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News || Friday, 21 October 2016

At FHI360, Souktel Launches WhatsApp & Facebook Solutions for Community Engagement

Three years from now, nearly two-thirds of Africa’s mobile users will own smartphones. In the Middle East, smartphone use has doubled since 2013—and will likely top 65% by 2020. Meanwhile, in Asia, the GSMA projects that 70% of all phone users will own a 3G or 4G handset in 36 months’ time. 

As the cost of smartphones keeps dropping, and smartphone ownership skyrockets, so too has the popularity of mobile messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber. For development implementers, the rapid growth of these platforms presents a key opportunity: Content delivery, data collection, and ongoing engagement with communities are now becoming significantly faster, cheaper, and more scalable.

This month, at FHI360’s MERLTech conference, Souktel unveiled its new suite of integrated messaging app solutions for aid and development projects. Now, as part of any custom Souktel platform, implementers can send and receive images, video clips, audio files and text via Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber—in addition to standard channels like SMS and voice call. For the first time, aid and development projects can reach large numbers of smartphone and basic phone users simultaneously—allowing for much wider, more inclusive community engagement. In parallel, Souktel’s analytics and data visualization tools let implementers track trends, and leverage data for adaptive decision making, across digital channels.

How do these innovations drive better project delivery? At FHI360, Souktel CEO Jacob Korenblum outlined three main advantages offered by the new solutions:

More options for engaging with communities. Messaging apps let users send and receive audio files, photos, and video within a single chat thread or “conversation”. Souktel conveniently bundles access to multiple messaging apps in one place—and combines these options with traditional SMS and audio to give farmers, teachers, or health workers more choice when interacting with projects: Low-literacy farmers can send in photos of their crops, and get extension advice via Viber audio clip. Implementers can send videos about upcoming local elections through WhatsApp to thousands of women and youth—who can reply with questions via WhatsApp, SMS, or Facebook message, ensuring widespread access.

On handsets with touch screens, community members can press on-screen buttons or actual images to choose menu options—making it easier for low-literacy refugees to tell aid providers which type of help they need most. And users can share their location instantly, by pressing a single “share” button. All of this adds up to faster, easier, and more inclusive engagement with less confusion and fewer errors. Even more exciting is the potential to send payments via messaging app—a feature which Facebook has just rolled out in the US, and which is expected to grow into other locations.

Significant cost savings. Messaging apps consume very small amounts of mobile data, at rates that are much cheaper than local SMS or voice calls. For projects that aim to reach tens or hundreds of thousands of community members, the savings on operating costs are dramatic. After they’re activated, Souktel’s integrated solutions let projects choose the lowest-cost mobile channels wherever possible, ensuring maximum reach for minimum spend. 

High adoption rates. In countries across Africa, Asia and the Americas, messaging apps are now the main way people communicate--across income levels and locations. In Kenya, half of all mobile subscribers use WhatsApp as their key messaging tool. In the Philippines, formerly the “world leader in per capita SMS usage,” SMS revenue has fallen by 50% from 2014 – 2015, as mobile users switch to data plans and messaging apps en masse. By leveraging communication tools that are ubiquitous and familiar, Souktel’s solutions build on existing behaviors and fit seamlessly into communities’ daily routines—prompting higher uptake and ongoing use.

In Gaza, Souktel’s early pilots of multi-channel solutions with partner Internews found that by offering a wider range of communication options, implementers were able to reach more people during crisis—and do so more quickly. Multiple channels also helped ensure resilience: If cell towers weren’t functioning but local wifi hotspots worked, displaced families could still access life-saving content.  

Michael Moszczynski, Souktel’s Chief Software Architect, has been leading the roll-out of these new technologies across Souktel client projects. "Integrating messaging apps like Facebook or WhatsApp into our solutions give implementers a major edge,” he notes. “It allows a project to reach communities through the latest and richest technology, while also reaching people who only have access to basic phones. Messaging apps are becoming an indispensable tool for anyone trying to reach a wide audience."