While attending Mobile West Africa in Lagos, Nigeria, we again were confronted with a key trend of technology in the emerging markets: voice-based apps. In Africa, for instance 38% adults are still illiterate, as well as 25% in Asia (not forgetting the incredibly huge 14% of illiterate people among adults in the US). Internet technologies are for most of them based of text (and completeley built with text languages) and visuals. In a part of the world where smartphone accounts for only 10% of the market, voice is the only way to get an information. And it can be quite efficient.

Voto, a Ghana based voice app to survey remote populations and deliver the messages from the government

The story of Voto Mobile is compelling, for they really had to face their field to find out the best way to get in touch with the population. Originally, this startup based in Ghana aimed to survey populations in remote areas on behalf of large international organizations and NGOs. They were soon confronted to the reality of low-tech phones and illiterate people.

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After a lot of test and try, Voto managed to design a solution which was based both on the voice, and their present-day methodology shows how to improve the efficiency of these calls depending on local factors and incentives (see full case study on their site):

  • Pay attention to your respondents’ preferences and schedule
  • Use the first twenty seconds to build trust
  • Make a Real-World Connection
  • Mind the Drop-off
  • Be Clear and Comprehensible

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Voice doesn’t only allow illiterate people to be heard, literally, they also convey more data than a simple SMS. For instance, Voto is able to track and monitor the time spent on the phone, the language used in a part of the world where regional and local dialects abound, as well as the number of attempts to get a person on the phone, which may be a sign of a good timing or of a network breakdown.

Voto is collecting data on population rarely surveyed, and also provides for the government a way to deliver its main messages, on education and health for instance, to a population which they can’t access because of their remoteness or a lack of infrastructure.

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Running the surveys with voice proved much more efficient than with text-based SMS, as this sample from their data clearly shows.

Sterio.me, enhanced mobile education for teachers and learners through recorded lessons and homework

Another startup, launched by Dutchman and African traveller Christopher Pruijsen, tackles the huge opportunity of education in the continent. His app allows anyone to send an SMS to a service which will in turn call back, for free, to give lessons on words or topics and increase the time of education out of the classroom.

Welcome to Sterio.me from Sterio.me on Vimeo.

On one side, teachers can record their lessons or quizzes, a format adapted to mobile for its short length, and on the other side, the learner can listen to the voice of the teacher and answer with his voice too. The teacher can analyze asynchronously the results, get insights and build a personal relationship on the data of previous calls, whatever the distance with the learner.

Interestingly enough, the idea came during another project Christopher has been running, called Founder Bus, which gathers on 5 days about 30 developers and startupers in a bus, to achieve a prototype of a startup. With a sharp angle on social impact, the crowd of each bus usually include 50% foreigners and at least 30% women.

A (very) few other services based on voice use phones to reconnect remote or illiterate people to the Internet. One of them to be noticed is Voices, sponsored by the European Commission, and designed to allow more people to give feedback on important topics. The app was for instance used by Al-Jazeera last year during elections in Ghana and Kenya, precisely to get the voices of the unheard.