This weekend, while most of the UK was soaking up sunny rays (while they lasted), I took a trip on behalf of Panoply Digital to Lilongwe, Malawi to implement external evaluation activities for TuneMe Malawi. Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa,” so what better way to spend the second May bank holiday than by conducting fieldwork there with a group of 30 youth? A guaranteed-to-be-warm climate and people? Sign me up! 😊
TuneMe Malawi is a mobisite targeted at Malawian youth, and was designed to provide them with interesting and engaging content about their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). TuneMe was conceptualized through a partnership between UNFPA, the Ford Foundation and the Praekelt Foundation. First launched in Zambia (where we also undertook evaluation activities), TuneMe is now expanding to other countries in Southern Africa, including Malawi, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana. The overall aim is to promote healthy SRHR behaviors among youth in these countries as part of the work to:
- reduce rates of STI transmission,
- prevent unwanted pregnancies,
- strengthen healthy romantic relationships, and
- encourage youth to seek SRHR-related support when they need it, and without fear or shame.
I am proud to be leading the evaluation activities in Southern Africa for TuneMe because this is an education area that desperately needs attention – and has serious potential to address major issues through use of mobile technologies, especially for girls and young women.
During the weekend, I worked with a local research team of three dynamic women, led by Natasha “Chipo” Zulu, an accomplished SRHR worker and activist. We were able to invite 30 Malawian youth, ranging in age from 18 to 23, so that they could share their thoughts and opinions on using TuneMe Malawi since it launched in January 2017. The youth traveled from major cities including Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mongochi, and Mzuzu. During the weekend, we deployed a few qualitative tools to evaluate the youths’ perspectives on TuneMe Malawi, including content analysis of What’s App group chats they had created to talk about the mobile platform, interviews with their parents or guardians, as well as focus group discussions.
Although it is still early in the evaluation, we learned that many of the youth are well on their way to being habitual users of the mobisite. The majority of the participants stated that they visited TuneMe Malawi at least once a day, spending, on average, 100 Kwacha (about ¢.14 USD) to ensure they have enough mobile data to visit the platform. While this may not appear to be a large sum to an outsider, for a Malawian youth who was enrolled in school and/or not formally employed, this was a comparatively significant expenditure. This indicates that the youth value not only connectivity, but also the opportunity to access content that speaks to them – and are willing to pay for it.
Another interesting insight is that most of the youth we talked to instinctively knew to trust the content being offered by TuneMe, and many reduced their reliance on conducting more sprawling searches via Google to obtain SRHR information. When asked why this was the case, the youth stated that they often saw conflicting information on Google, but on TuneMe Malawi they observed that other youth like them were commenting and validating the content created there. Calls to action for the government to devote more resources to TuneMe Malawi were frequently vocalized, as was the youths’ desire to make the mobisite content available through other media so that youth without mobile phones, especially those in rural areas, might benefit from it.
Given that these perspectives are from users who have been engaging with that platform for only about five months, we will have to see if the youth remain TuneMe Malawi users over time, and if the content has been a catalyst for sustained, healthy, and positive SRHR behavior change. We look forward to learning more in the coming months, including through quantitative analysis of the user analytics from the mobisite.