From the CMS Watch Trendwatch Blog, Theresa Regli writes of a visit to KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Most of the schools and homes in this area (including our translator’s) had no electricity or plumbing; in these parts, it costs approximately 300 ZAR (about US$30) to send a child to school for the year (including textbooks). Most people don’t own cars, so oftentimes groups of people stand along the side of the road waiting for a ride.

And while they wait, they tap away text messages on their mobile devices.

It was then I learned the Zulu word uma-khala-khukhwIni, which translates literally as “thing that rings in the pocket.” In a country where unemployment hovers around 25%, men in rural areas tend to leave for several weeks at a time to work near a city, then come home with money and things for the kids, like mobile phones. Those who don’t have electricity go to a general store in town to plug the phone in and charge it. These kids may not have running water, but they can look things up on Wikipedia.

Naturally I was curious about the economics: how could these kids afford to rack up SMS messaging costs in an area where wealth is still largely measured by cattle, and public education only arrived after the fall of apartheid?

It turns out that the communication happens via a service called MXit, a free instant messaging software application that runs on GPRS/3G mobile phones with Java support, and native to South Africa. MXit doesn’t charge for sending and receiving person to person messages, and while some service providers charge for GPRS/3G data cost, these costs are comparatively minuscule, about 1 ZAR cent, or one tenth of a US penny.

Smart companies have the foresight to think about content distribution beyond the technology elite … where mobile phones far outnumber PCs, you’d be wise to do the same.

Texting to tackle HIV

CNN reported in December:

One million free text messages will be sent every day for 12 months from Monday in South Africa in a bid to raise HIV awareness and encourage testing for the disease.

The ambitious Project Masiluleke is being rolled out across the country after a pilot period that saw calls to a AIDS national helpline shoot up by 200 percent, organizers say.

‘Project Masiluleke,’ or ‘Project M’ was set up to try to encourage people to seek testing and treatment in a country where cell phones are abundant.

Africa is cited as the fastest growing mobile-phone network in the world. In South Africa, more than 80 percent of the population has one — the country has a population of 49 million, and it is estimated that 43 million have cell phones. Almost 95 percent of the phones are prepaid.

The initiative plans to broadcast millions of health messages every month to phones across South Africa.

“This is the largest ever use of cell phones for health information,” said Gustav Praekelt, one of the project’s originators.

There is near universal coverage,” said Praekelt during the launch of the project. “And in the absence of other services, the mobile phone has become the central component for people to get access to information.”

Organizers say ‘Project M’ will offer South Africans the privacy to get tested and pursue treatment options and counseling by staff who are HIV positive themselves.

The system sends the messages using a so-called “Please Call Me” (PCM) service. This free form of text messaging, common across Africa, allows someone without any phone credit to send a text to a friend asking them to call.

Each sent PCM message has the words “Please Call Me,” the phone number of the caller, and space for an additional 120 characters. The extra space is normally filled with advertising, which helps offset the cost of running the service.

The message reads: “Frequently sick, tired, losing weight and scared that you might be HIV positive? Please call AIDS Helpline 0800012322.”

Encouraging people to get tested is a huge challenge in a country where people with the AIDS virus still face stigma and shame.

However, ‘Project M’ appears to be having an impact, since it was initiated in October.

“We have observed a dramatic increase in the call rate to the AIDS Helpline — from approximately 1,300 calls per day to a new average of 3,600,” said Milo Zama, Projects Development Manager for LifeLine, one of the partners.

Trained operators provide callers with accurate healthcare information, and referrals to local testing clinics

Many of the messages are broadcast in English and in local languages such as Zulu.

Political Robocalls in Ghana

Political robocalls are nothing new in the US. Many people regard them as more a curse than a blessing. So some may not see this as a great leap forward. Still, I suspect the trend may be just beginning in Ghana. David Ajao reports from right before the December 7 general election:

A Phone Call from Nana Akufo-Addo
By Oluniyi David Ajao
December 4th, 2008

When I saw a call on my cellular phone from a number +233 10 0000, my heart missed a bit. And why not? This was a very strange phone number that I know does not exist but I still answered the phone, albeit cautiously. Lo and behold, it was the voice of the ruling NPP’s Presidential candidate Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, speaking in Twi and essentially asking me to vote for him. The message lasted exactly 45 seconds.

I could tell that it was a recorded message. This must be one of the last minute campaign strategies by the New Patriotic Party, to sway the floating voters. I can see that we are indeed moving forward with technology in Ghana.

Unfortunately Nana, I am not an eligible voter. All the same, may the best man win!