Literacy and Community Empowerment with Mobiles: The Jokko Initiative

Posted by LeighJaschke on Aug 06, 2009

The number of women in Tostan villages that have abandoned the practice of female genital cutting is powerful testimony of the organization's impact. The tradition is centuries old. “Since 1997, 3,792 communities in Senegal, 364 in Guinea, and 23 in Burkina Faso, as well as villages from three other African countries, have joined other women [who have participated in Tostan's basic education program] in abandoning this harmful practice,” notes the Tostan website.

Now Tostan, an international development organization, is exploring the use of mobile technology in its work.

Tostan has partnered with UNICEF in a year-long pilot project in which several Senegalese communities are exploring the use of a mobile communications platform built with RapidSMS.  The Jokko Initiative, (Jokko means "communication" in Wolof, a regional language in Senegal) aims to become a practical, low-cost system that encourages group decision-making in the villages.  RapidSMS is a free and open-source framework for mobile communications that is leveraging SMS/text messaging.

Tostan has a decidedly community-driven approach to development.  The organization's signature program is the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) that runs for 30 months. The majority of participants in the CEP are girls and women who have participated in programs in over 2,600 communities and nine countries. The CEP has strong social empowerment, literacy, and economic empowerment components to help give marginalized groups a voice and improved access when it comes to services in health, education, and social inclusion.

Mobiles for Literacy

Tostan has worked in literacy in Senegal for over eighteen years; its model has been identified by many including UNICEF, the WHO, and others as an exemple for rural development. In a recent interview with, Gannon Gillespie, Director of US operations, explained that the Tostan Literacy Program is the point of entry for the use of mobile phones, helping participants practice reading and writing skills and to reinforce math skills and numeracy.  Participants begin by identifying and typing familiar letters, such as their name, and using the phone calculator for basic addition and subtraction.

Mobile phone penetration in Senegal has grown to over 85%; phones are owned by many adults and children. Members of the communities where Tostan works speak about learning how to use their phones autonomously as a personal means of communication, to compute prices in the market, or send an SMS. These are the everyday social uses of literacy that the mobile literacy component of Tostan's program teaches. 

The Jokko Initiative

The second way in which Tostan is deploying mobile tech is by building a RapidSMS-powered mobile list-serve that texts everyone in the community. The UNICEF Innovation Team, Dimagi, and The Center of Evaluation for Global Action (CEGA) worked with the Tostan Program staff in the Cassamance region to help launch the pilot.

Jokko makes it possible to communicate with a network of people by sending a text message. This means that a nurse, literacy leader, representative of a women’s association, or the village imam can communicate with community members about events or other important activities in the village (for example, a vaccination campaign or a literacy group meeting). Jokko works by sending a message to a number that then forwards the message to all phone numbers belonging to the network.

The communications system utilizes a functionality dubbed 'SMSForum.'  SMSForum allows community members to access a server in the Tostan office by sending their text to a “magic number”. This number feeds directly into the server or computer which then forward the SMS to a group of community members phones. The platform supports easy and dynamic creatin of multiple groups of people. For example, one village  has created a discussion group exclusively for youth. The basics of this system work much like a group list for text-messaging, however, the sender is only charged for the cost of one local text message. The cost of text messages sent to the “magic number” are covered by the administrator, in this case Tostan.

Part of the power of this trial is that it is community-driven. Rather than place restrictions on what messages can be sent and received, various groups in the communities are trained on the basic functions of the system and then define their own uses.

According to Guillaume Debar and Sylvan Herskowitz, two members of the project team, the first message on the blog was a shout-out sent by a group of young girls, and the second was a poem. Potential uses include community discussions, events, and mobilization – with each community defining how they will use their network.

By October, Tostan hopes to introduce the community communications platform to 40 villages in Senegal, and to bring the total number of villages using the platform to 200 within a year. 

Jeff Wishnie, Director of Social Engagement at ThoughtWorks, played a critical role in developing the platform. He was quick to point out in a chat with that this is the first time he has seen a RapidSMS application being driven by a community.

Rowena Luk of Dimagi, a software development firm, and part of the UNICEF/RapidSMS development team, told MobileActive:  "Some of the challenges of setting up the platform in Senegal included “extending the web and SMS system to work for Wolof, Pulaar, and Diola, and supporting local language characters such as ‘ŋ’ and ‘å’ on mobile phones. Also, because we are targeting low-literacy users, it was vital for us to design explicitly for that learning process – providing very low barriers to entry, for example, giving clear feedback, and making best-guess recommendations for mistyped commands.”

In the end, the team chose to internationalize the system, allowing translators to build out both the web and SMS interface to support any language in any country that they are working in. At the moment, Tostan is still paying per message. This raises certain questions of sustainability, although there is potential for collaboration with network providers in Senegal, as in other countries.

For now, the project is based on the ambiguous idea of communication groups in a system, grouped by village or community. There is a diversity within users that includes Community Health Workers, teachers, untrained community health agents or ’Mobilizers’, and the women's literacy group. The initial training varied between each of these groups. More experienced mobile phone users were taught to send messages while newer users received training that focused on how to receive a message.

Access to other services

One of the most important aims of integrating mobile technology into the Literacy program and experimenting with Jokko, the community communications platform, are access to other community services, particularly in health. For example, the ability to receive and read text messages might allow community members to read alerts about vaccination campaigns, or receive follow-up reminders for Malaria or Malnutrition treatment from community health care workers. Considering recent advances in mHealth represented by RapidResponse, FrontlineSMS Medic, and OpenMRS, there is much to be gained by communities that are mobile literate and able to take advantage of strong social networks. 

Unexpected outcomes

There are unexpected positive impacts of innovating the way mobiles are integrated into communities in the Cassamance. In Kagama, for example, the Tostan team received news from the local school teacher that attendance has risen since mobile literacy was included in Tostan's basic education program.

Photo courtesy Tostan

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