The Humble SMS Reinvented: Five Zimbabwean Towns Go Tech in Service Delivery Drive

Launched: May 2016

By Shepherd Mutsiwegota, Innovations Specialist, UNICEF Zimbabwe

The short message system (SMS) might be heading for extinction in most parts of the world but in Zimbabwe it just got a new lease on life.

By the end of June, five Zimbabwean towns are using the much maligned messaging service to log service delivery issues within their communities, taking the pain out of the exercise and saving valuable time in the process. In return, the local authorities will use the system to provide feedback and updates to the community in real-time.

The system was developed by a software firm Nyaruka who worked with UNICEF to open source it.  This project was funded by Australian AID, supported by the ministries of Local Government, Rural and Urban Development and Water Resources, Development and Management, the United Nations Children’s Fund and some non-government organisations (NGOs) who are using it under their small towns water and sanitation programmes (STWTP).

The system is simple. A community member acting as a reporter SMSes a key word to 33500 and receives a menu option in reply. The menu allows the reporter to select amongst other issues, water, sewage, solid waste and open defecation.

The platform then prompts the reporter to specify the exact location and problem description. The resultant report is immediately received by the local authorities. Local authorities in Gokwe, Gwanda, Mvurwi, Plumtree and Rusape say the system has revolutionised their work. 

Mvurwi town engineer, Jefta Chikanyau said the technology has helped improve turnaround times and allowed for electronic case management with prompt assignment and resolution by the relevant departments.“The system enhances the effective communication between the local authority and the residents. Complaints are received in real time in the relevant categories of sewer, water, solid-waste and open defecation making it easier for redress and ease of reporting," he said. "This allows management to prioritize resources and make informed decisions”. Chikanyau said the next stage in its development would be to improve the reports through community training.

Apart from being used for case management to report, update and attend to faults, the platform is also being used as a tool for monitoring and evaluating service provisions in councils and to improve and measure social accountability as the town councils provide and receive feedback on the levels and timelines of service delivery on a regular basis.

Gokwe Town Council and its residents have extended the use of the system as a broadcast tool. They are using it in conjunction with U-Report -- a UNICEF developed messaging system -- as an education and information dissemination tool. The Town Council is sending notices on services, meetings, emergencies and up-coming events. U-Report is a free SMS tool for community participation. Anyone can join by sending “join” to 33500 across all networks.

An initial rollout of the programme has seen 20 people in the selected towns receiving a mobile phone donated by Econet Wireless, the country’s biggest mobile phone operator. The overall goal of the programme is to help reduce the burden of diarrhoeal diseases, including cholera and improving productivity in 14 small towns which are home to half a million people.