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SMS and mobile phone campaigning

Short instant messaging (SMS) to cell phones potentially reaches a larger audience than e-mailing, as many people without easy access to a computer own a cell phone. For example, in 2008, there were some 300 million cell phone users in Africa. It is estimated that any individual with a minimum income of US$ 5/ day can afford a simple mobile phone (Ekine, 2010. SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa).

Inexpensive technologies send bulk SMS to many phone users, e.g. via internet services. Specialized software such as Frontline SMS enables a computer to carry out simultaneous two-way SMS conversations with many users, without any internet connection. Freedom Fone is a type of software that provides audio information phone-based users can listen to, rather than written messages via the internet.

Example: Freedom Fone is a free technology for communication and dissemination of information that can be used to reach diverse audiences. This technology is geared towards bridging the information divide, by providing access to critical information to populations that do not have access to television, are in remote areas or have low literacy levels. 

Freedome Fone is an application can be used by anyone to develop interactive voice response menus, which can then be connected to telephones through a server. When a caller phones a dedicated number, she or he hears a menu of options from which they choose the type of information they need by pressing numbers on their phone.

Illustrative uses:

The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe conducted weekly updates of civic and human rights information. See the video.

AWID used it to reach participants in its conference on Women’s Movements in 2008 and explored using it to end sexual violence against women and women’s rights defenders in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009.

SMS tools can be used for: 

  • Quick distribution of information to mobile phone users whose numbers are accessible, or who know which number they can call for campaign information.
  • Gathering of up-to-date information on events that are not documented by other media, and disseminating the information, e.g. via SMS, a website or other media.
  • Collecting virtual signatures for a petition.
  • Fundraising: in some countries, mobile phone banking services such as MPESA in Kenya make it possible to transfer money directly between mobile phone users. Some phone carriers or networks can also be fundraising partners (eg. during humanitarian crises) by offering subscribers an SMS number to use to make a donation.

Bear in mind:

  • When deciding to run an SMS campaign, weigh design and implementation costs against the benefits you can realistically anticipate – i.e., what proportion of your target audiences will you reach, and what actions can you expect them to undertake as a result of receiving the SMS?
  • SMS is not likely to reach people who cannot afford mobile phones or who cannot read messages in the language displayed. More women than men are in this situation, due to gaps in average income between women and men, and comparatively higher illiteracy rates among women. However, in Africa for example, women are more likely to regularly use a mobile phone than a computer (Ekine, 2010. SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa).
  • SMS campaigns that call for support by sending an SMS to a designated subscriber are more likely to succeed in mobilizing the targeted number of supporters if they provide a toll-free number they can message without being charged for it. This is not possible in some countries.

Mobile phones in campaigns – examples from Africa

EASSI Women’s Day SMS Campaign. As part of EASSI (Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women) campaigning around International Women’s Day in 2008, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) used SMS to send campaign messages and updates on campaign issues to people who subscribed to this free service. The goal was to raise awareness on violations of girl’s rights linked to the post-election violence in Kenya. Between 22 February and 14 March 2008, subscribers received daily SMS briefs on the human rights situation of girls in Kenya, the peace process and messages such as "Leaders should know that even the girl child can spearhead peace-making if given the chance.” All SMS sent out during the campaign were also posted on the WOUGNET blog.

SMS petitioning: The first mobile-phone based petition in Africa was devised by Fahamu and Solidarity with African Women's Rights (SOAWR) in 2004 to build public support for the ratification of the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, a key regional instrument for the protection of women’s rights. Supporters of the campaign were encouraged to text the word “Petition” and their names to be added to the list of petition signatories. Incoming messages were converted to e-mail; an up-to-date list of signatories was displayed on the campaign website. In addition to SMS and a dedicated website, the Pambazuka newsletter by Fahamu updated subscribers on the petition.

Overall, the Fahamu/ SOWAR campaign collected over 4,000 signatures from 29 countries, with roughly 10% (a few less than 450 persons) that submitted their signatures by SMS. Despite the seemingly low number of overall signatories, the campaign was considered to have successfully contributed to the ratification of the Protocol by at least 15 countries within one year. Using the innovative SMS technology arguably contributed to attracting attention to the campaign.

The book SMS Uprising: Mobile Activism in Africa, (Ekine, S., 2010) is available free of charge to African NGOs (email: info@pambazukapress.org). It provides a detailed discussion and additional examples as to how African activists have used mobile phone technology in campaigning.

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