Viamo Mobile’s IVR services offer a two-way communications channel across Africa at scale – mobile operator partnerships key

17 November 2017

Top Story

There are a large number of push SMS services in Africa that play in the development space. Most of them are pilot projects and few seem to survive beyond the original grant funding. Viamo is interesting because it seems to have gone to scale in Africa and is one of a very few number of organisations that seems to be using IVR systems effectively. Russell Southwood spoke to Kellen Eilerts, Regional Director, East & Southern Africa, Viamo in Cape Town about what they are doing.

Viamo combines relevant content with local languages to create two-way mass communication channels and it seems to be getting a critical mass of users. The services are free and it seems to have cracked the tricky relationship with mobile operators. For the latter, these services provide a way of reaching and engaging both those with basic phones.

Viamo currently has representation and telecom integrations in 26 countries, of which 16 have signed 321 agreements (12 currently live): Afghanistan, Bangladesh Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Haiti, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Niger, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia. There are 120 million subscribers with access to the 321 Service today. 8.8 million users have called or accessed 321 for a total of 80.3 million engagements.

Q: VOTO Mobile has just become Viamo. How did that come about?

A: Human Network International (HNI) used to contract VOTO Mobile for the 3-2-1 service, originally in Madagascar. Two of us have moved from HNI to VOTO – David McAfee (the CEO) and myself - and the new entity is called Viamo.

The two co-founders of VOTO Mobile were Canadians with Engineers Without Borders. They wanted to amplify the voices of people working with the development community. There was a need for a two-way channel.

They did an SMS survey that failed miserably: they sent out 30,000 messages and only got a few hundred responses. There were problems of both literacy and tech literacy. You had to lay infrastructure to create services.

It launched the 3-2-1 service in Madagascar in 2010 with Airtel and the Government of Madagascar to provide public service information to people in isolated places. I didn’t realize it was replicable until I was on a trip for HNI to Malawi and the Airtel guy in Madagascar said talk to the Manager in Malawi. He asked me straight away how do we do it here? We started talking to the VOTO guys about doing it.

Q: What services do you run?

A: Viamo does mobile engagement services, data collection and communications for organizations and companies trying to service people in Africa and elsewhere. It started in Africa but now has a presence in 24 countries. It is also now making a big push into Asia.

The original 321 service launched in Madagascar with Airtel is a public content service. It uses IVR. There’s an option for the user to say that he or she can be contacted by Airtel Money. It’s a multi-channel service using USSD, SMS and IVR. We’re also beginning to do data services with zero rating. This data channel can then be used with a Facebook Bot. There are a few exceptions but 90% of use is via IVR, although SMS is bigger in Madagascar.

With the IVR service, the user selects a language and there are up to 6 languages. It will remember what language you requested when you next ring and the subjects you requested. It will ask you to register and if you opt in, then we can send you surveys. We have clients like Unilever doing work on consumer attitudes to their products among 18-24 year olds in Rwanda. We also did rapid customer research surveys for Facebook’s Free Basics program with 25-question surveys of 2,000 respondents in each of 10 emerging economies.

We have a database that we can use to do an IVR survey. We can also operate closed user groups like WhatsApp groups on basic phones and are doing vendor systems for agricultural supply companies.

Q: How does the business model work with the mobile operators?

A: The model is to go to telcos with a trade. You need to make content that’s relevant for the population. In exchange we will provide it as a service and make it free to your clients. It doesn’t cost them anything and it helps them segment their base.

We work with all the mobile operators like Airtel, Orange and Vodacom, the big ones in Africa. The original 321 service was an exclusive deal but we now work across all operators.

Q: Give me a couple of examples?

A: Merck Pharmaceuticals is providing non-branded family planning content. USAID are operating health information networks. Earth Networks, the number two weather app in North America is providing weather information to farmers in 6 languages in Uganda and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is putting out financial services information on mobile money.

Q: How big is your user base?

A: Our information on malaria attracts 200,000-300,000 engagements per month. Over the whole network of countries, there 0.5 million engagements per day. When the service is mature, 5-8% of an operator’s subscriber base is likely to use the service.

Q: To what extent do people listen to messages in their entirety?

A: They listen to more than 75% and that’s what success looks like. It varies from country to country.

Q: What are the barriers to the service expanding?

A: It’s about how to do these services at scale without it costing a fortune. Originally we paid Airtel or operated a PPP model. It has either been that or you have to make poor people pay. The third way is to demonstrate the business incentive to operators.

There are also technical challenges with having large-scale IVR use. You need to install the software on the server and that’s where the Viamo platform comes in. It’s a powerful tool and can handle 1 million calls a day.

Q: Who are the competitors in the space at this sort of scale?

A: In terms of content, there are not very many competitors. There are things like Praekelt’s MomConnect which uses USSD. In India there is Mobile Kunji from BBC Media Action, a mass voice push service. There are also several others but these are the ones that seem to have lasted beyond being projects.

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