I’ve just been reading about an initiative being run in rural Niger which uses mobile phones as a tool to aid in increasing adult literacy.
The scheme is called IMAC (Information sur les Marchés Agricoles par Cellulaire), and it allows users to access information about the relative market prices of agricultural products in a number of markets, via text message.
Adult literacy in rural areas faces an inherent problem: the vast majority of rural villagers have managed to maintain their livelihoods since time immemorial without ever knowing how to read a single word. And what’s the point of literacy if there is no need for written materials?
Mamadou Issoufou, like 80% of people who live in rural areas, has access to a couple of different weekly markets where he can sell his millet. One market, Dogon Kirya, is 11 kilometres away; the other, Doubélma, is 15 kilometres away. Mamadou usually opts to travel to Dogon Kirya, as it’s the closer of the two – but he knows that sometimes he could get a better price for his grain at Doubélma. If a fellow villager who travelled to Doubélma the previous week indicates that prices were better there than in Dogon Kirya, then Mamadou might decide to go the extra four kilometres – but he can’t be sure that he’ll get the same prices this week: he has to leave it to chance.
But if Mamadou had access to better, more up to date information, he could make better choices on where to sell his goods. The mobile phone is a perfect device for transmitting information, and newly-developed technology, which allows you to have conversations via text message with large groups of people anywhere there’s a mobile signal, facilitates the dissemination of information to large groups of people. That technology is being introduced to Niger at the moment, alongside literacy-enhancement programmes, and the combination is allowing people to make informed economic choices, where before they were reliant on guesswork.
And that is the point of promoting literacy in rural areas: to increase access to information. Information about relative grain prices in the two markets may not be vital to Mamadou’s survival, but it certainly has the potential to improve his quality of life.