Americans Rachel Brooks and Jeremy Gordon came to Kenya in 2010 to volunteer with a microfinance organisation targeted at farmers. While at Juhudi Kilimo, they realised how hard it was to collect data, interact with farmers and measure the organisation’s social impact. It was expensive to frequently send researchers to the field and it took time to analyse information collected.
So they developed a cloud-based system that allows the sending out of mass messages and collection of data using mobile phones. This information is easily accessible to decision-makers in real time, at any location. In 2012 the service spun out into a start-up called Echo Mobile.
“There were other organisations in the market who were really interested in having this kind of communication with their clients,” says Zoe Cohen, CEO of Echo Mobile.
“It is common in more economically advanced societies that your business is driven by data. But it is harder to collect that data here because people are not plugged into the internet and aren’t on their email all the time. So our founders wanted to use the instrument everyone has in their pocket – mobile phones.”
Tackling Ebola in Sierra Leone
Echo Mobile is used in 10 countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Its clients include research companies, NGOs and private businesses in the health, education, microfinance, agriculture and energy sectors. The service has reportedly been used to send over 5 million SMSs to communicate with nearly half a million people.
In Sierra Leone, Echo Mobile is used by researchers to collect information from communities on Ebola-related issues through partnership with mobile service provider Airtel, and the research arm of US tech giant IBM.
Cohen says the service has enabled researchers and public health officials to identify areas of need such a shortage of supplies in certain hospitals, understand day-to-day experiences of affected communities and handle misconceptions about Ebola.
“The material collected was used to influence radio programming. There was a rumour that eating kola nut would make you immune to Ebola, which is false. So through the radio programme health officials would make people understand that kola nut is not an effective way to prevent Ebola.”
How businesses are using the service
Although it was initially built to ease data collection and research, businesses are now using the service for product registration and verification to enhance their interaction with customers, and to promote products by informing buyers about new supplies or when to redeem coupons. Their consumers, on the other hand, can send in queries about products or file complaints free of charge.
“We have health clinics using it to follow up on patients after a visit to make sure they are adhering to medication or to remind them of their next appointment. We have companies using it to gauge their service delivery by asking consumers to rate them. We also have solar lighting companies who want to find out whether their customers know how to use their equipment, and if they would like to buy new solar products,” explains Cohen.
Echo Mobile has also appealed to traditional research companies. Cohen says the service is effective because of the widespread use of mobile phones and the ability to overcome time and geographical challenges that paper-based data collection methods grapple with.
“One of our clients is a Japanese research company that came to Kenya to find out how Japanese products can enter the market. They have 75,000 people that they communicate with asking them questions about hair straightening products, for instance,” says Cohen. “It is cheaper and easier to do market research that way than send people out with paper. Mobile phones allow you to do shallow research with a lot of people, get an idea of what the market is saying, then later you can do in-depth communication with a much smaller group of people.”
Challenges attracting talent
One of the challenges Echo Mobile faces includes attracting talent, Cohen says, because most software engineers prefer to work as freelancers.
“They can make more money short-term doing their own thing rather than working with a company.
“Understanding the tax structure here is also challenging. We are in a sector that is pretty new and sometimes even government tax officials don’t know how tax should be applied to our sector.
“I spend a lot of my time trying to make sure that we are adhering to policies, digging through the weeds and talking to other companies. For instance whether or not we should charge VAT has been an issue.”
In coming months, Cohen says, Echo Mobile will be seeking to raise funds to expand the company’s reach across Africa and globally.