Texting Campaigns: Sri Lanka’s untapped resource

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Featured image: cell phone ad in Sinhalese and broken English posted in Sri Lanka, a very common type of ad.


The first time I visited Sri Lanka, I slept on the floor of a mud hut. The roof was made of coconut tree leaves, and there were no windows or doors. My family comes from the deep villages in Sri Lanka, where back in the 1990s, most homes didn’t have electricity or running water.

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One of my uncles sitting in front of his hut (1992)

Nowadays, things are one and the same in the villages. While the country has progressed significantly from mud huts with houses and technology becoming bigger and better in the cities, most homes in the villages still don’t have general amenities.

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Me and my niece standing in front of my uncle’s house (2011)

However, this is one item of technology that everyone in the country seems to own — cell phones. Somehow, cell phones have managed to each every corner of the country, even in places where people don’t have electricity, or even enough food. A cheap cell phone new costs only 2,000 rupees (15 USD). You can either have monthly plans or buy prepaid cards and load them onto your phone, where phone calls can range from 5-10 rupees a minute, but SMS only costs 2 rupees for outgoing texts (that’s less than 2 cents USD!), while incoming texts are free. This nearly free service is making cell phones universal in the country, giving even impoverished and less fortunate people an avenue to connecting to the rest of the world. There is also a newfound fascination with cell phones that has everyone glued to their screens. Even some of my younger cousins have cell phones, and some of them have to travel miles just to get clean water!

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Not an exaggeration!

With this new wave of availability of cell phones, you would expect programs like Nicaragua’s ChatSalud to be popping up in Sri Lanka. ChatSalud is a project that relies on SMS to share information with youths. A service like this would do wonders in Sri Lanka. It is very difficult to get a higher education in Sri Lanka, and many uneducated boys and girls marry and have children at a very young age. As a woman, it is especially difficult to establish a life without a college education – opportunities are few and far between, and men almost always get priority. There is also a lot of shame around sexual activity, so most youths keep their activities secret from their parents and teachers, increasing their risk of engaging in dangerous behaviors without proper education.

In all the times I have visited, and in all the research I have done, I have not been able to find signs of any sort of texting outreach campaigns in Sri Lanka. I think a sexual education texting campaign, targeted at adolescents across the country, would dramatically reduce teen pregnancy and early marriages, and promote further education.

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9 thoughts on “Texting Campaigns: Sri Lanka’s untapped resource

  1. This was a great post–I loved that you used your own experiences and your own pictures to tell the story. I am certainly convinced that SMS campaigns are an untapped resource in Sri Lanka. I wonder what kind and level of market research needs to be done in order to be sure that the tone, language, etc of text messages will take in an area that has not had this kind of campaign. If most text message exchanges in Sri Lanka have been informal and among friends and family (I have no idea of course how people actually use text messages there), what assurances are there that this population would take an SMS campaign seriously? I do think your idea for a sexual education text messaging campaign for Sri Lankan youth is an excellent one.

    • You bring up a very good point. Texting in Sri Lanka is VERY informal. People use a lot of abbreviations, since the cell phones use the English alphabet, but people type phonetically in Sinhalese or Tamil. I think the type of research that would have to be done would be how to word the texts in a way that kids would find them interesting. Honestly, I think people just love an excuse to look at their phones. Sometimes I’m on the bus, and someone’s phone will go off, and they’ll look down at who is calling, and then just leave it ringing, super loudly, for everyone to hear, without picking it up. The phone culture is very distinct there, and I don’t think it would take much to launch this type of campaign. Of course, this is just my opinion (wouldn’t want to bias you by my “single story” 🙂 )

  2. Wonderful use of personal backstory and experience to ground the post. It’s so striking that mobile phones can exist alongside some extremely impoverished conditions. Like Maia asked, I wonder about how a campaign around sexual health may be welcomed, or may hit some of the traditional social mores in existence.

    • Kristina, check out my response to Maia to address what I think about a sexual campaign. I actually think it would be well received — the main issue I see is privacy, i.e. preventing parents and teachers from seeing the texts. I think this is where the slang speak would come in handy. Texts can be sent out in this abbreviated type that most young people use, and that way, parents won’t be able to read the texts.

      Also, I agree. It is REALLY strange to see poor people with cell phones in Sri Lanka. Since you don’t need to have a data plan or a contract to have a phone, a one-time payment of USD 20 is really nothing, even to the poorest people there. A $20 phone is a pretty decent one, too. I bet if I looked a little harder, I’d be able to find some really, really cheap phones. They all use SIM cards too, so all phones are interchangable among the different networks. I hope Verizon and AT&T pick up on this and make phones interchangable for us here finally

      • I’m sure this is way more than you want to know, but Verizon/Sprint (CDMA) and AT&T/T-Mobile (GSM) use two different types of technology for their networks. AT&T and T-Mobile have SIM cards and use the GSM network, which means those phones (depending on what bands they use – nerdy, I know), can have their SIM cards swapped out and be used interchangeably. Some international phones even have dual SIM card slots, so you can have your regular SIM and a local SIM and switch between the two.

      • Actually, I was just looking into this! Literally today, in a few hours, my brother and I are going to go change my parents’ cell phone plan so that we’re all on the same plan and we can all get new phones (some of our phones are 5 years old). I’ve decided on cricket, which is on the AT&T network, because it has interchangeable SIM cards. That way, we can just buy a SIM card and switch it in while we’re there. It’s like you read my mind

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience, it really adds a personal touch. It’s a striking visual when you describe your cousins having to walk miles for clean water, but having a cell phone. It really emphasizes the potential that a simple text message can have to impact a large number of people. Sometimes in public health we get bogged down in numbers and lose that emotional connection that really resonates with people. There’s that saying, “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” – the same is true here – your personal story had a much greater impact for me than all the statistics that I had seen about the rapid growth of cell phone use in developing countries.

    • Thank you, Rachel. Your comment means a lot.

      It really is a strange disconnect. When my parents and I visit Sri Lanka, they have drinking water imported on trucks for us, but we still all walk together to a lake or a river to shower. Once we get to the lake, they take their cell phones out of their pants pockets so they won’t get wet. It’s really so strange.

  4. Great post! I like the fact that you made it very personal and posted pictures of your family 🙂 I can totally relate to this post. People in Mexico (where I am from at least) still live in homes that are made out of sticks and palm tree branches, but some how they manage to get access to a mobile phone and keep it active. I agree that a SMS messaging campaign can make a big difference in people’s lives. Since they are low cost and almost everyone has a mobile phone, then a SMS campaign sounds like the perfect venue to reach people regarding their health.
    Seeing the picture of the two older men on sitting while talking on their mobile phones made me smile, it reminded me of people I’ve seen talking on mobile phones in my country. I always smile when an older person is on the phone and they talk so loud that they can be heard across the room or down the street 🙂

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