The Price is Right: Working with youth in DRC to text back market prices

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Generally, food price data collection is the domain of grizzled enumerators, who scour markets, pencil and clipboard in hand. The use of SMS technology helps us deal with price data collection in a way that is quick, cheap and fun. Here’s a flavor of what we have tried in Goma, DRC.

Youthsourcing in DR Congo 

When we were setting up the 2 way communication system that involves sharing food prices with the community by cell phone, we faced the problem of finding cell-phone savvy people to help us out. Our local staff told us to consider working with youth.

Enter Alain, a statistics student, and Pauline, a community development student at the University of Goma.  We were impressed by their CVs and their eagerness. So we asked them if they would be interested in working with mVAM.  Note: we are not using their real names here because they are anonymously collecting prices.

Soon, the students were trained in SMS (the training was not long – it’s just like texting one of your friends!).  Once a week, they go to Goma’s three biggest markets to check prices from different vendors.  We text them an SMS price questionnaire, and they text us back prices of 15 commodities. They receive a modest amount of airtime credit as a token of appreciation.  To make sure they are getting the right prices, they ask both vendors and people who just bought food how much they paid.

We also check the data quality, and bottom line, the students did a great job! At the beginning, we had a little problem with our fish price question. There are different types and sizes available on the Goma market…arias, lazeria, capitaine, anguille, tilapia…so we were getting back huge, confusing price ranges. When starting market price monitoring by SMS, it’s very important to use clear, local units of measurements. To standardize, we picked tilapia and asked the students to monitor the price for a 300g fish.  This did the trick, and from then on, the fish price data has been reliable.

We’re pleased to be working with motivated and tech-savvy Congolese youth!

Fish for sale in a Goma market

Fish for sale in a Goma market

After getting back the prices by SMS every week, we average them and post the updated market prices in Swahili to our IVR (Interactive Voice Response) server in Goma. People can call in for free and navigate menus to find out food prices, listen to food distribution information or leave us a message. (For more details on how the 2 way communication system works, check out this previous blog entry.)

Call us back! 2-Way Communication advertised in Mugunga 3 camp in Goma, DRC

Call us back! 2-Way Communication advertised in Mugunga 3 camp in Goma, DRC

This fall, we are exploring the feasibility of expanding market prices monitoring to the Beni, a conflict area north of Goma. There are about 45,000 IDPs living with host families in Eringite, Mbau, and Mvivi in the Beni territory. If we can get youth or other people in the Beni community involved in market price SMS collection, hopefully the IDPs could go to the market with a better idea of food prices.

2 thoughts on “The Price is Right: Working with youth in DRC to text back market prices

  1. I have recently read the the case study about the mVAM project in DR Congo. I am planning an implementation of an IVR system in Congo for an accountability project in the education sector. Is it possible to share more information about the IVR system you used and the contractor (if available) who helped you implement it?

    My questions are:
    1-Was the tool custom developed or open source?
    2-Did you conclude an agreement with the telco; if so which one(s); and how long did it take?
    3-Do you have any lessons learned about uptake/use of the product?

    Many thanks in advance

  2. Hi and thanks for getting in touch with us!

    We work with InSTEDD and use their free and open source products. In the case of IVR, we used Verboice. At the beginning, we used the off the shelf product, but customized it a few months ago to meet our needs. This new, customized version of Verboice is available on InSTEDD’s website. In DRC, our own IT staff installed Verboice on a laptop connected to a 2 channel modem. InSTEDD provided remote support for both installation and troubleshooting. We were lucky our local office has strong IT capacity and they sorted out a lot of the issues that came up during the initial setup.

    We did not conclude an agreement with the local telco yet because the approval process needed to obtain a shortcode is long. We configured the IVR to ‘call back’ people who give our number a missed call. This ensures calls are free for beneficiaries.

    Our advice would be to be very patient in the early stages of the project; our own timelines had to be pushed back many times. Moreover, enable local colleagues to become familiar with the tool until they have the capacity to play around. Ultimately by tinkering, they will find the best way to get uptake. Our colleagues had to spend a lot of time in the camp to understand people’s information needs and design the IVR to be user-friendly, so be prepared to repeatedly engage face to face with your target group before and during roll out.

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