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From Illiteracy to mCommunity, Jokko Initiative Empowers Women with mLearning

Wayan Vota

Since 1991, Tostan has brought its holistic, 30-month Community Empowerment Program based on human rights to thousands of communities in West Africa. As part of this program, they teach basic literacy and numeracy to community participants, particularly women and girls, but not without problems.

“For years we have been looking for ways to address the challenge of making literacy relevant, finding ways for participants to practice their new skills, all the while engaging women and girls in the process and reinforcing existing social ties.” Molly Melching, Executive Director of Tostan

That is until they started using mobile phones. It turns out that people are willing, excited, and economically motivated to use mobile phones to improve their numeracy and literacy skills – improving their ability to communicate via phones and create communities of support.

Jokko Initiative

Tostan has come up with an intriguing way to teach basic literacy and numeracy, by tying it to the use of mobile phones, through their Jokko Initiative in Senegal.

Mango tree mobile phone menu navigation

First, they came up with an amazingly simple methodology to introduce people to menu systems using a mango tree metaphor which gracefully transitions from the concrete (planning a climbing route on a real tree to get to a specific mango) to the semi-concrete (the same, on a diagram of a tree), to the abstract (the tree diagram becomes the menu diagram, the mango a specific function).

Anyone who thinks that is too basic has never shown their grandparents a new shiny piece of technology, or had their entire worldview of user interface challenged by someone physically pointing a mouse at a screen.

Next, they teach the cost-efficiency of SMS texting relative to placing a call, which has immediate impact on the girls’ lives. They can use their newly acquired ability to read and write in their national language, Wolof, from the Community Empowerment Program, to compose and read text messages without assistance. The women are also able to show mastery of mobile phones, which allows husbands to trust wives with phones, even obtaining their own phones.

Then, participants apply the skills they’ve gained to specific themes (such as health, agriculture, and the environment) relevant to their everyday lives. For example, to send text messages about vaccinations and awareness-raising campaigns, to make appointments at health clinics, and to ask for advice on matters concerning health and hygiene.

You can see the full cycle of a Jokko Initiative training class in this video:



mLearning Results

Tostan, UNICEF, and the Center of Evaluation for Global Action (CEGA) at the University of California, Berkeley, recently completed an evaluation of Jokko that shows great promise for using text messaging as a means for improving literacy and community development.

Learning literacy through mobile devices

According to the initial findings of the evaluation conducted by CEGA in these villages:

Women and girls, who had the lowest rates of literacy and numeracy before the Jokko Initiative began, greatly improved over the course of the project.

The percentage of women and girls who scored in the highest category for literacy and numeracy increased from 12% for women and 8% for girls at the baseline, to 29% and 33% at the follow-up. Moreover, the number of participants who were able to write a text message jumped from 8% to 62%.

Yet not everything is rosy in women’s lives just because they participated in the Jokko Initiative. There are still two major external challenges that Totstan has identified in the adoption and usage of mobile phones to improve literacy:

  1. The lack of electricity in the vast majority of the communities reached by the Jokko Initiative, which renders the charging of mobile phones extremely difficult and/or costly
  2. The disproportionate lack of access of women and girls to mobile phones – meaning that these groups have diminished opportunities to communicate with their peers and to practice the skills they’ve learned using mobile phones in the Jokko module.

Transforming mLearning into a mCommunity

Tostan is expanding on the Jokko Initiative work with a mobile phone powered community. In April 2009, Tostan collaborated with UNICEF to launch the RapidSMS-based “Community Forum” in 15 villages in the department of Vélingara where the Jokko module was being taught.

Local activists and SMS users

The Community Forum is a practical, SMS-based application that allows a community member to disseminate information to a virtual network of his or her peers by sending a single text message to Tostan’s server.

In the Community Forum villages, participants in the Jokko module also received training in RapidSMS technology. The goal was to provide community members with tools to bolster their local development initiatives- especially those that involve mobilizing people around common causes to effect positive social change.

Follow-up interviews one year later showed Community Forum members use SMS text messages to disseminate information and to organize meetings and events on an array of themes including vaccination campaigns, bed net distribution for malaria prevention, village clean-ups and school enrollment for children.

Overall, Jokko’s sucess is pretty amazing – women who were previously disenfranchised and illiterate, now manage their own text-based mCommunity.


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2 Responses to “From Illiteracy to mCommunity, Jokko Initiative Empowers Women with mLearning”

  1. Really a great article and its easy to see that you didnt just copy it!


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