“Do you know how to prevent yourself from getting Ebola?” It was a simple message sent via SMS to 46,000 young people in Nigeria during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. The message was sent using U-Report, a social monitoring tool that was developed by UNICEF and designed for young people to engage with issues affecting them and to strengthen community-led development. To participate, youth with access to a mobile phone – even a very basic one – text the word ‘join’ to a toll-free short-code and almost instantly they are able to share their views on various issues affecting them and their communities. Eight thousand people replied to the SMS message on Ebola and of that, 3000 had no knowledge of how to prevent Ebola. When the information was mapped, the Nigerian Government, UNICEF and agencies responding to the epidemic knew exactly where knowledge was lacking and could develop a strategy on how to respond.
U-Report currently has over 2.6 million users and is operational in 20 countries – the majority of which are in Africa. The information that is collected is shared with local and national media and key stakeholders so they are aware of the challenges their community members face. U-Report was first developed by the UNICEF Uganda Office and was launched in 2011 with the aim of engaging young people to speak out on issues affecting them and their communities and to work with community leaders for positive change. UNICEF viewed U-Report as a tool that could be used by development agencies and NGOs to track progress and ensure that interventions were effectively meeting the needs of communities. In June 2016, U-Report conducted the first Pan-African poll to find out how young people felt about humanitarian crises across the continent. The result was most young people who participated felt African leaders were not doing enough to stop conflicts on the continent.
U-Report is a great example of how new media technologies are engaging Africa’s youth and providing platforms for them to participate and express their views. Adolescents and young people are a key demographic in Africa with 50 percent of its population today under the age of 20 and the continent’s population expected to double to 2.4 billion in 2050 (UNICEF, 2014, Generation 2013 Africa). As the youth population expands so too is access to internet and social media with one in five persons having access to the internet (ITU, 2015, ICT Facts and Figures – The world in 2015) and an increasing number of social media users. In June 2015, BBC Afrique reported that Facebook had 120 million active users across Africa and more than 80 percent were accessing the site from a mobile device. Twitter has especially facilitated two way conversations with many more Africans using the platform to ‘talk back’ and voice their concerns on issues facing them. As far back as 2010, Erik Hersman, a prominent African social media blogger and entrepreneur who was part of the development of the platform Ushahidi in Kenya, spoke of a ‘seismic shift’ occurring in Africa with services, products and information because of the very high mobile phone penetration. As if in support of Hersman’s comments, Mark Zuckerberg, FaceBook’s founder, paid his first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa in August 2016, traveling to Nigeria in support of tech development and entrepreneurship.
According to Mariéme Jamme, co-founder of Africa Gathering (a website aimed at sharing and promoting ideas and innovations on Africa), “the combination of the determination of this new generation and the opportunities offered by social networks could form a great alliance that challenges African leaders and builds communities that can take action from a little tweet right to the street.” The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in a recently published document referred to as “A Practice Note” acknowledges the important role of social media in understanding people’s behaviour and opinions especially in social groups that are hard to reach with conventional forms of media (DFID, 2016. P.1).
As more young people in more countries join U-Report and its value as an important tool in development grows, the need for research and evaluation on its effectiveness increases. Just how much change in communities can be attributed to its use? What does seem apparent though is where as blogs – which as Denskus et al. (2013, p. 465) noted – are challenged in linking reflective writing, exchanges and individual learning to wider development processes, the feedback provided by U-Reporters very clearly addresses development issues affecting the lives and communities of its users and U-Report readily applies to development processes. U-Report also supports meaningful engagement of youth and communities, a challenge that development blogging still has to address (Denskus et. al 2013 p. 465).
Further research will also need to address important concerns about equity and the inclusion of the most disadvantaged and their access to participate. There are still many youth in Africa without access to mobile communication, internet access and therefore social media. Equal gender representation is also an issue. Another interesting aspect is how government censorship may interfere or limit the participation of youth and specific groups.
U-Reports success in engaging African youth has been documented, especially in the areas of health programming, violence against children and in emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak. There is now the need for greater emphasis on how engaged U-Reporters are involved in the next steps and in further participation to bring about change. How can their interests and motivation be sustained? How are they able to continue to participate? And do the communities and societies in which they live, facilitate their participation in bringing about change and development?
Denskus, T., and Papan, A. (2013) “Reflexive engagements: the international development blogging evolution and its challenges.” Development in Practice 23:4, 455-467
Essoungou, A. (2010) “A Social Media Boom Begins in Africa”. Africa Renewal http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2010/social-media-boom-begins-africa
Jamme, M. (2011). “Africa’s new generation is using social media to push for change.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jun/17/social-media-transforming-communication-africa
Poskett, E (2016). “DFID Practice Note: Using Social Media Data in International Development Research, M&E”: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/57d968c540f0b6533a000052/Social_Media_DFID_Practice_Note_PDF_September_2016_Emily_Poskett.pdf