(Internews' audio information project in South Sudan is covered in this article from UNHCR Innovation.)
Boda Boda Talk Talk: an idea that worked
A few years ago a friend working with Internews slapped a ‘Boda Boda Talk Talk’ sticker to my laptop and excitedly told me about the organization’s new project in South Sudan. Looking at the ‘BBTT’ emblazoned on my computer, I realized I didn’t know what a Boda Boda was – let alone how it could Talk Talk. Fast forward to early June this year: I’m meeting with a group of displaced women in a site in Juba who are as enthusiastic as my friend about BBTT. I was hooked.
Amongst the displaced people living in the site next to the UN Mission in Juba, BBTT ranks with radio as a one of the main preferred sources of information. The Internews initiative uses quad bikes – a variance on the traditional East African Boda Boda motorcycle taxis – kitted out with audio equipment. The bikes share pre-recorded information by playing amplified 25-minute radio shows at ‘Listening Points’ around the site. BBTT started in Tong Ping and now the information sharing activity has spread across sites in Juba. Regular assessments in these areas indicate that people find the audio recordings informative and useful. Whilst in Juba, I managed to see BBTT in action and saw how well it engaged community members who gathered around the quad bike for the latest updates.
Uganda: A similar BBTT ‘use-case’
Since July this year, over 290,000 people have arrived into Northern Uganda following an escalation of violence in South Sudan. A new settlement for refugees – Bidibidi – has been established in the West Nile region. As of November 8th 2016, there were over 200,000 people living in this new site. The settlement now covers 5 sub-counties in Yumbe district and is approximately 180 km2. The Emergency Lab joined colleagues from the Uganda operation and the surge Emergency Response Team to support UNHCR’s response to these new arrivals. Of course, there are immense challenges faced when establishing a new settlement the scale of Bidibidi, especially in such a short timeframe and in a very rural setting.
The Emergency Lab was specifically focusing on supporting communication with communities – identifying innovation solutions to help improve information-sharing and feedback in such a challenging context.
Being new to the settlement, many of the recent arrivals expressed the need for improved information on services available – including dates for food distributions, knowing where schools and health centers, as well as how to find family members. Based on our discussions with refugees and rapid information needs assessment, we found that people preferred to receive ‘audio information’. Low literacy levels limited the effectiveness of posters, leaflets and banners and the constantly changing context made these difficult to update. The size of Bidibidi is huge – it can take 1hr 30 to travel from one zone to another over rough roads – the information needs cannot be met by face-to-face communication alone. We needed a mobile, audio solution that could be rapidly established using local resources. Was this a use case for BBTT2?
Copy and pasting BBTT
On paper, BBTT could provide the channel and mobility that was needed in Bidibidi – so we were keen to test the initiative in this new context. We quickly realized that the newly cleared – very muddy – roads of Bidibidi were best navigated by a two-wheel drive Boda Boda. The two-wheel motorbike is a key form of transport in this part of the world, and a key way for people to generate income. Some people had brought motorbikes from South Sudan, with many others knowing how to ride. We weren’t short of drivers or bikes. To fit on the bike, we needed a lightweight amplifier that could be easily attached to the back of a standard motorbike. Working our way through a number of electronics shops in West Nile region, we initially found an amplifier, solar battery and loudspeaker option – not a perfect solution but good enough to start testing within just a few days. We quickly realized that the set-up had too many component parts, making it cumbersome. To improve the design, we were researched and were able to source a chargeable ‘static’ speaker with a USB/SD card port which proved to be far more portable.
Looking for an immediate ‘solution’ to information needs, we identified key concerns within the refugee community and we were quickly able to develop and record key messages with them. Initially concerned that we’d need to record in many languages – as there are over 60 indigenous to South Sudan – we were actually advised by refugees to only use English and Juba Arabic. These two languages are considered the most inclusive and would avoid us prioritizing or marginalizing a specific group – demonstrating how non-neutral language can be. We’d included the recordings with MP3s from a South Sudanese artist called Silver X, recommended by refugees for his messaging on peacebuilding and general positivity.
The first ‘copy and paste’ of BBTT was relatively successful. We’d identified Richard – a South Sudanese Boda Boda driver – who had been forced to leave his bike behind when he fled. Borrowing his cousin’s bike, we were able to secure the equipment using a car-tyre inner-tube. Who needs rope? Richard, began slowly riding around his neighborhood playing the information – stopping at market places, water points, and distribution areas to maximize the number of people who would hear the recordings. We worked together to identify listening spots – evolving quickly as services changed, markets emerged and structures were built. We also worked to establish a payment schedule to cover fuel costs and Richard’s time, so that we were able to roll-out BBTT six days a week. We were advised by refugees to avoid broadcasting on Sundays, to avoid disturbing church services.
Bidibidi’s Boda Boda: It’s good to ‘lose control’
To determine if BBTT could help meet the identified information needs, we wanted to continue testing it in different locations over a number of weeks. Given the scale of the settlement and the growing scope of Richard’s ‘rounds’, I knew I wasn’t going to have the direct oversight of BBTT that the control-freak in me would have preferred. Me ‘losing control’ was undoubtedly the best thing for BBTT – providing space for the project to evolve and adapt. This included the quick substitute of Celine Dion for Silver X. This is a music choice I would have never considered – but Richard assured us it was requested.
UNHCR colleagues and partners began actively engaging with BBTT – contacting Richard directly to share information. Responding to their requests, Richard opted to use the live microphone to share the most up-to-date information rather than the recordings. This evolution was very successful, as he was able to locally tailor the information and provide targeted details on the latest distributions or school opening hours. More importantly adopting the ‘live’ option enabled better interaction with communities as people would often call-out for further details and with requests for information. It was good to see this level of engagement with the communities, and Richard was able to come back to use with any questions and information needs raised through these ‘amplified discussions’.
BBTT has evolved well to the Bidibidi context. During our follow-up assessments, there was good feedback from the community and the majority of refugees polled were able to recall details of the information they had heard and found it useful. In discussions, people told us that they thought it was a good channel for sharing up-to-date information on relevant local issues. Group discussions with refugees also provided feedback on how to improve Bidibidi’s BBTT with more ‘magazine-style’ content such as sports updates and current affairs. Based on this initial success we’re planning to work with our partner The International Rescue Committee to scale BBTT, expanding the number of drivers and speakers across the settlement. The project will definitely continue to adapt to stay relevant and effective in settlement of over 200,000 people. I’m certainly excited to see how it evolves.
Innovation or imitation?
Is BBTT in Bidibidi innovative or have I just stolen Internews’ idea? With a guilty conscience, I discussed this concern with John, my Emergency Lab colleague, and managed to absolve most of my guilt. BBTT is a great idea. Internews’ research and the community feedback in South Sudan demonstrates its effectiveness at improving access to trusted sources of information. A top-down, cookie-cutter transplantation of BBTT into the Uganda context would have been pure imitation.
While this may have been the sincerest form of flattery for Internews, it certainly wouldn’t have been as effective as the current Bidibidi-based initiative. To work, the idea needed to evolve organically and quickly to the context. With Richard leading this evolution he was able to continuously make contextually appropriate improvements. Richard created value from the initial idea – simply put, this is innovation.