The Place for IVR in Telecentres: a look at Freedom Fone.

By Cleopa Timon Otieno - Kenya Telecentres

Mobile phone technology has certainly taken centre stage in the discussion around the future of Telecentres. It has become the focus and area of research as a critical and essential tool in information delivery. But whether to stick with SMS or innovatively extend the possibility of the voice services remains to be debated. Rural Africa may not boast of geeky computer skills let alone access to them, but they are king when it comes to mobile ownership. 
Mobile phone ownership is no longer the privilege of a few rural folks but rather a necessity in their daily life. The cost of mobile phones, competition amongst service providers which is bringing the calling rates down, low cost of maintenance, non reliance to constant power supply and mobility are some of the reasons why its penetration in Africa is high.
I have had a chance to use FronlineSMS to send bulk SMS and liked it for that. However its limitation to text message was a challenge I had with the group of users since some of them had problems reading sms but also preferred to call rather than type messages.  It remains a good option if what you wish to do is manage and send bulk SMS.
May I share with you another wonderful tool to think about: Freedom Fone. It makes it easy to build interactive, two way, phone based information services using audio voice menus, voice messages, SMS and polls. The DIY platform is accessible, user-friendly, low-cost and does not require Internet access for users and callers alike. 
It takes advantage of audio to address language and literacy barriers when reaching out to the millions of people living on the margins of the information society. After spending a couple of days at Radio Maria in Dar es Salaam through support of COL and Web Foundation to learn about this particular tool; I must say it has a component that will help community radios, Telecentres and any other organization interested in Voice as an option to reach their clients. Check out their online Demo. 
 "Bart Sullivan of Farm Radio International is one of our earliest Freedom Fone users and has piloted the platform with radio stations in Tanzania & Ghana. His easy going, thoughtful approach to capacity building and commitment to integrating mobile technologies in the community radio sector has helped to raise Freedom Fone’s profile in this community." Says Brenda Burrell.
Brenda is the Technical Director with The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe based in Harare. She came along with her colleague Tichafara Sigauke to conduct the training. Bart organised the training at Radio Maria, one of the radios where the system has been used.
Interactive Voice Response (or IVR) allows one to record their voice and leave a message. It has been used to provide market updates, weather reports, receive enquiries and react to them later. Callers are able to leave their message by pressing preset key to do so among others. 
I also believe that it can be a perfect tool for agricultural extension service providers to reach out to farmers and also allow the farmers to listen to instructions via their mobile phones as well as leave voice messages for the service providers. Those working in advocacy issues can also use it to provide a hotline for leaving messages, recording campaign audio to be shared by their targeted groups. Edutainment is also an area that Telecentres can take advantage of by creating educative audio content which people can retrieve by dialing a given number to listen to. Short audio dramas or plays can be recorded in various episodes to keep listeners calling in.
A typical IVR will be something like:
"Thank you for calling Nyamata Telecentre, for market information. Press 1, for weather updates. Press 2, for today’s farming tips. Press 3, to Leave A Message."
Remember these recordings can be in any local language that your audience is comfortable with. Fredom Fone runs on linux and requires a dedicated computer since it is resource intense. You also need a GSM router to channel voice and SMS. Whats recommended is a Mobigator or an OfficeRoute. You also require an audio recorder to use the free audio editing software Audacity that comes with Freedom Fone.