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The Rev. Neelley Hicks, director of United Methodist Communications’ ICT4D initiative (left), and Pierre Omadjela, special projects manager for United Methodist Communications (right), pose with UMConnect grant recipients. Photo courtesy of Pierre Omadjela.

Photo courtesy of Pierre Omadjela.

The Rev. Neelley Hicks, director of United Methodist Communications’ ICT4D initiative (left), and Pierre Omadjela, special projects manager for United Methodist Communications (right), pose with UMConnect grant recipients.

UMConnect grant recipients show off their training certificates and the new hardware they will use to set up the UMConnect system in their respective communities. Photo courtesy of Pierre Omadjela.

Photo courtesy of Pierre Omadjela.

UMConnect grant recipients show off their training certificates and the new hardware they will use to set up the UMConnect system in their respective communities.

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Group texting program connects African United Methodists

 

By Joey Butler
NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Oct. 31, 2016

A new program through United Methodist Communications’ ICT4D (Information and Communications Technology for Development) Church Initiatives will help African episcopal offices more easily communicate with their community via text messaging.

UMConnect helps United Methodist organizations utilize group text messaging to communicate with local- or global-based contacts. It is possible for the general church to send messages out to the entire network, but each episcopal area can also craft messages or disseminate news that is pertinent to their community. As more people join the database, it will be possible to divide their interests or needs into groups and tailor messages specifically for each group.

The program that became UMConnect originated during the 2014 Ebola crisis, when the communications agency helped church leaders in Sierra Leone and Liberia send health information and messages of hope through a group text-messaging system

“There was too much bad information and no reliable way to get accurate information out quickly,” said the Rev. Neelley Hicks, former director of the ICT4D initiative.

The program expanded to text news from General Conference 2016 to African United Methodists in real time. Close to 4,000 contacts in 12 African countries received the text messages, written in French, English, Portuguese and Swahili. More than 80,000 messages were sent during the two-week period. Communicators from central conferences in Africa facilitated the collection of mobile numbers and dissemination of news updates.

“After General Conference, we knew we needed to grant some hardware to the annual conferences in Africa to sustain the program,” Hicks said.

A process was set up where African conferences could apply for grants that would provide each recipient a ruggedized laptop, a smart phone, and a solar generator and solar panel to help charge both devices.

United Methodist Communications is also sending trainers to show participants in the program how to set up and use each of the devices, and how to get started with UMConnect.

So far, 25 communicators in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Mozambique have received equipment and training. The goal is to have four more trained by the end of the year, and trainings are planned in Côte d’Ivoire in 2017.

“We praise God for giving us time to train the communicators on the ministry of communication,” said Pierre T. Omadjela, a special projects manager for United Methodist Communications who helps lead trainings. “I am grateful and I am ready for more kind of works in the future because I have more pleasure in doing God's work than other kinds of works.”

“This is truly reaching people where they are,” Hicks said. “People in Africa carry phones, not computers. Even if they did, internet access is spotty in many areas.”

Noel Kumwenda, a grant applicant and communicator in the Malawi Provisional Conference, estimated that UMConnect could benefit more than 4,500 people in rural areas in Malawi.

Kumwenda said the United Methodist Church in Malawi runs mobile nutrition clinics and they could use text messaging to alert patients when the clinic is open or closed, send reminders to take their medication and nutritious foods on time, as well as reminders on malaria prevention. In addition, farmers could be alerted to the best time to apply fertilizer to crops.

“In the past, these programs relied on the post office and emails and it always leaves out those in rural areas,” Kumwenda said. “Postal services take three to four weeks before reaching the rural areas.”

Francois Omanyondo, a communicator in the Central Congo Conference, described an incident where he had helped to promote the arrival of a missionary team that would be setting up a mobile eye clinic. He appeared on a radio station to announce the dates the missionaries would be in the area. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t obtain visas and had to cancel the trip. By then, people were already en route to visit the clinic, some traveling as far as 300 km, only to arrive to the news that the trip had fallen through.

“Now that we have UMConnect,” Omanyondo said, “if such an event happens again, we have a way to alert and update people through their phones, even if they’ve already left home.”

Hicks said UMConnect could serve as a “ready-made feedback loop” for church programs and humanitarian agencies, being able to find out in advance what an area’s needs are and crafting a suitable response to meet that need.

“The usage is endless but I’m excited people will be able to share what they think back to a system that generates reports to amplify unheard voices,” she added.

Hicks said plans are underway to expand UMConnect’s usage beyond Africa.

For more information, contact ict4d@UMCOM.ORG.

Butler is a multimedia producer/editor for United Methodist Communications.