ENHANCE THE EFFECTIVE USE OF DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES TO IMPROVE THE LIVELIHOOD OF THE RURAL COMMUNITIES

ABOUT COMNETU
Community Media Network Uganda (COMNETU) brings together community media to promote their growth and development through Information Communication Technology (ICT) Training for Community Media, ICT Management, Media Production, Editing, Audience, and Market Research, among other courses. The non-governmental organisation located in the Northern part of Uganda has done a lot of community development work, especially in the rural localities, in partnership with numerous media houses and other Non-Governmental Organizations like Women of Uganda Network—(WOUGNET). COMNETU has interacted with the most vulnerable of communities and found solutions through collaborations in different project sectors such as Climate Change to improve the livelihoods of the rural dwellers.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION
COMNETU has been tapping into the potential of low-cost technology platforms to complement service delivery and promote innovative solutions to local problems by building the ICT capacity of Ugandan citizens, leaders, and health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The organisation introduced an SMS platform, which receives complaints related to COVID-19 and service delivery. The project was deployed in partnership with www.M-omulimisa.com, local governments, and WOUGNET www.wougnet.org, and links to the Social Innovation Challenge theme of Government Accountability & Transparency.

PROBLEM STATEMENT AND SOLUTION
Online media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and news websites have played an essential role in bridging the communication gap between the government and the urban communities in Uganda. Access to technology can significantly empower communities by potentially disrupting existing power structures and redefining community relationships. However, due to high internet costs and digital gadgets like smartphones and computers, there is still a big communication gap between the authorities and rural communities. As a result, the rural areas are at a high risk of receiving COVID-19 misinformation due to widespread misconceptions and anecdotal reports, and no mechanisms for verification. Fake news, misinformation, and limited access to information are slowly emerging as a 'second pandemic' among rural communities.
Therefore, there is a need for a multi stakeholders' approach to bridging this information gap in the rural areas by promoting effective and strategic use of digital technologies to create awareness among the citizens. Cost-free text messaging applications and community radios are powerful platforms that rural communities embrace, where almost half of the population have access to a basic cell phone.

ACHIEVEMENTS
COMNETU tested the Short Message Service (SMS) customized application innovation with the different stakeholders and followed up with an ICT training. The application created a forum for citizens to engage with authorities to improve transparency and accountability in the service delivery framework.
During ICT training and prototype testing, women's participation was highly encouraged. The project, to some extent, bridged the digital gender gap among rural dwellers where women are disadvantaged when it comes to using technology.

The project has supported 111 people (76 males and 35 females) within the two-month implementation period. The citizens reported a total of 53 complaints received by the M-Omulimisa platform. The issues ranged from health, roads, water, COVID-19, and other service delivery issues. Duty bearers responded to 13 different health issues raised by citizens. Of the 13 patients, seven hailed from Chegere Sub County, three from the Ibuje sub-county, and three from Apac Sub- County.

This assessment has established that the M-Omulimisa platform is popular among community members, mainly because radio APAC has aired talk shows focusing on COMNETU's work.

Quotes from the Beneficiaries
Ms. Harriet Oloro, from Awir parish, Agulu Division, Apac Municipality, shared her experience: " M-Omulimisa is an SMS platform that helps the community to register complaints on poor service delivery issues. The platform needs a phone to help you share your text messages to the '8228' code.  I got to know this platform through a sensitization meeting held at Judins Hotel in October 2021. One must first register by going into the message body and typing keywords 'KIC space District space Sub-county space Name and sending to '8228'. After the registration process, one can now send their complaints by going to the message body and typing 'WOUGNET" space; write your complaints, village, parish, and sub-county where the issue is and send to 8228”.

Jimmy Okello, another local beneficiary, shared his experience: "I heard about M-Omulimisa through a radio talk show held on Radio Apac FM 92.9 on the 22nd October 2021. I have used it to report the issues affecting service delivery in my community. I am happy that I have been able to get feedback from the respective duty bearers concerned. This service is what has been lacking as it was difficult to access my leaders during the COVID-19 lockdown."

Impact of the project:    
The project has helped the district Health Team of Apac District respond to a case of stolen drugs reported via the M-Omulimisa platform. The message reached the authorities, who swung into immediate action, and apprehended the suspects. Such quick actions have built public confidence in the digital platform, making it easy to hold responsible leaders accountable. The platform aided community members in reporting suspected cases of COVID-19 and received prompt attention from medical workers, saving lives in the process.  

At the height of the pandemic, diseases such as Malaria and HIV/AIDs were less prioritized by medical workers and the community. The platform enabled citizens to engage with the duty bearers on such health issues. Overall, the project has improved the quality-of-service delivery through the responsiveness of the duty bearers. For instance, door-to-door sensitization on COVID-19 intensified. For example, the platform has prompted authorities to construct roads washed away by heavy rains