Amplio senior program manager Ryan Forbes Morris discusses Nigerien patience and plans for connecting rural communities to the digital world
In early July, Amplio senior program manager, Ryan Forbes Morris, and executive director, Cliff Schmidt, traveled to Niamey, Niger, to participate in the planning and launch of the “Niger 2.0” Smart Villages project. The government-led initiative aims to digitally connect 15,000 villages to the Internet and e-services.
Ryan previously lived and worked in Niger. We asked him to talk about the project.
Amplio: What were you and Cliff doing in Niger?
Ryan: Amplio is one of the partners for the government of Niger’s initiative to broaden access to information and e-services in 15,000 villages. In July, Cliff and I spent 10 days participating in co-creation workshops and planning sessions for the Niger Smart Villages project. We worked through the weekends, all day, in back-to-back meetings and collaboration.
Amplio: This wasn’t your first visit to Niger.
Ryan: In 2008, I joined the Peace Corps and traveled to Niger for my assignment as a community and youth development volunteer. I was based in Maradi, where I worked with the local school board and taught classes at a secondary school and the city library. I also hosted an educational radio show at Radio Anfani.
Amplio: So you speak French.
Ryan: Yes. I speak French, Portuguese, and a little Hausa. On this trip, people were surprised to hear me speaking Hausa.
Amplio: Can you share some of your favorite things about Niger?
Ryan: I appreciate the warmth of the Nigerien people and the proverbs that are a cornerstone of the culture. Nigeriens often speak about the importance of having patience and that’s a lesson that has resonated with me since my first trip. Some of my favorite things about Niger include the silver jewelry and leatherwork, the stunning electric guitar music, and the mahogany color of the earth.
Amplio: What are some of the challenges in Niger?
Ryan: Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries and has one of the youngest and fastest growing populations. The average is 15 years old. Most of the country is covered by the Sahara desert. Consequently, a majority of Niger’s citizens live in rural, remote, hard-to-reach areas.
Members of the Niger Smart Villages team visit Sadore, one of the pilot project communities.
Amplio: How did the Smart Villages project come together?
Ryan: The Smart Villages initiative is part of the government’s plan to connect remote areas of the country to the benefits of the Internet, information, and digital servicesin areas such as agriculture, health, and education. Niger’s National Agency for the Information Society (ANSI) is leading the effort.
ITU, the United Nations agency for information and communications technologies responded and said, “Let’s put together an international team and launch a pilot to see how works, get more funding, and scale up the entire country.”
Amplio: Who else is involved?
Ryan: Organizations and people from Africa, Europe, the U.S., and Latin American. This includes the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO, UNICEF, Digital Impact Alliance, and others. It’s an amazing collaboration. We’re taking our tools and best practices from all of these different contexts and adapting them for Niger, and also creating a lot of new materials.
Through the Smart Villages project, we’ll help service providers, like teachers and health workers, improve their professional practices and more effectively serve their communities. And we also will share knowledge and raise awareness through relevant local language audio, SMS, voice, and video messaging.
In July, the Niger Smart Villages team convened for 10 days of planning and collaboration.
Amplio: Where does Amplio’s technology fit in?
Ryan: Amplio’s audio platform will be a key technology and everyone is very enthusiastic. Niger has one of the lowest literacy levels — only one in five adults can read. Talking Books will be used to deliver targeted behavior change and demand generation audio messaging to low-literate communities. Each Talking Book device collects usage data and user feedback. This will provide valuable insight about the successes and obstacles that beneficiaries encounter in practicing, adopting, and maintaining healthy behaviors. It also helps give the community a voice.
Ryan (right) worked with the motivated Ministry of Health team to develop Talking Book messaging about diabetes, cholera, and other topics in line with Niger government’s health plan.
Amplio: What is your role in working with the Smart Villages team?
Ryan: On this trip, Cliff trained the ICT team on how to use Amplio’s technology, including our audio content manager, app, and dashboard, as well as the Talking Book device. I worked with the ministry of health and agriculture teams to provide training on the development of targeted behavior change audio messaging for Talking Books. For example, for agriculture, we worked on animal husbandry messaging. For health, we covered maternal and child health issues, communicable diseases, and non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular health. We had to define the most pressing topics to address, in line with the country’s health strategy, and develop messaging that’s engaging and interactive.
Amplio executive director Cliff Schmidt (left) looks on during a Talking Book presentation in Sadore, one of the communities selected for Niger Smart Villages pilot project.
Niger Smart Villages
In line with the African Union’s digital transformation goal, Niger has developed a strategy to expand digital culture, innovation, and inclusion. Smart Villages initiative is one of the intiatives to help achieve the country’s technology and development goals.
PROJECT QUICK FACTS
Goal: To connect 15,000 villages in Niger to the internet and digital services and accelerate and facilitate the connection of more than 85% of the population.
Issue Areas: Health, Education, Agriculture, Government, Banking
Project lauch: 2019
WHAT IS DIGITAL INCLUSION?
Digital inclusion refers to empowering people through information and communication technologies (ICTs). The Digital inclusion activities are designed to promote ICT accessibility and use for the social and economic development of people with specific needs, including indigenous peoples and people living in rural areas; persons with disabilities; women and girls; and youth and children.
UNESCO-Pearson Initiative for Literacy: Improved Livelihoods in a Digital World
Carefully designed digital solutions can help people — even those with very low literacy levels and limited technology skills— navigate digital spaces and benefit from relevant applications, such as those targeting farmers or connecting users to health services.
UNESCO and Pearson, an education company, teamed up to explore new ways to enable low-skilled and low-literate youth and adults to profit from inclusive digital technologies, which in turn will strengthen their literacy and basic skills.
The project has led to the development of a number of resources, including:
The Amplio Talking Book Program is recognized by UNESCO as an inclusive digital solution that low-literate adults and youth can use to gai skills and knowledge to improve their lives and livelihoods.
Amplio: You and Cliff participated in a site visit to Sadore and did a Talking Book demo, one of the pilot project villages. What did the local people think?
Ryan: People are excited that their village was chosen for the Smart Villages pilot. They’re very open-minded and they want knowledge. It was helpful to hear about some of their needs and challenges. One of the elders said, “We want you to be patient with us, because not all of us know how to use technology.”
The beauty of Amplio’s audio platform is the simplicity of the Talking Book device. It’s rugged and easy to use, yet extremely relevant and appropriate for the context.
Digital doesn’t have to be complicated. For Smart Villages, we’re bringing together appropriate tools that will revolutionize the way people access and engage with information they can use to improve their lives or save the lives of their children.
One of the Sadore elders said, “Be patient with us, because not all of us know how to use technology.”
Amplio: You also attended the Innovation for Development Conference in Niamey, the capital city. What was your takeaway?
Ryan: In one of his I4Dev speeches, Minister Ibrahima Guimba-Saïdou, the director general of ANSI, said, “il faut que tout le monde parle ‘numerique.”
It means that everyone needs to be able to speak “digital.” Understanding technology is an essential 21st-century skill, so it’s exciting to see Niger’s commitment and innovative approach to connecting its most rural and isolated communities. There’s been a lot of negative press about Niger, but I think the ‘Niger 2.0’ Smart Villages project has the potential to change the narrative.
Amplio: Overall, what was the highlight for you on this visit?
Ryan: The motivation and enthusiasm of the Nigerien government staff. Everyone worked very hard and did their best to be effective in a cross-cultural environment where not everyone spoke the same language. It was an inspiring exercise in patience, creativity, and collaboration.
Ryan with Minister Ibrahima Guimba-Saïdou, Director General of the National Agency for the Information Society, Madame Guimba-Saïdou, and Hani Eskander, ICT Applications Coordinator for ITU