One-line solution summary:
A school in your phone! Giving rural African girls access to interactive learning experiences through simple keypad phones.
Pitch your solution.
Across Africa, girls from poor, rural areas face barriers to education. Poor families prioritize educating sons over daughters, who are needed for time-consuming, laborious work: fetching water from boreholes miles away, cooking, washing clothes by hand, caring for younger children, and selling charcoal. These tasks leave little time or energy for school. To solve this problem, we designed a remote offline school that girls can access using a keypad phone! We send educational content via robocalls and text messages, then follow up by teaching remote lessons via a daily radio broadcast. Youth interact with the lessons by listening to the radio and answering questions via real-time SMS. Responses feed into an online dashboard tracking user participation. Users receive tailored reports on academic performance via text message. Our model distributes education remotely without needing internet! Scaled up, it could provide education to 132 million girls globally who are out of school.
What specific problem are you solving?
Many barriers prevent Ugandan youth from accessing education. The first is cost. Although Uganda has Universal Secondary Education in theory, in practice all schools charge school fees and do not allow youth to attend if they haven’t purchased the schoolbooks, uniforms, and other school supplies required. The second barrier is income generation. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), 64% of youth are engaged in employment to support their families. The third reason is there aren’t enough schools or teachers. In rural areas, the nearest school could be a two hour walk! Teachers’ salaries are so low they are forced to teach “full-time” in multiple schools simultaneously, leading to high teacher absenteeism as teachers cannot be in the same school at once. For girls, especially ones from poor families, there are additional hurdles. Poor families need their daughters to help with housework or income-generating activities. Often, a young daughter will be married off in order for the family to receive the financial compensation of her dowry. 40% of Ugandan girls are married before the age of 18 and 10% are married before 15. Only 30% of girls aged 13 to 18 years old are enrolled in high school.
What is your solution?
We are enabling rural Ugandan girls to remotely attend school using keypad phones and radios. We use a “flipped classroom” model where learners first interact with content individually, then engage in a lesson covering that content. We send educational content to users via robocalls and SMS. The combination of audio and text keeps the model inclusive of low literacy learners (30% of Ugandan women over 15 remain illiterate). We follow up with live lessons distributed remotely via a daily radio broadcast. During the radio lessons, the teacher asks questions and assigns homework. The learner submits answers to questions in real-time via unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) codes, a communication protocol used by GSM cell phones to communicate with the mobile network operator’s computers. Learners submit homework and complete quizzes via USSD as well. All responses feed into an online database, which tracks user participation. This database sends feedback to users via SMS on how many responses they get correct. The educational content is recorded into two local languages for our pilot. The audio files are stored in a database accessed by users through a tollfree number with option menus so they can call in to review specific topics.
Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?
According to the UNPF and UNICEF, Uganda has approximately 6 million female adolescents, 30% of whom are enrolled in school. We aim to reach 35% of them in our pilot, to demonstrate that our model reaches more girls than the current education system does. Although an increase of 5% seems small, that is an additional 301,000 girls accessing education. According to the UNPF, 19.6% of adolescents live in families where the head of household has no education, so every additional person with education makes a difference!
Radios and simple keypad phones are ubiquitous throughout Uganda, even in remote areas. According to the BBC’s 2019 Media Landscape Report, 87% of Ugandans have a working radio and 74% have one keypad phone in their household. Ugandans pay for school fees, electricity, and most everyday expenses using SMS via USSD. Therefore, this distribution strategy is one that people already use in daily life. Additionally, the radio lessons are only 20 minutes, so they don’t use up valuable working time that girls need to provide for and take care of their families. When youths receive educational content via SMS, they can read it at times that are convenient for their schedule.
Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?Increase the number of girls and young women participating in formal and informal learning and training
Explain how the problem, your solution, and your solution’s target population relate to the Challenge and your selected dimension.
In Uganda, secondary education remains inaccessible to most adolescents, especially girls in rural regions. Early marriage, teenage pregnancy, abuse at school, and school fees keep most girls out of school. According to the World Bank Group, each year of secondary education a girl receives reduces the likelihood of marrying before 18 years old by 5 percentage points! A 2017 World Bank study showed that ending child marriage in Uganda could generate $14 million USD in earnings and productivity. Our Yiya Air School gives girls access to education using resources that their households already possess, requiring no internet or additional cost.
In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?Lira, Uganda
What is your solution’s stage of development?Pilot: An organization deploying a tested product, service, or business model in at least one community
Who is the primary delegate for your solution?
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?A new application of an existing technology
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
Our solution presents a huge opportunity to impact the entire educational landscape in Uganda. Most out-of-school Ugandan girls are deep in remote areas that have no internet and are hard to physically access, especially during the rainy season. 87% of Ugandans have a working radio and 74% have at least one keypad phone in their household. All Ugandans are familiar with paying for basic services using USSD (real-time SMS) on their phones. So, we will deliver educational content to them via their phones in the same USSD format. Currently, during COVID-19 school closures, the government and many other nonprofits are distributing education via channels like TV, radio, and newspaper supplements. Our innovation is different! Yes, we are using the radio but we are also using USSD so learners can actually interact with the content, and receive feedback on their responses. Those submitted responses feed into an online dashboard so we can monitor user participation and adjust the model flexibly in response to user trends. This model will reach all 12 million adolescent Ugandans, both those who are currently enrolled in school and those who are NOT enrolled in school. In the past decade, USSD has been used to successfully expand mobile financial services and medical expertise to rural, remote populations across Africa. Now we are putting it to use to expand access to education, with a focus on adolescent girls whose educational attainment has a massive impact on their communities and their long-term life outcomes.
Describe the core technology that powers your solution.
Our solution uses USSD on simple keypad phones and FM radios. 87% of Ugandans have a working radio and 74% have at least one keypad phone in their household. All Ugandans are familiar with paying for basic services using USSD (real-time SMS) on their phones.
The Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) is a network communication protocol that is popularly used to load airtime and facilitate mobile money transactions. Through an aggregator partnership, USSD is used to solicit feedback from listeners.
USSD will also be used in conjunction with SMS (Short Messaging Service) to run quick polls and generate user feedback, capture responses to questions asked during live radio sessions and viewing / disseminating progress reports.
We understand that USSD and SMS are limited in character length and may present unique challenges when subscribers are revisiting content. To mitigate this, we are also leveraging the use of:
Robo-calls to send out notifications to subscribers. These are pre-recorded messages sent out to recipients in the form of a phone call.
A call-in toll free service that allows subscribers revisit academic content and previously aired shows.
The USSD extension (*284*99#) and toll free numbers have been secured. We are currently in the process of developing a dashboard to provide visibility across the different communication channels.
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Select the key characteristics of your target population.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people does your solution currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
Currently serves: 400 users (pre-pilot)
This year: 300,000 users (pilot)
In five years: 3,600,000 users
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
At Yiya, we believe the key to helping youth chart their own paths lies in teaching them resilience, creativity, and flexible thinking. We aim to create the next generation of African innovators and inventors by teaching young people to use the engineering design process to apply science and math topics from school to solve real problems in their local communities. Yiya’s vision is a world where the 1.3 billion people living in Africa have a seat at the table in innovative fields globally, where African perspectives, knowledge, and skills help create new solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. We envision a future where African technologies drive a powerful African economy that provides productive, fulfilling livelihoods for all its inhabitants.
This model we have designed in response to COVID-19 means our vision can be realized not just with the young people who have the resources and opportunity to go to school, but to all young people in Africa.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
Culturally, parents in rural areas can be hesitant to give phones to girls, fearing promiscuity or older male predators (commonly called "sugar daddies" in rural areas)
Securing and paying for airtime on FM radio stations
Copyright → breach by orgs that already have money. They duplicate but implement poorly. We have already seen a few big NGOs in Uganda who heard of our idea (of using USSD to distribute education to remote areas) via our newsletter and started trying it out themselves. But they are not implementing with the best practices that we know are needed from our experience with these populations.
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
We will work with the 50 teachers who are currently in our experiential STEM program to sensitize parents. Then, once we are big enough and adopted/accredited by the Ugandan government, parents will not be afraid anymore. We are working to formalize our partnership with the Ugandan Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation for this purpose. We also hope to provide our services to the Ministry of Education as an add-on feature for the lessons they are already distributing via TV, radio, and newspaper supplements.
For airtime → Since learning resources will mostly be shared via robocalls and USSD, radio time will be less than 30 minutes, drastically reducing on airtime costs. Hoping to get corporate Ugandan donors to donate a week/month of program airtime to offset costs.
For copyright → We are hoping to build a consortium of orgs interested in adopting this model to teach their content, so that we can help steer HOW they implement it so it addresses users' needs and specific circumstances, especially that of rural girls who need this intervention the most!
What type of organization is your solution team?Nonprofit
How many people work on your solution team?
5 full time staff, 3 part time staff.
How many years have you worked on your solution?
Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?
Yiya cofounder and 2019 Obama Africa Fellow Samson Wambuzi is a physics teacher with a Bachelors of Science from Makerere University and a veteran of the Ugandan school system. He grew up in a rural region with few resources. His childhood experiences have shaped Yiya’s mission. He is an experienced curriculum designer who loves creating learning experiences full of educational games that demonstrate difficult topics in a student-friendly way.
Yiya cofounder Erin has a Bachelors of Science from MIT and Masters of Education from Marquette University. Her career in education started in Teach for America, teaching high school math in Milwaukee. She has over a decade of experience in secondary STEM educationacross the US, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Sudan.
Yiya Innovations Coordinator and Robo School Project Lead Sheeba Niwensiima is a youth innovator and community activist with a degree in Computer Engineering from Mbarara University of Science and Technology. She is passionate about using technology to positively transform people’s lives. She has experience as a Tech Educator in robotics and a tutor for embedded systems.
Yiya Programs Fellow Edrine Ssemwanga graduated from Ashesi University in Ghana, with a degree in Management Information Systems. Edrine is passionate about working with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, always with the mission of achieving positive impact in the world.
Yiya Program Officer Denis Owac is a business fanatic! He owns several businesses in Lira Town, Northern Uganda, his home district. Denis obtained a diploma in Public Administration from Fountain Aid Institute in Lira.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
Oysters & Pearls - Uganda (NGO), an edutech partner in Gulu, Northern Uganda. Educational and technical thought partner. We share staff, funds, and expertise as needed for various projects, to keep both of our budgets lean and efficient!
Thin Void Limited (for-profit software firm), experts in using USSD to get services to rural populations. They have designed the back end for innovative solutions used by orgs like Barefoot Law Uganda and Pollicy.
Ugandan Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MOSTI) - Branch of the Ugandan government who partners with us on different initiatives. Our work gives them good press and shows they are working hard in the community and their credibility opens doors for us. See MOSTI at our biggest event of 2019, the Yiya Annual Technology & Innovation competition.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?
MIT faculty who can help us think through big data, and how to help rural populations (we are huge fans of D-Lab!!!). Other Solve members using USSD to distribute services to last mile populations who need them most.
- Erin Fitzgerald Cofounder & Country Director, Yiya Engineering Solutions