Community Organising Technology Lessons Learned From South Africa

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South Africa has a strong history of community organising and activism. Dense, ground-up organizing helped defeat Apartheid, then atrophied after the transition to democracy, but has resurged in the last few years. As any activist can attest, such organizing involves an enormous amount of routine work, which drains resources and diverts leaders’ time from learning, connecting and inspiring.
Technology cannot solve that problem, but it can help. Doing so requires simple, purpose-built tools focused on the real problems faced by ordinary people organizing their neighbours. I founded Grassroot to create such tools, because I wanted to see a nation self-organizing from the ground up.
Grassroot is a free mobile platform that works for any type of phone. It allows communities to engage with their members, call meetings, vote, and create action lists – whether a small burial society or thousands of people mobilising for a rally.  Launched in 2015, we have created tools in South African languages that:

  • Reduce the cost and time of the routine tasks of organizing and mobilizing in marginalized communities
  • Work on any kind of phone, with any quality connection
  • Enable people to call meetings, take votes, record decisions, recruit and find others, and summon help in an emergency

Most importantly, we build with our users, not for them. To make sure of that, we have built partnerships with social movements in three key South African provinces, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. Almost every part of the system—from its overall design to the wording and colors on the interface—has been changed through community feedback.
What are the challenges of the mobile tech environment that we’re working in?

  • Over half of users can afford less than $1 a week in airtime
  • “Dinkies”: these are $10 Nokia phones that are still widely prevalent
  • “Smartphones”: these are often 2nd-hand Blackberries or old non-Android systems
  • Where Android is used, it is on grey market phones that are virus/bug ridden and sometimes very old versions (e.g. 2009-2010)
  • The connectivity challenge is only partly about download “speed”, but more about intermittent availability, either because of network quality or user rationing
  • Electricity is scarce: charging a phone battery once a day is often not feasible for many users

What is the platform being used for?
Meetings and actions have ranged from small neighbourhood safety forums discussing patrol routes, to large social movements meeting and voting on what to do in response to housing allocation issues. To give a specific example from Soweto Johannesburg, a group of community members mobilized against corrupt public housing allocation in their ward.
They used Grassroot to recruit people, summon mass and committee meetings, and make and record decisions. Their Grassroot group quickly grew to more than a thousand people. In their words, “the authorities and the vested interests around here didn’t use to take us seriously … now they know we are a force to be reckoned with”.
What have we achieved thus far?

  • Almost 1,200 meetings have been called
  • Over 300 votes cast
  • Almost 200 actions have been completed.
  • Messaging activity has grown thirtyfold since January 2016 (600 messages were sent that month and by the end of August 2016 this figure had grown to 30,000 per month).

How do we approach the challenges and what have we learned?
1. Realism

  • Technology doesn’t solve problems, it just helps reduce costs and time for people who do
  • “If you build it, they probably won’t come”—almost no new apps get downloaded anymore, so you need have a compelling reason why existing tools won’t work before you start. We spent 4 months doing research before we touched a line of code.
  • The failure rates for commercial tech start-ups are 40-80%, so there’s no reason to think it would be lower for non-profit

2. Humility

  • It’s not about us teaching them or us activating them—it’s the reverse: it’s about learning from users
  • We’ve learned to meet the users where they are, on the tools/platforms they themselves already use
  • Be prepared to get it wrong the first time, and to have to cycle repeatedly to improve anything that’s built

3. Focus

  • Avoid building something new just because “apps”seem like a fashionable idea
  • A health clinic can’t be built in a week by a team that has no doctors; similarly, a non-tech project team can’t build an app in a week (except at low quality)

In sum, if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that all the folk wisdoms are true – be human-centred, agile, and ready to take risks.  Even so, putting these into practice is a long, difficult process that requires long-term advance planning and continual adaption.
By Luke Jordan, Founder &  Director of Grassroot