phone growth rate. Google and Grameen plan to expand SMS services in the future, both inside Uganda and possibly to other African countries. Google’s text messaging service is also available to cellular phone users in Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana.