For the largest civil society media platform in Tanzania, back talk is good.
In fact, talking back is the objective of a new service at Femina HIPcalled Speak Up! The service aims to increase access of marginalized youth and rural communities and promote a participatory, user-driven media scene in Tanzania.
Femina HIP is the largest civil society media platform in the country, outside of commercial mainstream media. Products include print magazines, television shows, a radio program, and an interactive web site. Fema magazine, for example, has a print run of over 170,000 copies and is distributed to every rural region in the country.
Over the last few years, Femina HIP has encouraged its audience to connect and comment by sending letters, email, and SMS messages. And comment people did. Dr. Minou Fuglesang, executive director of Femina HIP, said the platform was nearly drowning in messages. Speak Up! is a service that offers a more automated, organized way to receive and respond to incoming SMS messages. The service is funded for one year.
MobileActive.org spoke with Dr. Fuglesang and Diana Nyakyi, both of Femina HIP, to learn more about Speak Up!
Drowning in Messages
In the last few years, Femina HIP encouraged its audience to email or send letters. Over time, it added an SMS option. It worked: “We’ve just been drowning in SMS messages, from across the country, of people who want to participate and express their view” Fuglesang said.
It became clear to the team that SMS needed to be handled more systematically. With the Speak Up! service, the message flow is more systematic and organized. Femina HIP is better equipped to respond to comments and queries. A more automated system also helps Femina HIP embrace the young community — one that feels a growing need to organize and participate, Fuglesang said.
How it Works
Femina HIP uses an application built by Starfish Mobile, a wireless application service provider. All SMS messages are sent to the same shortcode (15665) and the Starfish application sorts messages according to keyword. (The sender has to begin the message with the keyword of the product they wish to address, be it Fema magazine or the Ruka Juu na Fema TV Talk Show.)
Femina HIP staff members access the application from web-based dashboard, where they can view all incoming messages across products. Virtually all messages received are in Swahili. “It is very rare to get a message in English, let alone other languages,” said Diana Nyakyi of Femina HIP. “Though if we do receive something in English, it is considered just as much as any other SMS in Swahili in terms of feedback value.”
The Speak Up! service works in collaboration with local mobile providers, since the shortcode is “bound” to the providers, Nyakyi said. “However, we are keen on having a more engaging and beneficial relationship with them [the mobile operators] as partners, and some have shown interest.”
Femina HIP wants to talk back to its audience, too.
When an individual sends an SMS to the Femina HIP shortcode, he or she receives an automatic confirmation. Senders’ phone numbers are automatically entered in a database, which allows Femina HIP staff to further respond to individuals. Often, this is to simply say thank you for the message. But staff can also access and respond to urgent or serious messages, including questions on issues of health, sex, suicide, or requests for advice. Currently, Femina HIP has a list of about 30,000 active mobile numbers.
The Speak Up! database can also be sorted by categories such as keyword, time submitted (date, week, month), or by phone network. Statistics are available, including which phone numbers have had the most interactions with the system, and whether the interactions were via SMS vote or SMS comment. The ability to sort allows the staff to group SMS messages around content themes and inform people about relevant, upcoming programs.
Speak Up! wants the audience to become agenda setters, claiming to achieve “a more inclusive public debate and a more investigative reporting that mirrors everyday life in Tanzania.”
Challenges and Lessons
There has been a learning curve for Femina HIP and the Speak Up! service. For example, it has been challenging to help the audience understand how to send SMS to an automated service. “It’s not as easy as it sounds because people have to understand how to use the shortcode and our key words,” Fuglesang said.
If someone misses a space or spells the key word incorrectly, for example, the SMS is marked “invalid” and ends up in the trash box.
Similarly, if people send a message that is over the 160-character limit of a text message, the second half of the message is also marked invalid. Currently, Starfish Mobile does not support these so-called concatenated SMS messages. “This is causing a problem, even though we ask our listeners to send us short messages,” Fuglesang said. “People write long messages.”
For example, Speak Up! had 900 responses to a recent question, but nearly 500 ended up in the trash bin because of error or length. While the messages can be retrieved, and the team is trying to do just that, “it does pose a bit of a headache,” Fuglesang said.
Another issue may be cost. While there is a cost to send a text message, sending an SMS to a shortcode actually carries a slightly higher cost, Fuglesang said. The average SMS costs roughly 60 TZS, while the minimum cost for a premium SMS is generally 150 TZS. “We are trying to monitor this to see if it affects the flow,” Fuglesang said.
Cast a Vote or Win a Prize?
Femina HIP has another participatory media program as part of thein the Ruka Juu na Fema TV Talk Show. For this As part of a entrepreneurship competition, viewers can vote for favorite candidates.
Viewers have the option to send an SMS to vote for one of 6 candidates. They also can have an option to send an SMS to answer a “question of the week.” People who send in correct answers are eligible to win prizes, such as a solar lamp that loads and charges a mobile phone.
“We thought people would be eager to vote for their favorite candidates,” Fuglesang said. After 8 episodes of the competition, the program had received more than 10,000 votes. “But we found they were more eager to answer the question of the week and win a prize.” This may be an important lesson for Femina HIP in regard to motivation, incentive, and prohibitive barriers such as SMS cost. “It’s an important lesson for us in terms of what we want to achieve,” Fuglesang said.
Update: A barbershop owner from Kibaha won 5 million shillings in the competition.
The Femina HIP Audience
Femina HIP with its media holdings reaches an estimated 10 million Tanzanians every year. Approximately 65% of all Tanzanians are under the age of 25, Fuglesang said. The media platform targets young people with information about sexual and reproductive rights, economics, entrepreneurship, and financial education.
Statistics show that while 2% of people in Tanzania access the Internet, around 35% have access to mobile technology and this rate is growing, Fuglesang said.
While “people love mobile phones,” many lack the ability to charge them, Fuglesang said. Around 70% of the population are involved in basic agriculture in rural areas, and only about 10% have regular access to electricity. Despite this, “mobile phones are a technology that is completely and perfectly adapted to the situation in Africa,” Fuglesang said. Mobile technology enables people to access the Internet, and to participate in and shape media content, as with Speak Up!
“We also have quite an agenda around strengthening access to information generally,” Fuglesang said. “This is a country where ordinary people in rural areas have difficulty accessing information about rights, responsibilities, and affairs of the nation, at all levels.” The Speak Up! agenda, then, is to not only educate about specific topics, but also to promote civic engagement.