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The Internet, technology devices, and other platforms are all an effort to automate processes in the name of making life easier. For example going into a library to borrow a book is now a much less cumbersome process or paying a utility bill can be done with just the click of a few buttons. The Internet today has simplified work and reduced the gap between people across the various sectors like finance, health and trade.

Convenience is one thing and the cost for convenience is another. The rapid evolution and growth of technology has left a few people behind. What happens to those that cannot afford the new devices that connect to the Internet? This has proved to be quite a challenge to get a variety of services to the people in Uganda. A large population of Ugandans own a cell phone compared to those that have a device that connects to the Internet. But here lies a strength that can be leveraged to make ends meet.

Short Message Service (SMS) is the most commonly used service to communicate in Uganda. The SMS service has the ability to engage the audience, which is a functionality or technology that could help with the problem at hand.

Unstructured Supplementary Service Data is a protocol used by cellular phones to communicate with a service provider. An application built using USSD will have a unique  short code in the form “*123#” or “*142*2#”; usually assigned by a mobile telecommunications company (service provider). The short code is sent using a phone to a server, which sends a menu or a question for a user to respond to - as shown in the pictures below.

Step 1: 

Steps 2 and 3: 

Steps 4 and 5: 

At the end of this transaction, the user gets a success or fail message, indicating the completion of that process.

Everyone with a cell phone in Uganda has used USSD for a variety of reasons from crediting airtime to transferring money to a loved one in the village. Considering that this application doesn’t need installation nor airtime on your phone, it has been easy to build services around them to reach the people in various ways.

ThoughtWorks has built an application that gets information about the welfare of children and women in the country for analysis. It also makes the data more readable to enable right decisions to be made around of healthcare, education, child protection, and HIV/AIDS. A short code is sent using a feature phone (like in the pictures above). Questions in an activated questionnaire are sent to the user one by one as the user responds to each one of them. At the end, a message is sent to them to let them know that the questionnaire has successfully been completed.

Mobile money transactions, which are developed using USSD, have captured the unbanked community in Uganda. This application has allowed for payment of utility bills or money transfers. Promotion of these mobile financial services has increased financial inclusion. Other applications like sports betting have been built around the USSD technology, which has allowed for great flexibility amongst the facilitators.

When faced with a challenge, the options we have are always very clear. Success lies in using the right technology to solve the problem. It’s being innovative and resourceful. It has been the case for places like Uganda where the availability of Internet and the affordability of the devices that access the Internet are yet other challenges to face. There has not been a limit to what the human brain can do. And here in Africa, we have found ways to overcome our limitations. We have learnt to be frugal in the way we innovate.