Feature Article of Thursday, 8 March 2012
Columnist: Bayor, Raymond Yeldidong
Literacy’s Bridge Talking Book- Ghana’s Panacea to the Challenges of Rural Health, Agriculture, and Illiteracy.
Literacy Bridge Ghana is a duly registered Non-Governmental Organisation dedicated to using Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D), with a particular focus on improving rural health, education and income. Literacy Bridge acknowledges that a wealth of crucial knowledge is already available within developing countries; the problem is reaching people who lack literacy skills and live without electricity. Our solution to this problem is a simple and low-cost audio technology — the Talking Book. We designed the Talking Book to address the short and long-term needs of those we serve: it gets vital knowledge into their hands immediately, while enabling them to practice and improve their literacy skills over time. Literacy Bridge saves lives and improves the livelihoods of impoverished families through comprehensive programs that provide on-demand access to locally relevant knowledge.
Arguably, the world’s cheapest programmable audio computer that shares locally-relevant knowledge and improves literacy, Literacy Bridge’s Talking Book is one of the world’s user-friendliest and most interactive audio devices. When turned on, the customised verbal instructions lead users through the audio user interface. To access recordings, users are guided by audio prompts and respond with key presses. For instance, pressing the right and left arrows navigate through categories (for example, “health”, “agriculture”, “stories”) and once in a category, the up and down arrows rotate through individual messages. Thus simple and actionable instructional messages that are repeatable and can be played when needed, enable people to learn and adopt new practices to fight poverty, diseases and illiteracy.
The current version of the Talking Book is 12 cm x 12 cm x 6.5 cm deep and weighs 225 grams without batteries. Devices are typically powered by two, zinc-carbon, size-D batteries, which we have found in rural markets throughout Ghana, to be 60 pesewas. These batteries supply 12-15 hours of typical use. Power can be conserved using earphones, but a built-in speaker enables group listening. To improve robustness and affordability, the device has no display. Recordings are stored on an internal microSD memory card, which typically provides 17-70 hours of capacity. The device was also built to survive life in dry, dust storms, tropical rain, and comes in different colours.
The software on the Talking Book is the heart of the device. Because it is a computer, we can work with our partners to customize the software to precisely fill their needs. The flexibility of its software remains the Talking Book’s sole hallmark of adaptability .This is one of the most programmable audio devices in the world, with the ability to record and play applications. Unlike most typical recording devices, the talking book allows users to engage with it more interactively, and in many dialects as well.
This device is so accessible and easy to use; once it’s powered, it guides you through performing tasks like listening and recording. Its navigation interface is also localised in the native dialect of the user, thus allowing people with no prior experience with technology to learn how to use it from their peers. The device only requires, as indicated earlier, dry cell batteries though it can also be connected to grid electricity. In the dark or night, users don’t require light as they can listen to the device by feeling the indentations on the interface. It is user-friendly towards the visually-impaired. And unlike mobile phones, which require funds for network time and comparatively more expensive handsets to function, the Talking Book plays on-demand content at absolutely no cost.
Even though the device runs on batteries, and not electricity, it uses very little energy for playback, recording, and interaction. Once recordings are done, the user can access them time and time again without incurring further cost as in the case of mobile phones where network access and units are at a charge to the user. The device also allows for free device-to-device copying of content, unlike other physical media like DVDs or tapes. A single copy can ensure the spread of content throughout the community.
In January 2009, Literacy Bridge piloted Talking Books in Vivin, a remote village in the Jirapa District of the Upper West Region of Ghana. After conducting over 100 interviews to evaluate the impact of giving farmers on-demand access to agricultural guidance, it was found out that 91% of residents using Talking Books in their homes applied a new health or agricultural practice; farmers who had access to the Talking Book had an average increase in crop production of 48% compared to non users decrease of 5%; this program created a return of more than three times the current investment in just the first year.
When asked how they would use the extra crop yields, 75% of farmers said they would sell their new surplus to pay for health insurance, invest in farming inputs, improve their houses-especially before the next rainy season, and pay for their children’s school fees. Obviously, the use of the Talking Book demonstrated such a great impact on rural agricultural practices.
This pilot, which Literacy Bridge began by collaborating with local experts to produce content for the devices, enhanced the lives of the rural communities. Experts included officials from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Ghana Education Service, and Ghana Health Service.
The impact evaluation paper of this pilot was invited for presentation at the ICTD (International Conference on Information and Communications Technologies and Development) 2010 Conference in London. Based on these results, we have more interest than ever from organizations around the world who want to use Talking Books to increase their impact. In June 2010, the Ghanaian Government purchased Talking Books, which are being used to give women better access to farming information. As our current capacity allows, we are launching partnerships to enable even more rural people gain access to information and improve the health and income of their families.
In July 2011, another pilot-the maternal and Child Health care programme-was commissioned by Literacy Bridge Ghana. This programme seeks to significantly reduce the number of preventable deaths, by loading actionable, on-demand recordings unto to the Talking Book. Officers of Wa and Jirapa District Health Services said the program would complement their efforts in reaching even more rural communities with health messages. Later, in August 2011, Literacy Bridge worked with directors of the Ghana Health Service in Lawra, Jirapa and Wa districts to determine the following messages: exclusive breastfeeding for six months after delivery, delivery with skilled birth attendant, use of treated mosquito nets, washing of hands with soap, and oral rehydration therapy. This has been against the backdrop that seven doctors serve 600,000 people, with an even worse situation in the villages where no doctors are stationed. This ratio is a far cry from the case of the USA where 1,872 doctors serve 600,000 people, and that of Europe with an average of 2000 doctors to 600,000 people.
Dapuoha was one of the three communities where phase I of the Maternal and Child Health Care programme was piloted. Mothers and their families in this community received strategic health and nutrition information in the form of songs, stories, and messages recorded on the Talking Book. These mothers and their families have, since the launch, been listening to the Talking Book messages and learning practical ways of keeping themselves and their families healthy. This phase marked the distribution of Talking Books in group setting in order for the message to be heard by majority of the people.
When the Literacy Bridge team visited the community around November 2011, children were heard singing songs that were used as messages in the Talking Books. The questions that were posed by the women indicated that they had learnt things they previously thought could not be harmful to their children. The Baseline survey for this program, which will be will be subjected to expert review, is ready, and marks phase II of the program. This survey seeks to help assess the impact of the program.
Indeed, Literacy Bridge’s Talking Book proves to be Ghana’s panacea to the challenges of rural health, agriculture, and illiteracy. Further information can be obtained from Literacy Bridge’s website: www.literacybridge.org
From: Raymond Yeldidong Bayor