We’ll call you back: 2 way communication in DR Congo.

This blog has explained how WFP phone surveys in a displaced person’s camp in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. At some point, we realized that people in the camp were using the devices and airtime they received from us to call up the local WFP office and ask about upcoming food distributions. They would also call relatives to get news from home, and receive mobile money transfers. Somehow, by implementing phone surveys, we had also – quite unintentionally – been empowering people in what happens to be an isolated and vulnerable community.

Clearly, the technologies we use to collect information could be used to share information with people in the camp, and make life a little easier. We soon began working on what we would become the 2-way communication system (2WCS – apologies for the ugly acronym, but we are a UN agency after all).


Thanks to a grant by Cisco Corporate Responsibility and technical support from InSTEDD, the 2WCS is now up and running in Mugunga 3 camp. Beneficiaries can now call our interactive voice server to listen to pre-recorded Swahili voice files and leave voice messages for our operators. The folks at InSTEDD helped us set up the IVR to ‘call back’ people after receiving a missed call. That way, anyone can call up the server without spending a cent on airtime – an essential issue to ensure participation, because most of people in the camp can’t afford the price of a phone call. Setting the machine up took some trial and error. In particular, there was also the horrifying experience of the IVR machine going AWOL and randomly calling us up dozens of time in the middle of the night (due to a problem now known as the ‘Lucia bug’).

The IDPs told us that they wanted regular information on food prices (to learn about how we collect prices,  check out this previous blog entry), WFP distribution dates, and the security situation in the villages where they come from. These are the issues we focused on in our first iteration of the 2WCS.

Focus group in Mugunga

Focus group in Mugunga

The 2WCS has some features that should be attractive for callers. In addition to our ‘call back’ system that makes calls free, we use the voice of Mireille, the WFP operator in Goma, for the recordings in Goman Swahili. The community at the camp knows Mireille well, which will hopefully make the experience feel familiar.

We will keep an eye on the traffic on the IVR to understand how it’s doing and of course continue doing focus groups to assess whether the 2WCS is meeting people’s needs.

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