“There’s no such thing as free internet”?

Sensitizing refugees in Malawi about Free Basics

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WFP/Khataza Jere

We last reported on ‘Za Pamsika’, our Free Basics initiative in Malawi that shares nationwide food prices, back in April, so we wanted to update you on our progress. Free Basics is one of mVAM’s newest projects and part of our two-way communication systems. Through these methods, we do not only directly ask our beneficiaries and local communities for information, but we also share useful information with them, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns in return.

Malawi hosts more than 33,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Most of them have fled conflict in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo and live in two refugee camps where WFP offers food assistance in the form of monthly in-kind distributions and cash-based transfers. It, therefore, seemed like an essential area of expansion for our existing Free Basics sites. By offering the camp population access to information about food prices and markets in and around the camp, WFP hopes to increase transparency and ensure refugees do not pay unfairly high prices.

In our previous Free Basics feasibility research, we identified several challenges including low levels of internet-enabled phone ownership, digital literacy, and a lack of awareness about Free Basics. To see if we would encounter the same challenges when implementing the tool in refugee settings in Malawi, our country office colleagues recently visited the Dzaleka refugee camp. During this visit, they wanted to find out: Is Free Basics reaching the people in the camp? How do they respond to the idea of using WFP’s Free Basics site? And how could we improve the way we provide information to them?

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WFP/Khataza Jere

Our concerns that most refugees would not have access to internet-enabled mobile phones or would not be sufficiently digitally literate to use Free Basics were mistaken. Communicating with relatives and colleagues back home is very important to refugees, so having an internet-enabled phone that allows them to use internet-based chat apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger is a priority. We also discovered that Microsoft, in collaboration with UNHCR, had distributed 949 smartphones for ‘AppFactory’, its project designed to enable young people to learn software development skills. In fact, approximately seven out of every ten refugees own phones and are computer literate in Dzaleka – and Microsoft is planning to distribute even more devices. This will make it easier for us to spread the word about Free Basics and means that we could easily train refugees to show each other how to use it.

Overall, the people we met responded enthusiastically to Free Basics. As their ability to move outside of the camp is limited, Free Basics can give them access to the wider picture of market data and food prices. This will allow them to compare these prices with those of the markets where they buy food so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. A key suggestion from the people in the camp was to add information about the stock levels of different commodities at the markets to the Free Basics site – this would allow users to plan their purchases and meals accordingly.

Initially, many people were skeptical about whether the website is free. WFP, therefore, showed them Free Basics on a phone which had no credit on it or checked the balance before and after using the website to convince them that Free Basics was, indeed, free. While we won’t need to do as much digital literacy training as we had anticipated, we still need to do more sensitization with refugees. Once this hurdle is cleared, the future for Free Basics in Malawi looks bright as refugees can use the site and are eager to do so, particularly if we add extra useful information such as food stock levels.


Also published on Medium.

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