Africa Calling: Freedom Fone

With many farmers in the developing world not having access to the internet or a computer, the ability to get information delivered and give remote communities a voice via interactive technology is a welcome arrival.

Many of us in the Western world will already be familiar with ringing up a call centre and confronted with a voice menu with options to choose from e.g. “Press 1 for scream”, but for Farmers located in rural Africa this type of technology opens up a vital world of communication.

Freedom Fone (http://freedomfone.org) is a platform that uses an ordinary mobile or landline together with Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology, to deliver audio information in any language.  The technology allows a system to detect voice and keyboard input, which means people can listen and/or contribute audio content such as questions or feedback.  It’s simple, affordable technology.

Free calls can be made by providing a toll-free number and callers can contribute by leaving voice messages or listening to information updates.  Kubatana.net (http://kubatana.net), the parent organisation of Freedom Fone, in Zimbabwe, says “there is no geographical or community size restrictions to the implementation”.

The technology could be invaluable to delivering critical and timely information in emergency situations.  For example, typhoid epidemics or providing support for victims of abuse.  This could also open up opportunities for companies to reach individuals who have valuable skills and business ideas to contribute.

Farm Radio International (http://www.farmradio.org), is an organisation which uses radio, in conjunction with partner broadcasters, to reach thousands of remote communities.  Under their African Farm Radio Research Initiative (AFRRI) project, they intend to introduce new technologies and have recently gone live with Freedom Fone on two radio stations in Tanzania and Ghana.

They reported that on one radio station, the hotline received 2,499 calls, with messages lasting anywhere between 10 seconds and three minutes.  Farmers rang in with their stories of what they had learnt from the broadcast.

However, the technology is not without its challenges, not least power, along with the quality of hardware used, staff training and callers being confused by how to use the system.  For example, after running an interactive poll at one of the radio stations, some callers were confused about how to submit a vote.  Aside from this, the initial response from all sides has been extremely positive.  Another project is planned to be run at Rite FM (http://www.ritefmonline.com), a radio station outside the greater Accra region in Ghana.

Other future plans include the launch of Freedom Fone Version 2.5, due to be made available in December 2010.  This new version will include a function which allows a call back facility.  The idea being that this could allow users to purchase prepaid airtime, for unlimited monthly access.  Subscribers would be informed whenever useful or critical information appears.

To sum up, Bartholomew Sullivan, a regional ICT Officer for AFRRI, says “We believe that voice is still the richest medium for getting information to rural people.  The challenge is to also not cut out those people who are not super savvy and keep it as simple as possible”.

Related articles/websites/sources:

http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2010/08/how-freedom-fone-helped-create-participatory-radio-in-africa215.html

http://www.nten.org/blog/2010/08/31/press-2-chickens-innovating-radio-stations-africa

http://www.freedomfone.org/

http://kubatana.net/html/ff/ff_cont.asp

http://www.farmradio.org/english/donors/home.asp

Georgina Micklethwaite writes for AfricanBrains and also has her own blog – http://worldofmick.wordpress.com