Souktel: Jobs and Aid via SMS

Posted by CorinneRamey on Jun 09, 2008

Getting information in the West Bank in Palestine can be difficult. Public transportation is fragmented and some 500 checkpoints around the area make travel time-consuming and difficult. Most people don't have regular Internet access, and newspapers are expensive. A project called Souktel has stepped in to fill this information gap. The service, launched in 2006, uses SMS to connect users to two services: job opportunities and humanitarian aid. The name comes from "souk," the Arabic word for "marketplace," and "tel," or "telephone."

Jacob Korenblum, co-founder of Souktel, talked with MobileActive about the project. "At least 80% of people in the West Bank have cellphones, but Internet access is a problem for people here," Korenblum said. "So getting information about medical care, jobs, and food bank services can be difficult." Although there are Internet cafes, Korenblum said that many people, especially women, lack access to these services. "We wanted to develop a very simple service," Korenblum said. "That's how Souktel started."

Korenblum who is Canadian, said that although he has been working in the aid sector since 2000, his personal interest in Palestine began in 2005 "I came to the West Bank to work for an NGO. The main things I realized was that there wasn't so much a lack of aid, but rather a lack of good ways to find out about it." The idea for Souktel was born when Korenblum was a masters student at Harvard as part of a Reynolds Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship. Korenblum returned to Palestine in 2006, where the SMS platform was developed. Currently, Souktel is run by a team of six people, four of whom are Palestinian.

Souktel is a combination of two services -- JobMatch and AidLink. JobMatch is an SMS service that connects people seeking jobs with employers. Job seekers can register via SMS with Souktel, and then, through a series of text messages, enter details about themselves into the system. These include location, skills, career interests, and level of education. Whenever the job seeker is looking for a job, he/she can text "match me" to Souktel to receive an instant list of jobs that matches the resume that is already stored in the Souktel system. The job listings include phone numbers so that the job seeker can call potential employers to set up an interview. Korenblum said that the service has helped match over 2,000 job seekers with jobs, and that at least 400 job seekers use the service each month. Every week they receive about 10 jobs that are registered in the system. "Generally we're matching at least 20 people with jobs per week," Korenblum said. JobLink users tend to be between the ages of 18 and 25.

AidLink, on the other hand, tends to attract older users, between the ages of 25 and 50. The service aims to connect humanitarian agencies with people who are looking for aid. Aid agencies can create mailing lists, and then send out SMS alerts to people when aid is available. For example, a sample message on the Souktel website reads, "Emergency food baskets ready for all new mothers in North and Central Region. Come to main mosque at 3 pm on Tue, with your ID card. Call Suha at 0599-221667 if need more info." The agencies can target the messages so that only members of certain demographics or in specific geographical areas receive the messages. Aid agencies can use the service to conduct surveys as well. Korenblum said that about 15 aid agencies currently use AidLink, and that the aid agencies reach about 3,000 people combined.

One of the challenges that Souktel has faced, said Korenblum, is promoting SMS as a viable way to find a job. "People use SMS socially, they don't use it as a resource. There's a lot of skepticism at the start," he said. "We have to tell people that we don't get you the job, we get you the information about the job." He said it was initially hard to get employers to understand that Souktel's system was a good way to find employees, but that this is no longer a problem. "Now employers come to us, we don't have to go out and find them," he said.

The character limit of the SMS messages has also been a challenge. " There's a 70 character limit in Arabic," Korenblum said. "Conveying clear meaning in 70 characters is a challenge."

Souktel's popularity has grown largely through word of mouth. "All of our marketing is grassroots and viral," Korenblum said. "That may change, but so far that's the way that Palestinian society works." Some of Souktel's larger clients also market the service. According to Korenblum, Souktel is largely self-sustaining. Aid agencies and employers pay a user fee that helps to cover basic costs. He said that both have found the fee to be more than worthwhile. "Even by paying us a user fee aid agencies are cutting down on six phone calls," he said. "They are increasing scope and decreasing the amount of time they spend on outreach." Job seekers also pay the service 10 cents per message that they receive (signing up is free). Souktel works on all mobile phone networks in the area.

In the future, Korenblum hopes to develop a version of the JobMatch system in South America and a version of the survey component of AidLink for nonprofits in the United States. He also hopes that Souktel will continue to grow and develop in the West Bank. "I would like it to become a fully self-sustaining enterprise in the West Bank." he said. "SMS is pervasive. It is also by far the most cost-effective way for people to get the information they need."

wonderful way to use mobile phone

Hello all,

 It is a great way to provide social services to people in need.  I am wondering if this initiative can be taken by Afghan mobile companies.  It seems, the majority of Afghans have mobiles phones, since land phones are not fully available or functioning.  There are so many aid agencies/NGOs as well as international govts. and UN agencies who can benefit from this method.  I was thinking about the use of mobile phones for the upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan as well... It certainly will face many logistical obsticles, but, I see the potential.

 Perhaps, I should contact the big mobile company founder in Afghanistan as well as as few other NGOS, aid agenices to look into this amazing tool.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><p><br> <b><i><blockquote>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options