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Niger Smart Villages: a Nation’s Commitment to Digital Inclusion and Rural Growth

In early July, Amplio's senior program manager Ryan Forbes Morris traveled to Niger with founder and executive director Cliff Schmidt to participate in the planning and launch of the Niger Smart Villages project. A government-led initiative, Niger Smart Villages aims to digitally connect 15,000 villages to the Internet and e-services. The project is being implemented in partnership with multiple UN agencies.

Ryan previously lived and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. We asked him to talk about the project and how it felt to be back in Niger again.

Amplio: Describe Amplio's role in the Niger Smart Villages project.

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: Tell us what you love 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. I also love 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 age of citizens is 15 years old. Most of the country is covered by the Sahara desert. A majority of Niger’s citizens live in rural, remote, hard-to-reach areas with limited or no access to electricity or Internet.

Members of the Niger Smart Villages project met in July.

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 services in areas such as agriculture, health, and education. Niger’s National Agency for the Information Society (ANSI) is leading the effort. ITU, the UN’s specialized 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 ten 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 reach and share targeted behavior change messaging and technical information with low-literate communities. Each Talking Book collects usage data and user feedback. This will provide valuable insight about the successes and obstacles that citizens encounter in practicing, adopting, and maintaining healthy behaviors. It also helps give the communities a voice.

Ryan takes a selfie with the Niger Minestry of Health team

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.

A Talking Book presentation in Sadore, Niger

Amplio: You and Cliff participated in a site visit to Sadore, one of the pilot project villages. What do 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 design. 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 information they can use to improve their livelihoods and keep their children healthy.

In one of his 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.” 

Amplio: You also attended the Innovation for Development Conference in Niamey, the capital city. What was your takeaway? 

Ryan: In one of his 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 has the potential to change the narrative.

Ryan with Minister Ibrahim Guimba-Saïdou and his wife and Hani Eskander, ICT Applications Coordinator for ITU

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.


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