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Mobile Technology Gives Zimbabweans a Voice

Innovator, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Ken Banks shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how appropriate technologies and mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

In the second Digital Diversity, Ken Banks interviews Bev Clark, program director of Freedom Fone, and a founder of Kubatana, a Zimbabwean civil society NGO.

Clark explains how Kubatana uses mobile and other digital technologies to help thousands of people engage and talk to one another in a country in which more traditional media is either controlled or manipulated by the government.

Read all the posts in this series.

Zimbabwe has changed a lot over the past twenty years. What is it like to live in Zimbabwe today?

Living in Zimbabwe is like riding a roller coaster. We’ve been through some very hard times, but people still display remarkable resilience. For the majority of Zimbabweans, with unemployment at over 90 percent, and with basic commodities being very expensive, this is a difficult place to live.

Some suburbs in Harare haven’t had municipal water for three years. Frequent power cuts make running a productive and profitable business challenging. The lack of maintenance of basic facilities like roads and street lights, refuse collection and public dumping, illustrate a government that does not prioritize the needs of the people.

Why are email, Internet and mobile technologies important in Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans live in a repressive media environment. All radio and television is controlled by Zanu PF/Mugabe. [Zanu PF is the governing party, led by Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe.] Only recently has an independent daily newspaper been allowed to operate.

Because of this Kubatana has always believed that it is essential for activists and advocates to use new media as best they can to try and balance state propaganda.

New media in Zimbabwe is used less luxuriously than in other parts of the world. We look at new technologies often with one focus: how do we use them to make access to civic and human rights information possible. In reality it is difficult to “compete” with mass media tools such as radio and television, but new media allows us to efficiently disseminate information under challenging circumstances.

What does the new media landscape look like in Zimbabwe?

Many Zimbabweans cannot access the Internet. Email is more accessible and we have developed an email subscriber list that is approximately 10,000 strong, and growing. Our subscribers come from all walks of life, from students, teachers, civil servants and employees of banks, funeral parlours and estate agents, to name a few.

We publish a weekly email newsletter that draws content from the Kubatana website. The Kubatana newsletter keeps people informed, invigorated and inspired.



Dydimus Zengenene, website editor at Kubatana.net.

Photo courtesy of Kubatana.net

Similarly, many Zimbabweans cannot access email. To address this challenge we have developed an SMS subscriber list that is approximately 14,000 strong. We use SMS to share news headlines, notifications of events and we also encourage a two-way dialogue. We pose questions on social justice issues and ask our subscribers to respond with their views and opinions.

We, in turn, collate the SMS responses and publish them either in our weekly email newsletter or on our community blog. In so doing we believe we extend the conversation to people living on the margins of access to information.

Again in a quest to reach more people, Kubatana produces what we call a “vendor wrapping” sheet. Zimbabwe has a great many street vendors who sell produce such as onions, tomatoes and potatoes. Often they will wrap these in a small piece of paper to make it easier for their customer to carry them home. The Kubatana vendor wrapping sheet is essentially a newspaper that doubles as a wrapping sheet.

We use our access to the Internet to find articles and information on topics such as HIV/AIDS and nutrition, advocacy resources on how women can deal with domestic violence, Zimbabwean poetry and other relevant material. We include a mobile phone number that recipients of the wrapping sheet can send an SMS to with feedback and comment on the content.



Distributing “Constitution Information” flyers in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Photo courtesy of Kubatana.net

But lack of literacy is a major inhibitor to the access to information. Kubatana has developed an interactive voice response (IVR) system that we’ve called Freedom Fone.

Using Freedom Fone, activists and organizations can make short segment radio style programming available over mobile phones and landlines. As a result members of the general public can phone a number and listen to information on elections, HIV/AIDS, and news headlines to name just a few.

When and how did you first learn about FrontlineSMS?

We heard about FrontlineSMS when it was still very much in the developmental stages. We immediately saw the usefulness of being able to have efficient, two-way SMS communications with a large number of subscribers. In particular, we were impressed with the ability to receive a large number of text messages into the computer in a format that meant we could be able to work with them immediately.

Zimbabweans are more connected via text and mobile than any other way. The Internet and email remain “elite” technologies. Print distribution can be difficult and sensitive, depending on the issue you are raising, and the audience you are targeting. Broadcast media is closed to independent voices. SMS is a very immediate way of communicating and very private, too. Our biggest feedback comes via text messages.

What we love about FrontlineSMS and our work is how it strengthens our ability to incorporate subscriber feedback into the materials we develop and publish, such as the “new/free Zimbabwe” campaign.

What was the inspiration and/or motivation for the campaign that you created asking Zimbabweans to describe a new/free Zimbabwe?

It is generally believed that the 2008 election was won resoundingly by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In the days just after the election, Kubatana picked up on the euphoria among the Zimbabwean public and sent out a text message asking people to describe what they wanted in a new/free Zimbabwe. We partly wanted to recognize the feeling on the street and reinforce that feeling, and secondly we felt that it was important to remind Zimbabweans that what we all really want is more than a change of face in government, but also a change of philosophy and attitude.

There is much debate at the moment around whether new technologies can change regimes. They can’t. They can help, but we’ll never tweet or text a revolution. Kubatana essentially believes that conversations have to be started and that we need to encourage as many people as possible to start voicing their desire for change. Within violent and unpredictable environments, that’s at least a start.



Eric Matinenga, Minister of Constitutional Affairs, answers questions from Zimbabweans.

Photo courtesy of Kubatana.net

Your website quotes Joan Baez: “Action is the antidote to despair.” Why is it important to confront despair and keep inspired?

I think you’re either born an activist or not. I don’t think you become one. The managers of Kubatana are all very passionate, motivated and outraged people. We care about social and political injustice and we want to make Zimbabwe a better place. We abhor the fact that an elite of wealthy politicians control the resources of Zimbabwe that should, but don’t, benefit all of us. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” as the slogan goes.

We pay a lot of attention to social injustice and consistently try and suggest ways in which we can all make a difference. For example, we shared a Polish proverb with our membership recently, which says something along the lines of “if everyone cleaned in front of their houses then the whole city would be clean”. In our work we take the powerful in our sights and critique them, but we also remind people that each individual has the ability to make a difference. We need to clean up the mess both individually and collectively.



Kubatana.net was established in 2001 because the founders, Bev Clark and Brenda Burrell, saw a need to “unlock” information from civil society organizations and share it with the general public in Zimbabwe as well as the wider world. Central to the Kubatana platform is an online directory with over 250 NGOs listed, each with a “fact sheet” giving important organizational information. This gives smaller NGOs without many resources a presence on the World Wide Web. The site also aggregates articles, reports, surveys and other documents on the civic and human rights situation in Zimbabwe. Currently the Kubatana library hosts over 17,700 documents. You can read more at www.kubatana.net.





Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. He has spent the last 17 years working on projects in Africa. Recently, his research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. Ken graduated from Sussex University with honors in Social Anthropology with Development Studies, and was awarded a Stanford University Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship in 2006, and named a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008. In 2009 he was named a Laureate of the Tech Awards, an international awards program which honours innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. He was also named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in May 2010. Ken’s work was initially supported by the MacArthur Foundation, and he is the current recipient of grants from the Open Society Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, HIVOS, the Omidyar Network and the Hewlett Foundation.

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  1. Camron Maurice
    February 17, 2014, 9:25 am

    Really informative information about Zimbabwe, normally its quite difficult to find information on Zimbabwe these days, but Thanks to National Geographic for giving us the great information.


  2. Edmond Herbert Mavhima
    November 8, 2011, 5:37 am

    like to be a member and receive news updates daily