In a room overflowing with little blue boxes, Tostan facilitators and supervisors spent the evening of March 6, 2013 completing preparations for a Mobile Phone for Literacy and Development Module (MPLD) training that would take place the following day in Kolda, Senegal. Each of the region’s 30 villages participating in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) through support from our partner, Johnson & Johnson, would soon receive 18 of these boxes, each containing a cell phone.

The MPLD Module is an integrated part of the CEP that teaches communities how to use cell phones and SMS text messaging as tools to reinforce the literacy and numeracy skills they’ve gained over the course of the program. It also aims to show how cell phones can be used to build consensus and collaborate on community development initiatives.

Last July and August, 10-day MPLD Module trainings were held in Bafata, Guinea-Bissau and Basse, The Gambia for Tostan facilitators and supervisors, and again in the Kolda region of Senegal this past March. Following the training, the CEP facilitators, each equipped with 18 cell phones to distribute among CEP class participants, returned to the villages where they are based to share these new skills with local community members.

By the time these communities finish the CEP in August 2013, they will be able to use cell phones to conduct feasibility studies, prepare budgets, and manage financial, material, and human resources. The MPLD Module is strategically planned to coordinate with the allocation of community development grants to each of the Community Management Committees (CMCs), as well as special training on small project management and rotating credit funds. Using these new skills, communities will be able to more effectively promote the economic growth of their community.

Tostan facilitator Kadiatou Soumboundou implements the CEP in the village of Sinthiang Sirifou and strongly believes in the potential for the MPLD Module to positively impact Sinthiang Sirifou’s economic development. She described that if, for example, the coordinator of the CMC in Sinthiang Sirifou wants to buy sugar and re-sell it, she can call or text someone in the village of Bouring, on the border of The Gambia, asking them to send her some sugar. That way the coordinator does not have to spend time and money traveling to and from Bouring. She can arrange for the sugar to be sent down with someone who is already coming.

CEP participants in the nearby village of Ndorna, Senegal are also excited about the potential uses of their new skills. Both Mariama Sabaly and Rugui Kannde declared that before the program they did not know how to use a cell phone at all. Now they know how to make and receive phone calls, send text messages, and use other features on their phones. “Cell phones are indispensable,” said Mariama. “If you need someone who is far away, you no longer need to go out and  find that person. You can buy phone credit and call them.” Rugui said that with her community’s ability to use cell phones, people can now simply call each other to arrange a community meeting rather than walk from house-to-house or village-to-village to notify everyone.

The ability to use a cell phone also aids communities in organizing social mobilization activities. For example, community members can send group texts to inform others about vaccinations available at the local health post or about a community clean-up that will take place. With the joint impact of reinforcing literacy and numeracy skills gained during the CEP as well as facilitating community development, the MPLD Module takes capacity building to a new level, and it is an invaluable component of Tostan’s CEP.

Story and photographs by Allyson Fritz, Tostan.