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Can you hear me now?

August 2, 2011

Cell phones revolutionizing relief efforts in Africa

Cell phone use in Africa is dramatically impacting how relief work is done.

Cell phone use in Africa is dramatically impacting how relief work is done.

Several months ago, I made my first trip to Africa with World Vision and toured some of the most impoverished villages where we’re working. I was shocked to see that just about every family we met had a cell phone! You’d literally drive hours down bumpy roads and at arrive at a small, remote community in the middle of nowhere and people were struggling just to get food on a daily basis. And yet, we were able to call these families in advance to tell them we’re coming!?!

Turns out many phone companies in Africa are giving away cell phones or selling phone card minutes for as little as a handful of pennies. Here in Kenya, I’m told nearly half the population now has access to a cell phone. Phone companies have spent the past several years really boosting up their infrastructure, which means that people can call from the most rural areas of the country.

What’s really exciting is that during a severe drought situation such as this one, cell phones are becoming game-changers for responding to those in need! Turns out families who need help are able to get cash donations texted directly to their cell phones, using a new technology called M-PESA. Basically a code is simply text to a mobile phone and the recipient can go to any number of places (local stores, ATM machines, etc) available throughout the country to cash it in. And Kenya was the first country in the world to have access to this new technology! How cool is that?

Cell phones are revolutionizing the way relief organizations are responding in the Horn of Africa. While some are experimenting with sending cash donations to people, World Vision is preparing a pilot project to make health care information more accessible through text message alerts. That means that cell phones are not only allowing people to get the resources they need right away, but they’re even cutting down on diseases. People seeking food no longer have to walk long distances and expose themselves to a greater risk of malaria or cholera.

Now when I travel to these remote areas and see someone holding a cell phone, I’m no longer shocked …

I just smile and think of that popular “Can you hear me now?” commercial being changed to “Can you help me now?”

And thankfully the answer here in Africa is YES!

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