Senegal: Competition Designed to Spread Basic Technologies

Digital Content

At a school in a rundown suburb of Dakar, Senegal, the students had nowhere to go to the bathroom. The boys urinated against the outside walls, the girls headed behind the building. There was no way for any of them to wash their hands.

That changed after the directors of the school turned to a new technological tool to alert the authorities — and their watchdogs — to the problem. Shortly after they did so, the toilets, which had been out of order for months, were fixed.

“For us, it’s not just to show that there is a capacity in Africa to develop good applications,” said Daniel Annerose, chief executive of a mobile technology company in Dakar, called Manobi, which developed the reporting system, which lets teachers, students or parents report problems with sanitation facilities at more than 2,000 schools across Senegal.

The system, called mSchool, is one of three winners of a competition organized by the World Bank to identify promising solutions to address a striking discrepancy in access to high and low technologies in developing countries: Six billion of the seven billion people around the world have mobile phones, while only 4.5 billion have access to toilets, according to a recent United Nations report.

The winners of the Sanitation Hackathon, as the World Bank calls the project, are set to be honored on Friday in connection with the annual meetings of the bank and its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund. The other honorees are Sun-Clean, a computer game developed by students at the University of Indonesia, which teaches children about good hygiene; and Taarifa, a Web application developed by programmers in Britain, Germany, the United States and Tanzania, which uses “open source” technology, interactive mapping and other features to help public officials track sanitation problems.

Because of the rapid spread of cellular phones, mobile technology has previously been used to address a variety of problems in the developing world, including access to financial services, health care information and education. But toilets were another matter.