Start-up upgrades social impact messaging and engagement to smartphones – dealing with hundreds of thousands of queries and responses using machine learning

8 November 2019

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NGOs and other not-for-profits are beginning to migrate with their vulnerable, low-income users to social messaging apps like WhatsApp used on smartphones. Russell Southwood talks to Gustav Praekeltof about how to deal with millions of active users in a digital age. has incubated a start-up called aimed at connecting organizations with their audiences using messaging platforms. The genesis for it was the work has been doing with non-profits over many years, reaching vulnerable people across Africa, largely using SMS and USSD.

According to Gustav Praekelt:”The use of messaging platforms like Telegram, Viber and Messenger was increasing as smartphones grew in penetration. We wanted to follow our users and there was a very high penetration of WhatsApp in South Africa”. got accepted into the WhatsApp Business API pilot programme.

It pioneered the work it created in this programme using MomConnect, a digital maternal health programme that was launched in partnership with South Africa’s National Department of Health in 2014:”We’ve celebrated five years of providing them with a service with 3 million registered and 1 million active users. It’s pretty scaled by now”.

So it started with a serious scale of users who wanted to make use of messaging platforms (largely WhatsApp) and it made a very big difference to the process of communicating with them. Previously SMS messaging has a relatively low response rate and the messages were limited by the number of characters. Worse still, as the number of messages generated increased with the number of users it became harder and harder to both track and respond to them:”We went from 5,000 questions from users per month to hundreds of thousands of questions.”

“There was no tool to deal with this type of communication where there might be as many as 100,000 interactions. We also didn’t see any tools optimized for behavior change. Most tools that were available were about selling things but we wanted to guide people through things like health. There was also a lot of interest for using the tool outside of our own uses. So we set up a separate start-up and we’re still invested in it”.

So what does it do? There are four steps that address the problem of how “impact organizations in frontier markets speak to massive cohorts of users”:

  1. It connect organizations to these large cohorts using messaging platforms like WhatsApp, and Android Messages:”Turn sits on WhatsApp, Telegram, Google Messenger ans so on. We’re agnostic.”

  2. It manages engagement with users, using Natural Language Processing & Machine Learning to triage the most urgent conversations, ensuring conversations start at the right time with the right people.

  3. It guides behavior because it knows where the person is in their journey and whether they have done a certain type of visit.

  4. Last but not least, it provides tracking mechanisms to look at the impact of the use of the service.

It has partnered with value-added service provider infobip for a long-term relationship focused on social impact:”They have given us a special deal where they have zero-rated the access up to a couple hundred thousand users with data free response time”.

“In terms of business case, broadly speaking it can be used by social impact organizations, social enterprises or for profits. Indeed any organization aiming to improve its social impact.

“The ones that have had traction are in the health field because that’s our background but there’s also agriculture organizations supporting smallholder farmers and financial inclusion organizations like SABAC (a Stokvel, a savings and investment organization) with 70,000 users. It is using our product to manage these users.”

The South African jobs portal Kandua “makes amazing connections with artisans like plumbers, finding them new clients. WhatsApp becomes the audit trail for the artisan, who can be very vulnerable if they have no other way to invoice.”

Praekelt rattles off a long list of users including Nivi (health), FunDza Books (literacy and reading); and Girl Effect (sexual health and reproductive rights):”We see lots of organizations who want the tool because they are signing up hundreds of thousands of users.” is expanding into India with two healthcare partners who have 4.5 million users on Whats App. He estimates that 70% of users in South Africa have smartphones and 50% in countries like Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

He thinks that 80-90% smartphone use will happen in in major markets in the next 2-3 years:”Once you get to 30-40%, you get a critical mass. People start saying to themselves I can’t talk to my friends unless I understand how to do it. Then there’s going to be that long tail that might take another 2-3 years to change. So we’ll continue to have SMS live so that you don’t exclude the most vulnerable.”

He stresses that the transition to digital messaging is not just about the user’s income:”For the more open and tech savvy younger users, it opens up new opportunities. It’s cheaper than SMS and allows them to connect to friends and do things like finding jobs.”


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