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African refugee families reunited through USSD technology

African refugee families reunited through USSD technology

USSD technology is proving to be a cost effective and impactful way of reuniting families across Sub-Saharan Africa according to Ericsson, the lead technology partner of online family reconnection platform Refugees United (REFUNITE).

Omasan Ogisi, Head of Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility for Ericsson Sub-Saharan Africa says the initiative is proving to be a valuable way for the company to support humanitarian efforts across the region.

"We met with David and Chris Mikkelsen who are the founders of REFUNITE sometime in 2010 and they had this web-based platform that allows anonymous search by refugees to locate their loved ones and family members, but just less than two percent had access to computers and internet. The use of mobile phones covered at least forty percent of their target audience and so we worked with them to develop a mobile application which is build on USSD technology."

Ogisi says Ericsson's in-house developers worked to build the USSD application which refugees can use to upload anonymous information about themselves or look for a relative.

500 000 displaced people in Sub-Saharan Africa have now made use of the platform - the region hosts more than 26% of the world's refugee population, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

While she would not reveal how much the service costs Ericsson in monetary terms, Ogisi says the human cost in the form of time given by the company's employees is noteworthy.

Expansion plans

While USSD is helping to keep costs low and manageable, several improvements are being made to the service in support of REFUNITE.

"USSD is typically a free service and that makes it accessible to a broader audience. USSD is also not fully typing dependent and we did not get into a very high value application which can limit access. In 2015 we expanded the platform to include an interactive voice record unit which is being trialled in Kenya and that would allow the less capable in terms of writing and reading to access this platform," said Ogisi.

IKEA Foundation, Zain, Vodacom, Facebook and Omidyar Network are some of the other technology companies that have supported REFUNITE.

Swedes David and Chris Mikkelsen who first came up with REFUNITE say that the work of reuniting families is not without challenges.

"Working in countries like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan presents unique challenges, as we work to build a platform that responds to the limitations of ours users' access to technology, and their understanding of it. Developing services to a 58-year old illiterate Somali woman looking for her missing children is no easy feat. But when we succeed, we manage to reconnect loved ones who have often been separated and searching for years."

The top three countries with the highest number of registration on REFUNITE are Kenya (148 003), DRC (74943) and Somalia (52187).

USSD is the second most popular way to access REFUNITE overall after web and ahead of SMS.

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