By Henk Swanepoel, published in Sowetan Live: Opinion, 13 February 2018.

For many in the developing world, their only support and, often, life-line is a non-governmental organisation (NGO). Amid widespread poverty, disease, political instability and conflict, particularly in North, West and Central Africa, NGOs have become the primary source of support.

However, the biggest impediment to meeting its mandate is often the inability to effectively communicate with communities. NGOs require clear, effective lines of interpersonal communication to disseminate information to educate people. Traditional mass mediums such as billboards, radio and TV are generally ineffective in this regard as there is no guarantee that messages get to the intended recipients, nor do they provide an effective channel for engagement.

The prevailing situation in these regions is not without hope. Advances in the application of mobile technology are providing NGOs with a highly effective means to communicate.

Mobile phone penetration in Africa has ballooned over the past decade. While many may believe that feature phones lack the sophistication of smartphones and are poor tools to educate and inform due to a lack of internet browsing capabilities, the fact is that unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) is a highly effective and efficient means to engage and communicate. USSD permits the non-data-enabled devices to engage in internet-based services. Furthermore, end users don’t require airtime or data to use it.

The potential that the application of this technology holds for NGOs is extensive. In the context of combating human trafficking, which is a problem that has reached epidemic proportions, the ability to create greater awareness on human trafficking is proving to be a powerful prevention tool.

The geo-tagging capabilities offered on USSD platforms ensure any phone entering trafficking “hot spots” can be served with a text-based message. This ensures that content can be delivered to the right person at the right time. Additional applications of USSD technology include the ability to send NGOs “Call Me Back” requests or messages should someone find themselves in danger. NGOs can also learn more about the need for healthcare and other medical services in remote communities.

USSD platforms are also capable of educating cellphone users in a fun, entertaining and engaging way through the use of USSD-based gamification campaigns. Rewards in the form of data, airtime, or vouchers also drive engagement, with quizzes or multiple choice trivia questionnaires used to increase the stickiness of the message or incentivise information sharing.

These examples are just a few of the numerous applications of USSD technology that can assist NGOs in driving change and improving the livelihood of communities.