In Rural Africa, When You Can’t Google, Call Question Box for Answers


Can you imagine living without the internet? For most of us, the answer is, “probably not”. Surfing the internet has become as commonplace as watching TV. In fact, the internet has become such a vital resource in our daily lives that it has effectively replaced phone books, encyclopedias and local libraries. When you don’t know the answer to your burning question, these days, all you need to do is hop onto a computer and Google it. And when you can’t get online, it can feel like a catastrophe.

Spotty access to the Web is what people from poor rural areas have to deal with on a daily basis. Solutions to problems long catalogued on the Web remain out of reach for a vast swath of the rural population in developing countries like India. Fortunately, the Question Box may be their answer.

Question Box is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide easy access to information where literacy, language and technology barriers exist.   They do this through:

  • Free, local language telephone hotlines connected to live operators
  • SMS (Text Messaging)
  • Mobile and solar technologies that operate off the grid
  • Open Question – a simple software to start your own Question Box project

The Question Box service is joint effort by Open Mind and the Grameen Foundation. Open Mind is a nonprofit founded by Rose Shuman, the creator of Question Box, while the Grameen Foundation is well known for microcredit loans to the poor. Open Mind has received financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Question Box launched first in India two years ago, and then Uganda earlier this year.

Dialing for Answers

Here’s how it works – a farmer trying to figure out how to deal with a new pest that is eating away at his freshly planted coffee crop can phone into a Question Box Call Center, where an operator will gather notes, research the Web, and call him back with an answer.

The Question Box – Rose Schuman from Jonathan Marks on Vimeo.

Question Box in Uganda

Question Box also also provides field workers in rural agricultural areas in Uganda. Rather than searching form information themselves, locals can turn to the 40 Question Box workers who have mobile phones. The Question Box workers can then dial into the Question Box call center to ask questions on behalf of the locals or they put the call on speakerphone so the local can directly ask the operator. Once the requirements are clear, the operator will simply look for the requested information in the database to give callers the answer. Question Box’s workers are compensated with mobile phone airtime for their help.

The Ugandan initiative was specifically designed to take advantage of the popularity of mobile phones in Africa. During the last few years, mobile phone usage has tripled and around 300 million Africans have their own cell phone today. Mobile telecommunication now offers once isolated rural communities a lifeline to the modern world, providing access to news, business, and financial services.

Despite all these advances, internet still remains very expensive for majority of Africans. Even if the area has internet infrastructure, internet connection is often extremely slow and vulnerable to power outages. By leveraging mobile networks, Question Box is thus an easily accessible workaround.

Farmers and other rural workers stand to benefit most from Question Box, through the availability of up to date market, agricultural and health information that was otherwise difficult to access. Furthermore, the Question Box database logs information that is vital to specific locales, and also contains government statistics, documents, and research papers that aren’t even available on the internet.

Lack of information is a vital factor that hinders economic development. By   making useful information more accessible to the rural poor, they can then be empowered to solve problems on their own.

This post was written by:

Lorna Li

Lorna Li is a social media and green marketing expert. She enjoys helping green businesses and nonprofits with bootstrap marketing, as well as helping job seekers leverage social media for personal branding.


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