DAKAR, Senegal September 8, 2010

On International Literacy Day, Tostan, along with partners UNICEF and the Center of Evaluation for Global Action (CEGA) at the University of California, Berkeley, have released initial findings of an evaluation that shows great promise for using text messaging as a means for improving literacy and community development.

The evaluation centered on a pilot of the Jokko Initiative, which was implemented in 25 villages in the Velingara region of Senegal, bringing innovative mobile technology education to 800 program participants. These villages were already engaged in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), a 30-month holistic education program covering human rights, democracy, health and hygiene, problem solving, literacy, and numeracy.

Focusing on improving communication and reinforcing literacy during and after the CEP, the Jokko Initiative teaches participants to use cell phones and send text messages in local languages. It is designed to give participants a vital literacy practice tool and enable them to better reach out to their communities and social networks.

According to 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%.

To power the text message system, UNICEF contributed knowledge and expertise around the RapidSMS tool–a free and open-source framework for interacting with mobile phones. Much of the RapidSMS framework has been built and tested with users in sub-Saharan Africa.

During the evaluation, two rounds of data collection took place: a baseline and a second round after the first four months of Tostan’s literacy and numeracy training. At the outset of the program, only 22% of the participants–the majority whom are women–reported being literate. Only 18% reported having any formal schooling. CEGA’s research shows that after the four months, both literacy and numeracy increased substantially.

“While more research needs to be done to identify how best to harness cell phones in promoting literacy–the results from the pilot study are promising as they show that teaching people how to read and write messages on a cell phone can be a positive addition to a successful literacy program,” says Theresa Beltramo, Economist and Evaluation Coordinator for CEGA.

Molly Melching, Executive Director of Tostan, said that this program, in her opinion, has incredible potential. “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. This project does all of these things.”

Today, International Literacy Day, is an occasion to celebrate these women in Senegal as well as women the world over who empower themselves and their communities through education and literacy.

Find more information about RapidSMS on their website www.rapidsms.org. To read more about the Jokko Initiative, visit www.tostan.org or follow the blog http://www.jokkoinitiative.org/.