Blue Messenger Bicycles bring lifesaving information to South Sudan
In 2020, South Sudan grappled with historic floods, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, economic fluctuations, and recurrent local conflicts. Many found their families newly displaced or affected by these compounding challenges.
While coping with unpredictable events and movements, the most vulnerable people in South Sudan have less access to life-saving information. Recognizing this vast unmet need in communities, a network of young innovators in South Sudan founded Voice Post as a social enterprise under the slogan “Information is Aid”.
“We believe information is a human right and therefore not affording a radio should not be a barrier to getting informed,” said Atem Peter, a Voice Post founder. “We believe two-way communication is more effective in making sure communities are well informed and heard.”
The Voice Post team launched a pilot in Juba during the onset of the pandemic. Their concept was Blue Messenger Bicycles (BMB), which would go on to win the South Sudan National NGO Forum’s Most Innovative/Transformative Peace-Making Program Award in November 2020.
Bright and strikingly blue, each bicycle is mounted with a megaphone, an amplifier, a battery, and a USB stick. They broadcast recorded messages and collect feedback from communities. After proving their concept worked, and with support and technical expertise from UNDP South Sudan’s Accelerator Lab and Communications Unit, the team received 50 bicycles in October 2020 to expand their reach.
The team divided Juba into four zones, 13 blocks and 68 villages. They disseminate COVID-19 messages in Arabic, English, Dinka, Nuer, and Bari.
The programme covered 720,000 households from October to December 2020, reaching about 2,160,000. When faced with information fatigue, the team shifted messaging to malaria, diarrhea, and polio public health information campaigns. They also collected more than 100 complaints, reports of rumors, and feedback from community members.
“Vulnerable groups such as children, elderly and people with disabilities tend to not move far out of their homesteads. Since BMB passes by their homes while amplifying audio messages with life-saving information, they become delighted and informed,” said Mabior Ajuong, BMB’s programme manager.
While the BMB concept is straightforward, no such initiative with similar scalability exists in South Sudan aside from radio. The Voice Post team has spent the past months improving the construction of the bikes, as well as how they track and provide accountability for their riders and their reach.
The team installed Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking devices in early January. They help with fleet management by reporting geographic coverage and monitoring the movement of the bicycles. When the first GPS trackers they tested began to have technical issues, the team traveled to Uganda to follow up with the manufacturer. They came away from the meeting with an improved device, which will replace the others.
“The GPS data helps us improve our performance by giving our team access to real time information and the ability to generate accurate reports in terms of areas covered daily, weekly and monthly,” said Mabior.
“We also stop regularly to interact with the communities as one of our key indicators. The tracking device will indicate how many times a day a bike stopped and it will be great to capture it in our daily reports.”
The Blue Messenger Bicycle fleet is powered by 46 men and four women volunteer, who rang from high school to university students. In addition to the bright blue of their bikes, the teams wear reflectors to maximize their visibility as they cycle with information across Juba.
Sixty percent of the volunteers are experienced in teaching both at primary and secondary school level. Since teachers are some of the most influential in the community and had lost jobs when schools closed.
Each of the four zones in Juba has a captain to coordinate efforts, and bicycles are kept in storage spaces in off hours. Some are provided by local businesses.
Voice Post conducted capacity building trainings with the mobilizers. Their sessions focused on creating a sustainable fleet by equipping zone leaders with the skills to conduct repairs on the amplifiers and megaphones, boost Communication for Development inter-personal communication skills and essential road safety.
In addition to coordinating with the South Sudan Risk Communications and Community Engagement Technical Working Group, both national and Central Equatoria state ministries of health have engaged Voice Post to carry out a polio vaccination awareness campaign.
Voice Post also gained support from the Ministry of Health and Juba City Council to construct information poles equipped with loudspeakers in Juba markets and bus parks.
The team is developing a sustainability plan in consultation with UNDP’s Accelerator Lab, and has begun contacting civil society organizations and businesses with their unique value offer, to fund expansion of the social enterprise initiative in future. They aim to extend Blue Messenger Bicycle services to four more locations in 2021.
“We want to expand because we know there are many more contexts in South Sudan where BMB messages can be effective,” said Atem, adding that in Yambio, Torit and Yei there is a rich bicycle culture.
“Did you know in some of these locations a newly wedded woman must be bought a new bicycle by the husband, as a sign of true love? With such positive cultural association, we think bringing BMB’s programme and volunteerism to these communities to disseminate information will add more value to their use of bicycles,” he said.
Follow Voice Post on Facebook and Twitter for additional updates on the progress of Blue Messenger Bicycle initiative. Some photos for this story are courtesy of Voice Post and photographer Isaac Buay.
Story by UNDP South Sudan; Photos UNDP South Sudan/Kymberly Bays