Tech tries to outmaneuver a tyrant in Zimbabwe

Ahead of important elections, Freedom Fone, a homegrown product designed to use cell phones to help inform voters and monitor the polls, has run out of funding.
Written by Dave Mayers, Correspondent, Johannesburg

JOHANNESBURG--Ahead of some of the most important elections in Zimbabwe's history, Freedom Fone, a homegrown product designed to use cell phones to help inform voters and monitor the polls, has run out of funding.

"I think it could have been a very useful tool," said Freedom Fone's Tina Rolfe. In Zimbabwe, a country where opposition parties don't have access to state-controlled media outlets, Freedom Fone could have been used by politicians "to get their message out."

President Robert Mugabe has rushed national elections to July 31, in an attempt to extend his 33-year rule. The threat of violence hangs over the upcoming polls, and with only six weeks to organize ballots for the millions of expected voters, irregularities with voter rolls have already been reported.

Freedom Fone was developed by The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe with funding from The Knight News Challenge. It grew out of the desire to bring the power of social media to communities without access to the Internet. Only a quarter of Zimbabweans can get online, while nearly the entire population has access to mobile phones.

At its core, Freedom Fone is based on a simple idea; people with mobile phones can call specified numbers for prerecorded information. They can also leave messages on a simple to set up and easy to maintain system. In its implementation, the system has brought access to information to people that have traditionally been kept out of the loop.

Freedom Fone is not limited to Zimbabwe. In Ghana and Tanzania, farmers use the system to send and receive agricultural information. It was used to monitor parliamentary elections in Egypt. It's even been used in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to allow women to access pre-recorded information on sexual assault, all while remaining anonymous.

A Freedom Fone election observation comic

Freedom Fone has found countless uses in communities across the world. But last year Freedom Fone's funding in Zimbabwe began to dry up. Its Harare offices now sit empty most days, and with only a week before national elections, Rolfe only comes into work for eight hours a week.

"At this point we're not equipped to deal with the whole election program," she said.

Media control in Zimbabwe is notoriously tight. A hard-to-track, easy-to-operate system like Freedom Fone could have been invaluable in a country where citizens were jailed simply for watching videos of the Arab Spring.

Freedom Fone is powered by free open source software that's available to download from the program's website. To run it, a user needs to have a spare computer with 2GB of RAM and a device to connect Freedom Fone to at least one SIM card. These devices can cost anywhere between $65 and $1,200 depending on the complexity of the system and the number of individual connections needed.

Funding aside, Freedom Fone was slower to take off in Zimbabwe than in many of the other countries it's used in. According to Rolfe, local use of Freedom Fone "was not as high as we hoped."

"In Zimbabwe specifically, I think one of the stumbling blocks is that while mobile is ubiquitous, it's not as cheap as in other countries, like Kenya for example" said Rolfe.

Photos: Freedomfone.org

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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