What we found at the market: using Free Basics in Malawi

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We wrote to you back in November about one of our new innovations – our Free Basics website ‘Za Pamsika’ where we’re posting commodity prices using the weekly price data we’re collecting through our mVAM operators on a free website. We said that the project had the potential to reach millions of Malawians – well, a lot has happened since then.

Rather than continuing to willfully upload prices while watching our user statistics go up and down, we went to Malawi to carry out a short ground truth study and get some first hand user feedback.  The aim of the mission was to investigate the best way of using the website and interrogate the assumptions we’d made when designing it.

With this in mind, we tried to answer two big questions:

  1. Who can access our website – what are the potential barriers and how can we work around them?
  2. Do Malawians really want a website where they can find out maize and beans prices?

So we went to rural and urban markets in the Central and Southern regions to speak to the mVAM traders and the consumers in their markets about their mobile phone usage and market activity and to get their feedback on the website.

What kind of answers did we get?

First – access issues. While you don’t need a smartphone to access the website we knew that mobile penetration in Malawi is low. So we were most worried about the prevalence of internet-enabled phones and network coverage. From our study we found out that while we aren’t going to be able to reach everyone in Malawi via a website, we can still communicate with people. Network coverage was a problem in some areas. However, overall we found that most of the traders had internet enabled phones or wanted to buy one. We also found that Malawi’s MNOs have been recently trying to push out better network coverage. All good news for future reach of the website.

Actually the biggest barrier was language and literacy. While English is the national language of Malawi, most of the literate people we spoke to were much more comfortable reading and writing in Chichewa because that’s what they were taught in. While they were very enthusiastic about the website content when it was explained to them, they found the initial design (all in English and text heavy) confusing and difficult to use. Luckily this is an easy change to make so we did a quick redesign of the website and translated it into Chichewa:

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With our new design we headed back into the markets and got much better feedback. Rather than just saying that they liked the website content they could really interact with it and were making comments on the different maize and beans prices.

The second barrier we found was digital literacy. Many of the people we spoke to had internet-enabled phones but either didn’t know how to use them or didn’t even realise that they had the internet on them! Unlike the language change this is not a quick fix. This was particularly prominent amongst the women we spoke to, none of whom were comfortable with mobile internet. We’re therefore going to partner with civil society organisations promoting digital literacy. WFP has a network of partners and farmers on the ground who they reach out to with climate information so we’re going to try and use these focal points to communicate our prices with vulnerable populations and communities who have limited access to information.

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But do Malawians really want a ‘Za Pamsika’ website?

It turned out that maize and beans prices really are something that people want to see on the website. The recent drought was on everyone’s minds and they were really emphasising how much of a difference getting a good price could make. People were also already using their phones to get prices – by calling their friends or other traders in different areas and were quite enthusiastic about the possibility of getting this information for free.

With these learnings in mind and feeling confident with our website redesign and excited to be working closely with the country office, we embarked on our next steps. We now have a new focal point in the Lilongwe office who’s looking after the project and in a much better placed position than us in Rome to reach out to millions of Malawians. By this point over 25,000 people had already visited the Za Pamsika website but we knew our reach could be much further. We therefore started experimenting with ways of advertising the website.

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First – we decided to take out a Facebook ad to try and raise the site profile so we created our own ‘Za Pamsika’ page on Facebook and put out some ads in English and Chichewa. We were pretty excited when they started showing up on Malawian colleagues’ Facebook newsfeeds and within 10 days we’d reached more than 130,000 people and got 650 likes to our Facebook page.

What we didn’t expect was the organic reaction we’d get to our page. Within 3 days we’d not only reached more than 80,000 people with our post, we’d also seen that people started having conversations about maize prices on our advert.  People have also started messaging us about whether we can add their market to our website. We’re also getting comments about what other commodities we should add, for instance more seasonal foods such as groundnuts or soya. Most excitingly we even had someone knock on the door of the sub-office to inquire about the website after seeing our advert!

On a second mission in April we went out to the markets in Lilongwe again armed with our new ‘Za Pamsika’ posters. We were putting them up in the trader’s shops and were pretty quickly swamped with people excited about the website and how it could save them money. But again – everyone was asking us to add more food prices to the site – it seems like Malawians just keep wanting to know more about ‘things you find in the market’!

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So what’s next for Za Pamsika?

We’ve got our new focal point Khataza on board who’s taking charge of the website. First up, taking requests into account, we will be adding other seasonal commodities to the website. We’re going to continue experimenting with our Facebook ads and start using our Facebook page to reach out and engage with people about what they’d like on the page. We’ve also got some new partnerships coming up with civil society organisations who are keen to spread the word about ‘Za Pamsika’ and who we can work with to break down access barriers to this information.

Are millions in Malawi being reached? Not yet – but we’re getting there.

Our 5 mVAM Highs from 2016

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1. Awards for Remote Mobile Data Collection Work

At the Humanitarian Technology 2016 conference, our paper Knowing Just in Time Knowing Just in Time’ won Best Paper for Outstanding Impact. In the paper, we assessed mVAM’s contribution to decision-making by looking at use cases for mVAM in camps, conflict settings and vulnerable geographies. Check out our blog Tech for Humanity for more on it and our other conference paper  mVAM: a New Contribution to the Information Ecology of Humanitarian Work

To close the year, we had a nice surprise from Nominet Trust, the UK’s leading tech for good funder. We made their 100 most inspiring social innovations using digital technology to drive social change around the world.  

2. New Tech

In this day and age there’s a lot of buzz around data visualization. We’ve been honing our skills with Tableau. Check out the data visualizations we did for Yemen and Haiti.

We’re also in the era of Big Data. We partnered with Flowminder, experts in analyzing call detail records, to track displacement in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.  Find out more in ‘After the storm: using big data to track displacement in Haiti

We’re also super excited about the chatbot we started developing for messaging apps and our roll out of Free Basics in Malawi which is allowing us to share the food prices we collect in mVAM surveys with people in Malawi With mVAM, our main focus has been reaching people on their simple feature phones. But we know that smartphone ownership is only going to increase. Contacting people through internet-enabled phones opens up loads of new forms of communication and data collection. is still reaching people on their -free basics

3. Expansion!

mVAM expanded to 16 new countries facing a wide set of challenges: conflict, El Nino drought, hurricanes, extremely remote geographies. We’ve been tracking and learning about what remote mobile data collection can add to food security monitoring systems and what its limits are in different contexts. For some of the highlights, check out our blogs on Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and  El Nino in Southern Africa,

4. Dynamic Partnerships

To have a lasting impact, we need to work with governments. We are really proud of our partnership with CAID, the Cellule d’Analyses des Indicateurs du Développement  under the Prime Minister’s Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We collaborated on setting up a national market monitoring system- mKengela that they are now running. We’ve had intensive technical sessions with the CAID team in Rome and Kinshasa to work on solutions that will fit their data management and analysis needs. The CAID team even traveled to Johannesburg to share their remote mobile data experience with other African countries and help other governments use this technology.

We’re also working with Leiden University. Bouncing ideas off of their team at the Centre for Innovation helps us move forward on tricky challenges. We’re also collaborating with them to develop an online course where we’re going to share our methodologies and how to use remote technology to monitor food security. Check out Welcome to Vamistan for more.

We are in the field of tech. So we can’t do our job well without partnering with the private sector. It’s definitely a dynamic area, and also one where we at mVAM are learning what works best in melding our humanitarian goals with the exciting private tech potential out there. Check out our blog From the Rift Valley to Silicon Valley and our hackathon with Data Mission for more.

5. Learning- the neverending process

In addition to trying out new technology, we’ve been trying to answer some important questions about the live calls, SMS, and IVR surveys which make up the bulk of mVAM data collection.  We’re also doing mode experiments to understand how people answer differently based on which mode we use to contact them. Check out our first Mind the Mode article with more coming in 2017. In Kenya, we are looking into whether we can ask nutrition indicators through mVAM methods. A major challenge is reaching women through phone surveys so we organized a gender webinar with partners to learn from what they are doing- check out our key gender takeaways. These are key questions and they can’t be resolved overnight. But we’re making steady progress in understanding them, and we’re excited for what more we’ll find out in 2017.

Thanks to everyone who has supported our work this year and kept up with our blog!