Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sunshine and Mobile Phones. The Jokko Télécentres are launched.

The suitcases getting some sun
click here for more télécentre photos!

The Jokko team (Guillaume Debar - project manager; Malick Niang - assistant to the national programs department ; and Amma Serwaah-Panin (me)- assistant to the Jokko Initiative) was recently in Kolda, in the Cassamance region of Senegal, conducting a four-day workshop which launched Télécentres Jokko, a project we are piloting in 7 communities in the Velingara department. The project is based on solar-powered suitcases which act as télécentres where customers can charge their mobile phones or purchase small amounts of credit through a phone-to-phone units transfer system known as Seddo (from the Orange service provider) or Izi (from the Tigo service provider.) The motivation behind the télécentres came from needs raised by participants during the Cell Phones for Literacy and Development module of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP). Participants often raised concerns relating to the cost and difficulty of finding places to charge cell phone batteries, the high cost of mobile phone credit, and the limited access that women and girls have to technology.

A télécentre ready for action.
Thus, working with Rural Energy Foundation (REF), a partner NGO, the Jokko Télécentres were developed with two main aims: to act as an income generating activity, and to provide a base for awareness raising activities on the subject of access to technology for women and girls. The télécentres consist of a portable wooden “suitcase” equipped with a solar panel and multiple outlets where phones and other small electrical appliances can be charged.

Every community in which Tostan implements the CEP has formed a Community Management Committee (CMC) which is a democratically elected group of 17 members who help to coordinate Tostan’s work; they might organise social mobilisation events such as village cleanings, they might run a soap-making income generating activity, or they might manage a Jokko Télécentre.

The Telecentre workshop welcomed eight staff members from the Tostan office in Kolda, fourteen CMC members representing the seven pilot villages (two members from each community), three members of the Jokko team, three staff members from REF, and Diallo, the solar-products distributor who built the solar suitcases and who is in charge of their maintenance.  

The suitcases are durable, ideal for rural communities. And baby-proof.
As the sessions began we debated whether or not participants should be allowed to answer personal phone calls during the workshop. During the debate I noticed that most conference participants had a phone that they seemed to consider indispensable to general life – an observation affirming the hype around the ubiquity of mobile phones in rural communities; an observation which also boded well for the utility of a solar-powered suitcase catering to cell phone needs. Eventually everyone put their phones on silent and the training sessions begun.

The discussion on cell phone use at the beginning of the workshop was an example of Tostan’s commitment to an inclusive, democratic environment and learning style. I noticed a lighter, more relaxed and more receptive atmosphere in the room after we laughed about how everyone – from CMC member to solar panel engineer – could describe their incoming calls as urgent. 

Over the course of the four-day workshop, activities included songs, some dance, skits, games, action planning, brainstorming, and a technical adventure through the suitcases (“You can charge a maximum of 15 cell phones a day. It is like having a rain cistern outside your house. If the cistern can only store water for 14 people to bath a day, and you are the 15th person, you will have a problem.”). We covered the main objective of the télécentre training: to allow CMC members to return to their villages with enough information, technical and social, to launch the télécentres with the double pronged goal of creating income generating activities and social mobilisation events. 

Diallo, Jasmien, Bathily, Binta and Malick on the radio.

At the end of the week, Binta Diao, a Tostan supervisor and radio broadcaster invited the training team to speak on her radio show. She took the French words of Malick and Jasmien (REF) and transformed them into streams of poetic Pulaar coursing over the airwaves of the entire Kolda region. After the show, Dialo’s phone rang almost incessantly as interested listeners called to get more information about the télécentres.

An REF brand assuring quality in solar products.
On Saturday, the day after the workshop ended, we held a pedagogical inauguration of the télécentres at Sare Dialo, one of the pilot villages just outside Velingara. It wouldn’t be Africa, and it wouldn’t be development work – although it would still be cliché – if I didn’t say we were welcomed to the village with a brilliant display of song and dance.  We greeted the imams, and other heads of the villages, gave a few speeches, watched a quite fabulous skit that the CMC members had prepared for the village of Saré Dialo, and then sung the Télécentre Jokko song that had been written, set to music, and practiced during the workshop. Everyone was wearing their télécentre marketing material: t-shirts, caps, and flags with REF’s “Solar Here” quality assurance label displayed. Seven large banners advertising the télécentres had also been hung around Saré Dialo and members of the local press were present at the event. We are keeping an eye out for a Jokko spread in the Kolda News. 

The Sare Dialo inauguration was “pedagogical” in the sense that it will act as a model for the CMC representatives from the 6 other villages who will return to their communities and hold their own télécentre inaugurations.
The entire workshop: CGC representatives, REF, Jokko team, Tostan Kolda staff.
At the end of the event, there was a chicken changing hands amongst the Tostan staff – Sare Dialo had presented it to us in gratitude. The Jokko team left with our REF partners to return to Dakar and Thies. The chicken went home with someone from the Tostan Kolda office.  It was a successful training and a colourful inauguration. We drove off in a happy, post-inauguration glow which made me think of the many télécentre marketing phrases that had been discarded during the planning phases for being too schmaltzy. I thought at that moment that my personal favourite (and the most readily discarded) was quite apt : “Télécentres Jokko: Le soleil dans les portable et les cœurs..” Jokko Telecentres: Sunshine in our phones and in our hearts. 

Contributed by Amma Serwaah-Panin; Editing by Sydney Skov.


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