How vocal apps are reaching illiterate populations in emerging markets


Illiteracy has been dramatically decreasing over the 20th century, but there still are large areas of the world where reading and writing skills are scarce, preventing further development, as well as basic communications between organisations and individuals.

It’s no surprise that emerging markets are places where illiteracy can still be high. In countries of Sub-Saharan Africa such as Chad or Mali, a small third of the population is able to read and write. In South Asia too, countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh just over half of the populations are literate. Surprisingly, even in the US, a significant 14% of the population is deemed illiterate.


What is the point of developing high-end smartphones, incredible apps or technological innovation when most of it goes through the interface of screens, texts, where user-generated content still takes for a large part some textual content?

Voto Mobile: survey and institutional communication through voice

Voto Mobile is a good first case study. The Ghana-based app is organising surveys of populations in remote rural areas, where mobile phones are present but the literacy rate quite low.

After a lot of test and try, they improved their vocal surveying app based on a lot of vocal data they gathered, such as the time spent on the phone, the language used by the respondent, the drop-offs rate, and so forth. They have also changed their own way of polling people by phone, by fitting into the best timing for users, and using the first twenty seconds to build trust.

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As a result, they have been recording significantly higher participation rates to their surveys, which are key for NGOs and institutions to understand the needs and resources of remote populations.


Their services range now from one-way communication between the institutions and citizens (and vice-versa via surveys) as well as two-ways interactions such as citizen-driven reporting of broken infrastructure or corruption cases. asynchronous vocal education apps for teachers and students takes a different approach, and has built a vocal app students can reach by SMS. The service is then calling him or her back, and offering by vocal browsing a series of short lessons pre-recorded by their teachers. It’s a way for schools and educational institutions to increase the reach of teaching beyond the school — which can sometimes be far in rural areas of emerging markets.

After the lesson is listened to, students can answer quizzes with their voice too, and teachers can get an asynchronous access to their “answers” and improve the exam/assessment process.

Welcome to from on Vimeo.

Originally built as a prototype during a Founder Bus coding expedition across African countries, the team is now part of the Startup Chile program, an accelerator based in Santiago. While most South American countries have rather high literacy rates, neighbouring Central America is still lagging behind with about 25% adult illiteracy rates.

The plans for are also ambitious, as its founder Christopher Pruijsen told us:

As our platform matures we could take a marketplace approach – imagine a Skillshare or Coursera for mobile learning via voice across primary, secondary and possibly even tertiary or corporate education, where teachers create lessons and can share these across regions and even national borders possibly. This is a long-term vision however and we have a more hands-on approach at the moment.

Foroba Blon: a voice-based citizen blogging network in rural Mali

In rural Mali, radios are one the most important media as they are the only way to get access to the information. Now that phones are more and more available, listeners rely more on radios to inform each other on their local situations.

This “citizen journalism” behavior is being turned by Foroba Blon in a new radion service dubbed “a voice Twitter”. This new radio service allows anyone with a phone to register messages to a central, automated server which makes sure the message is clear, and is sorting it into sub-topics.

Take a look:

The vision behind the project is the one of an independent and free media relying on user-generated content, which is in turn broadcast at the radio. The whole initiative is supported by W4RA, a consortium which includes the World Wide Web Foundation led by Tim Berners-Lee, often nicknamed one of the father of the internet as we know it.

It will be pretty interesting to see where these voice apps are heading. The developed world and the emerging markets are taking different paths; the former through artificial intelligence and robotics, the latter through low-tech apps available on “dumb phones”.

Feature image by Johan Larsson via Flickr.



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