The most recent two decades in Senegal have been witness to a large shift of social communication norms, accessibility of information communication technologies (ICTs), and growth of ICT networks. Use of mobile phones in rural areas in Senegal is substantial– the penetration rate is 44.6% in 2008 (ITU, 2009). Increased cell phone usage is matched by expanding network coverage and the emergence of several competing operators.2Basic use of mobile phones in rural areas is widespread, but sending SMS and accessing the Internet by mobile phone is much less common (ITU, 2009).
The possibility to expand SMS usage in rural communities throughout Senegal is large as text messaging remains the least expensive form of communication over distance. In addition, a significant portion of the rural Senegalese population migrates for work (on average each household reported 5 of their family members currently living and working outside Senegal).
Senegalese out-migration flows are dominated by men ages 15-34 and thus this youthful population is of prime age for developing communication patterns which incorporate text messaging (UNDP Human Development Statistics, 2009)3. SMS text messaging can provide a low-cost solution to communicate with the diaspora. (see Appendix 3). However, the usage of mobile phones as a communications strategy can only be functional if all members of the community understand how to use, and have access to, a cell phone, as well as read and write messages.
A very high share of women and teenage girls in rural Senegal lack both access to a mobile phone and the literacy skills needed to text message. In our study, only one in 8 female respondents owned a cell phone, less than half the rate for men. In addition, over 40% of the female respondents had no literacy or numeracy skills, again almost double the rate for men. Thus, the gender bias in literacy and numeracy skills and cell phone ownership must be addressed for equitable inclusive growth using ICT.
We report on a pilot study in 20 communities of adding cell phone literacy and a free “SMS Community Forum” to an adult literacy and numeracy program. Overall results are promising, but the SMS Community Forum is not yet achieving all of its goals.