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Interactive Voice Response and Reply: Tearing down communication barriers between CSOs and citizens

December 15, 2021
February 6, 2023

Originally published in Zambia Governance Foundation newsletter, 11/12/21

With Loop, I feel like we will be able to have direct contact with organisations, and accountability has a higher likelihood of happening. Organisations will be able to know what is happening on the ground, and we will be able to work more effectively.

These are the words of Chipa Chikulaluo of Mandevu township in Lusaka. He is an active resident of Mandevu who takes part in community projects, attends weekly meetings with the Zambian Governance Foundation, and also participates in Saving Groups. When the Talk To Loop Zambia Team and BongoHive decided to do their prototype Interactive Voice Response and Reply (IVRR) testing in Mandevu, they were welcomed by Chipa and his team.

Chipa was the first to try out this service. Once these prototype testing is done, it will only be a matter of time before Talk To Loop will provide a variety of reporting options for individuals to choose from.

We had an interview with Loop Managing Director Alex Carle, who explained more on what IVRR is, and its importance in ensuring that individuals have a response option that works best for their needs.

Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is a well-known term in the area of digital technology. However, we are using that and building on a reply function (Interactive Voice Response and Reply or IVRR), thus prioritizing closing the loop. We have put together common technology in the private sector and pieced it together to help bridge the digital divide.

In Zambia, Talk To Loop has many different input channels and local languages so that it is adapted to local populations. Currently, people can access Talk To Loop in Chinyanja, Bemba, Lozi and Tonga.

People can submit their stories either online, or through the SMS platform, which all have options for people to write in local language. We have been receiving story submissions from different communities, and as much as we are trying to bridge the communication gap and have as many people on these platforms, there is still a section of the population that we feel is not represented.

Zambia’s literacy rates stand at 55.3%, with studies revealing that causes of low literacy include poor infrastructure, insufficient reading materials, inadequate teaching and learning materials. Most Zambians can speak more than one language other than English, but this does not mean they are able to write it as well. For some, they may not feel confident expressing themselves through text messaging and written submissions. Internet connectivity is also a challenge in many parts of the country. IVRR lets people feedback using their spoken voice, safely, when they want to and in a language of their choice. Loop then gets this voice recording, transcribes it, translates it, tags it and posts it on the open platform for anyone to learn from and engage with.

Prototype testing has already started in Zambia, with ZGF working with BongoHive.

Queen Lwiindi, a Software Developer for BongoHive with interest in user experience research, has been conducting interviews with selected communities, getting feedback on the IVRR platform and turning the feedback into insights that will help the Loop team make data driven decisions before IVRR is rolled out in Zambia. Together with Cynthia Mulenga, a Consultant working with BongoHive, this testing has been done in Chawama, Mandevu, some parts of Rufunsa and George compound.

“BongoHive has to make sure that during the testing phase, the user’s experience is well captured and documented. We use empathy, perceptiveness, neutrality and mental agility to ensure we capture all the necessary data, through data collection.”

Subilo Malema, who has been spearheading the testing, says that using the voice prompts will make it easy for people to share their stories.

“We want people to be able to dial a number on their phone, and get a voice prompt welcoming them to the platform. This voice prompt will ask them to choose a language of their choice, and once that is also selected, they will be encouraged to leave a message after the beep. Once they have recorded this story, they will be encouraged to press a button which will ensure their story is successfully submitted. The voice recording is then translated and posted on the open platform.”

Alex mentions that the platform also has a provision for replies, and how anyone who leaves a voice message will receive a voice reply back, in the language they did their submission in. The voice message will get to them when their phone is charged and when it has a phone signal.

Our mission is to listen to and raise the voices of those people who are least served and heard. To learn from them about their needs, experiences to better engage them and ensure services are valuable to them. We have learnt that digital technology will not serve the most marginalised populations. Literacy, electricity, a device and internet are not available to many people.

IVRR was tested in Somalia with the NEXUS consortium of NGOs and will be rolled out there in 2022. In Somalia, IVRR is now available and free of charge. By simply dialling 6464, callers can choose their language of choice, and the available options are English, Somali Maxatiri or Somali Maay.

As the testing continues in Zambia, some challenges have been faced, mostly challenges with access to cellular network, and lack of privacy in these parts of the country.

We have been in places where there is no cell phone network, and everyone has to be at one particular spot under a tree to make a phone call. It is hard for some people to find privacy. Another challenge is trying to explain how IVRR works, and wondering if people will be able to use the service on their own, but all that is needed is sensitization so people can understand what is going on.”

However, IVRR will help bridge the digital divide by giving a voice to people and putting their experiences on decision making tables. In Zambia, this service will help people in rural communities share their stories in a language that they are comfortable in, providing anonymity and enabling them to share their stories they may otherwise not feel safe sharing.

“We designed this solution with IDPs and Somalian communities. They told us what they needed and we tried to build it. We think it will be useful and appreciated by many people around the world. They taught us that trust is a really important thing – so sometimes anonymity was very valuable, enabling them to share things they might not otherwise feel safe sharing. Independence was important to ensure that if they had a complaint it might not jeopardise the services they do receive.”

For people like Mr Chipa in Mandevu, the IVRR will make it easier for citizens to share stories, and be active participants whose feedback can bring about change in their communities. They will have an option that removes all barriers, and have the opportunity to express themselves freely, in a language of their choice.

“I think Loop is a good platform, because we had so many issues as communities and we had nowhere to send our concerns. With Loop, we now have direct contact with organisations, and it is great that it is on an international platform. Once the voice recording is available, I am sure we will have more people coming on board, and different individuals submitting their stories. It is good when someone listens.”

For more information on IVRR and how Talk to Loop is rolling it out in different parts of the world, email Ms Alex Carle at For information on how your organisation can be a part of Talk to Loop in Zambia, email Ms Subilo Malema at

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