How Girl Researchers, Mobile Technology are solving Africa’s data and research challenges

by Ayodeji Rotinwa

 

Kano, Nigeria

Khadijah’s office is in the palm of her small hands decorated with henna.

After saying her early morning prayers, completing household chores and reading the Quran, she gets to work.

She receives the day’s task in a mobile app notification message: a brief and a set of questions which she is supposed to collect answers and data for.

She prepares by meeting a couple of other girls who have been set the same task. They scroll through the app’s bright pink interface. They test the questions on each other anticipating the kind of answers they might receive later. The app is gamified: the more questions they go through the more points they collect, unlocking new levels of achievement. They may even answer with emojis.

Khadijah’s interview subjects are usually younger girls in her Badawa community, Kano State in North-West Nigeria, who look up to her and her friends as role models. She is 22 years old.

The app’s questions may range from sexual health to savings, relationships, and family dynamics. Khadijah and her friends collect answers and daa in voice notes, videos and questionnaires. The information they collect is then uploaded to a central server and deletes itself from the phone in 15 minutes. As inspired by SnapChat but in this case a data safety feature. The data is also encrypted. Like in internet banking.

Khadijah is a Technology Enabled Girl Ambassador (TEGA) a program founded by international NGO, Girl Effect, that is solving one of development research industry’s biggest problems: getting accurate data about a previously inaccessible or overlooked demographic: adolescent girls, aged 9 – 18.

“There are 213 million girls living in poverty. If we’re going to make change happen for these girls we need to get an accurate understanding of their lives,” says Laura Scanlon, founder and director of TEGA in an interview with Campaign.

“But the problem is traditional research methodologies to conducting research and understanding girls don’t get this understanding.”

Yearly, aid and development bodies such as Oxfam, Mercy Corps, and Department for International Development, UK design programmes as it may concern girls to: alleviate poverty, mitigate disaster, and create awareness about girl child education, reproductive health, gender equality. The research which informs these programs is mostly traditional.

A Westerner – essentially a stranger – is dispatched to interior, conservative Muslim communities like Khadijah’s, seeking information about girls like her. Customarily, the researcher will be received by the head of the house, usually a man who may choose to speak on behalf of his daughter about her life. If the Westerner does get audience with a girl the interview cannot be conducted one-on-one especially if such researcher is a man, as cultural and religious norms dictate. Her father and other members of the family must be present. A story goes that one time a girl was being interviewed and she was asked who she thought was the most influential person in her family. Her father, mother and grandmother were present in the room. Similarly, a teenage girl is unlikely to open up about her sexual health with her father staring at her.

But these girls talk to Khadijah and other TEGAs and provide accurate research data and insights. They talk because Khadijah and girls like her are friends, neighbours. They grew up in the same community as them, have shared their worries, cultural and religious restrictions, economic and social challenges.

Also Khadijah and other TEGAs are recruited by Girl Effect from local safe spaces run by a community N.G.O., AYDI that has been working in Kano for over three decades. AYDI is well known in the community for their work in sexual health awareness, campaigns against gender based violence, advocacy for girl child education. Parents trust AYDI so when Khadijah endorsed by them comes visiting, mobile phone in hand asking questions, they do not bat an eyelid.

TEGA was officially launched in January 2016 and but was previously first piloted in Northern Nigeria. Today, it has expanded to other countries such as Malawi, Rwanda, India and the United States and has undertaken over 146 projects for partners.

However, when the idea of the programme was first proposed, it was universally rejected by the development community. An unsophisticated app that didn’t require the user – a 18 – 24 year old girl living in low income communities – to be fully literate, collecting credible data and research that would inform development programs that would cost billions of dollars? How would it work?

In 2016, a network of TEGA researchers were commissioned to gather information on young people’s lives in Kano, Nigeria by DFID. Previous traditional research by the NGO had shown jobs and education (or the lack thereof) to be the major priorities for young people in the area with policy and programming subsequently designed to focus on these areas. TEGA showed different. With the young interview subjects speaking more candidly with peers like Khadijah, their conversations revealed that drug abuse and mental health were in fact more urgent front-of-mind concerns and both were impacting education and employment for young people.

“The TEGA research enabled us to access hard to reach young people in an effective way,” says Kemi Williams, Head, Human Development Team, DFID Nigeria, in an interview.

“The results of the research are reflected in our five-year business plan and have helped ensure that the plan is responsive to the needs of the large youth population in Nigeria. The plan will determine the nature and direction of DFID Nigeria’s £1 billion programme for the next five years.”

These days, alongside being a researcher Khadijah is also an aspiring broadcast development journalist. She says she built her interviewing and research skills while doing TEGA work. It also gave her the confidence to apply to university for an undergraduate degree in development journalism. She currently contributes freelance to a weekend magazine show on Express Radio FM, based in Kano.

She is currently working on a feature that will explore the use of contraceptives, typically a taboo topic in the North that no one openly talks about, according to her.

She is not deterred.


This piece was produced as part and with the support of the BudgIT Media Fellowship 2017.

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