Teach a Man to Text

By November 2, 2011 No Comments

Nicole Hildebrandt is a New York University/Center for Technology and Economic Development doctoral student working on a randomized control trial (RCT) on Esoko in Ghana. These are notes after her recent experience training farmers with the Esoko team. Thanks to CTED for the repost. 

Nicole observing farmers write a text message.

Nicole observing farmers write a text message.

It’s a challenge without any easy solutions.  I saw this first-hand at the Esoko training sessions I observed last month.  In the four-hour training sessions for the treatment group, the first three hours were devoted to Cell Phones 101 (how to navigate the menu, add a contact, check in Inbox, draft a message, and finally press “Send”).  Only the last hour was spent discussing the actual content of the Esoko messages, and how to use the information to obtain higher prices…and that was by far the portion of the training that was easiest for people to absorb. As a (late) twenty-something from the US, I’ve basically grown up using a mobile phone, so it’s hard for me to understand how people can not know how to send a text message (come on, mom, it’s not that hard!).  I think most people in my age cohort – and certainly all those high school and college kids out there who seem to be able to text without even looking at the screen – feel the same way.  Which was why I got some funny looks a few weeks back when I told friends that I was going to Ghana to help teach the farmers in our Esoko RCT how to send and receive a text message.

“You really have to teach a class on that?”

Miranda Pabby from Esoko showing how to navigate the phone menu.

Miranda Pabby from Esoko showing how to navigate the phone menu.

It turns out that, yes, the rural farmers in our study did indeed need a class on texting. Although cell phones are pervasive in Ghana, and have been for quite some time, it seems that many rural farmers have an extremely limited understanding about the functionality of their mobile phones.  Some statistics to give you a sense of the problem: of the 40 farmers that attended our final training session in Krachi West, 100 percent used their phones to make voice calls.  But less than one-quarter had ever written a text message, and less than one-third knew how to open and read a message sent to them by someone else.

This is real challenge for anyone who wants to try to introduce a mobile phone-based innovation in the developing world.  In addition to tackling illiteracy and the multiplicity of local languages, one needs to make sure there is sufficient “tech literacy” so that the intended user base can actually utilize the product.  This isn’t a groundbreaking realization, but it’s something that I don’t hear enough about in the tech-for-development sphere.  Sure, there is lots of talk about the importance of simplicity in application development, but even that presumes a very basic knowledge of mobile phones (like, knowing what an Inbox is) that may not exist in many populations.

Of course, a three-hour lesson isn’t enough to ensure that all of the farmers in our study will have the knowledge base to take advantage of the Esoko service.  Thankfully, Esoko has developed a phone-in help line available free to users, and they have a wide network of market enumerators that are available to farmers for additional help if needed.  All of this support increases the chances that farmers will be able to access and use the Esoko price information to make better-informed marketing decisions.  I wonder whether (and certainly hope that) other mobile-phone based applications in the developing world have similar supports in place to help address “tech illiteracy” among their user base.

Farmers from Nkwanta South at the training.

Farmers from Nkwanta South at the training.


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