More than half a million South Africans have used the Grassroot. These “users” are members of thousands of groups run through the Grassroot app, ranging on diverse issues from community organizations to local football clubs.

Most users have never heard of Grassroot. 

Grassroot is a tech platform built for low-bandwidth, low-data settings that allows for smart-messaging through text message (USSD and SMS). This means a group organizer can send a message at no cost to the receiver. Here’s examples of text messages:

  • M.C.G: M has called a meeting, ‘World Housing Fund On Saturday 14;30’, at Ndabandaba place, on Sat 20 Jul, 2:30 PM. Dial *134*1994# to confirm attendance.
  • MNANDINI YOUTH: P has called a meeting, ‘job workshop’, church(maphanga), on Sat 20 Jul, 10:00 AM. Dial *134*1994# to confirm attendance.

For the civic tech community, which has grand aspirations of transformational change, Grassroot’s numbers are gold with 200 new groups formed and almost 600 events created each month. But how do these active users translate into improved mobilizing, or more effective organizing for improved outcomes and government responsiveness? Grassroot was the first to ask this question of themselves, and of their data. This kind of self-reflection is exactly what speaks to our interests at GOV/LAB. 

Grassroot community builder Katlego Mohlabane gets ready to lead a focus group.

To address the question of effectiveness, Grassroot is adapting Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz’s Public Narrative: Leadership, Storytelling, and Action course, which is taught online via Zoom to community organizers around the world. The aim of the course is to improve leadership skills and knowledge of legal rights to basic services, like water and housing. Grassroot is adapting the course material to be delivered to community organizers on Whatsapp, the most popular communications tool in sub-Saharan Africa and much of the world. 

Since Whatsapp is less data intensive and more accessible for their users than video conferencing, MIT GOV/LAB is partnering with Grassroot to implement user research, to support content development, and to evaluate the impact of their pilot on the knowledge and activities of community organizers. In May, our field team, led by Kelly Zhang, worked with Grassroot to carry out some preliminary user research in Johannesburg and to inform the pilot. The aim was to assess user needs and to get some rapid feedback on an early version of the course.

As might be expected, developing an engaging course on Whatsapp is challenging both in terms of the technical aspects (how to create rich course content in a data poor context) and also pedagogically (how to maintain interest without face to face interaction). To understand how the content was received, we visited two townships outside Johannesburg, where Grassroot has active users, to road test the content live. Predictably language was an issue. The course is in English and many participants felt more comfortable talking about personal matters in their mother tongue. 

Waterwax Township outside Johannesburg, South Africa where focus groups were conducted.

The second lesson was around the content itself and how this particular format for storytelling resonates in these communities, where poverty can be intense, living conditions poor, and government responsiveness is almost non-existent. In focus groups, the sharing of personal stories often centered around traumatic life events, both emotional and physical. In some cases, it was difficult to direct stories towards positive outcomes, especially if participants felt stuck in precarious situations. To adapt the course content, we suggested ways to constrain the stories in a more productive way, that still held true to people’s motivations and inspirations for their organizing work.  

Grassroot’s pilot course launches in July and we expect many more iterations and improvements as the team learns through doing. Early testers of the course content were positive about the focus on storytelling, “I like it because it make(s) me be more inspired on what I do and how I came far” and excited about online learning component “It was eye opening and inspiring especially having to use a tool I use everyday (my phone); “Using of WhatsApp to share, communicate our stories that made us what and who we are till date.” Their eagerness for learning was in many ways a good match for Grassroot’s iterative nature and our shared learning journey.

Katlego Mohlabane is a community builder for Grassroot, coordinating field work in the Greater Johannesburg area, managing Grassroot social media and LiveWire. He is a self taught digital marketer, graphic designer and social activist. Katlego was a former Gauteng working group member within the Right 2 Know campaign. Contact him at katlego.mohlabane@grassroot.org.za