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A smarter way out of poverty

Martina Schwikowski imm
October 16, 2018

MP3 players are being used as a valuable source of information for health and general well-being. A German couple are distributing the portable devices to improve the lives of illiterate women in rural areas.

A woman in rural Uganda wearing a straw hat smiles and looks off to the side
Image: DW

Kora Koch lives in the small village of Kyamuliibwa in southwestern Uganda. Every few weeks she takes a boda boda (a popular motorcycle taxi) over bumpy roads to a small collection of thatched round huts.

"I don't dare ride the motorcycle alone," she says. "But I always find someone who'll take me to visit the women from our projects and translate for me." 

The 29-year-old teacher and industry clerk — originally from the German city of Bruchsal — moved to the bush three years ago. "I had started sponsoring a Ugandan child while I was in Germany so that she could go to school," she says. "Her parents were too poor." Eventually curiosity got the better of her and she flew out to Uganda. Now she can watch the child grow up in Kyamuliibwa and helps the rural women in the area.

Read more: Teen activist Zuriel Oduwole: 'Education is more than learning in class'

MP3 players as education tools

Koch manages more than 17 women's groups in central Uganda's Kalunga district. She says MP3 players have been helpful when it comes to providing women in remote areas with information, enabling them to improve their lives.

"It's about health issues, nutrition, child care, as well as ideas for income," says Koch. "At the moment, the production of coal briquettes is booming." The women squeeze coal waste into a mold and then sell the briquettes at the markets.

Two women cook over a charcoal fire in Kampala, Uganda
Briquettes, which are often made by women in Uganda to sell at markets, are used for cooking purposesImage: picture-allianc/dpa/J. Hrusa

She has seen a big improvement in thearea of health in particular. Women who live in rural areas have very limited access to information. This is where the MP3 players come in, providing answers to important questions, or completely new insights concerning women's bodies, hygiene, illness or any precautions they may need to take. "The women think this is fantastic," says Koch.

'Those who cannot read must listen'

The idea of using MP3 players to communicate vital information began in the Canary Islands. It was there that German couple Felicitas and Marcel Heyne launched the 'Player Project.'

"Many women in developing countries have never gone to school," Felicitas told DW. "We're so privileged in the West when it comes to the constant flow of information available to us." Determined to change this, the psychologist and author worked with her husband to find a solution, namely "those who cannot read must listen — preferably in their mother tongue."

The couple founded the aid organization 'Uridu' which is Arabic for 'I want.' The solar-powered MP3 players are robust and can be used at any time. As well as providing information, the players also promote discussion, the exchange of ideas between women and the formation of self-help groups. The player works even under the most adverse environmental conditions and its built-in solar cell means it doesn't rely on outside sources of electricity. The content remains at the women's disposal as it cannot be changed once it's been loaded.

A small red internet provider shack in rural Uganda
Access to internet is poor in many rural areas of Uganda, making the pre-loaded MP3 players all the more importantImage: DW/S. Leidel

A growing need for audiobooks

"In consultation with local organizations, we pack in content which is tailor-made for the needs of women in their home regions, Some organizations are now even approaching us," says Felicitas. The couple began with a self-funded project in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco before moving on to to Tanzania and Uganda. Several smaller aid groups also exist in the Congo, while other women's groups in Nepal, Paraguay and Rwanda are currently being formed and equipped with mobile audio books.

Demand is growing. "We could start 20 new projects directly, but first we have to secure more money from sponsors," says Felicitas. So far, the couple have funded a lot of the projects themselves, but in the long term they hope companies and even governments will become involved. According to Felicitas, an MP3 player costs around €20 ($23), including delivery costs, and lasts three to five years. In essence, just one euro could help provide a whole family with information that would make a big difference in their lives.

Read more: African, female, with a message online

Helping people to help themselves

So far, Felicitas says the feedback has been great. "Cases of tuberculosis have gone down in villages in Uganda. One woman learned that her disability was not a punishment from God. Another  learned that her cough was due to her smoking — she's now created a group for quitting smoking. It's changing her life."

There are many other success stories. The MP3 player also explains how to make soap, for example. "Now you can buy Uridu soap," laughs Felicitas.

Each player is distributed to a group of ten to twelve women. When health worker Kora Koch returns to the villages on the boda boda, she can be sure there will be plenty of questions waiting for her.

#AForEffort: Girls have a right to learn, too