Learning from remote solutions in Ethiopia: Embracing the new normal in the emerging economic context

May 26, 2021

When the pandemic struck Ethiopia, the UNDP accelerator lab team, among its many initiatives, undertook a survey in and around Ethiopia’s budding industrial parks to understand the perception of the pandemic amongst the thousands of employees of the parks.

In the process of identifying key issues that worried them most, one that attracted our attention most was their worry about getting infected, going through the horrifying effects, being subjected to stigma, and even most important, not being able to support their families. This was exacerbated by the widespread conspiracy theories and misinformation about the pandemic especially in its early days, how it was spread and measures one needed to take protect oneself against infection.  

As part of the COVID-19 response plan, the lab team partnered with the Industrial Park Development Corporation and VIAMO, a mobile tech company which excels in providing solutions in areas where technology infrastructure is poor, to develop an awareness creation campaign to empower employees to keep themselves safe and create positive work environment.  VIAMO’s platform allowed us to reach close to 20,000 workers across the country who speak multiple languages and have varying literacy levels.

Viamo proved that using a ubiquitous infrastructure like a mobile phone can make data collection simpler for hard-to-reach places.

Before setting out on the camping, we needed to understand what information the workers were interested in having. Given the entrance restrictions to the parks due to the pandemic and the strict working hours, we could not get this information through the traditional means. Instead, we collected this data through mass phone calls with automated messaging. We got the necessary insight to design the type of communication campaign that would be of interest to the workers and addressed the information that they were not getting through other outlets.

From a sample of 3,000 employees, we learned that respondents (48%) were interested in knowing more about the causes of COVID-19. 79% of respondents felt it was a personal responsibility to protect themselves from COVID-19. In addition, 35% of respondents said they would stay at home and self-medicate if they or a member of their household got infected with COVID-19 which prompted us to think about effective home care procedures. This supported the majority of responder’s (64%) understanding that COVID-19 symptoms without underlying conditions can be treated safely at home.


With this information, we were able to see that worker’s knowledge about the COVID 19 causes and preventive methods were good so we directed our content to be more focused on messages addressing community behavior change, information about healthcare services, and accurate updates on the outbreak to the community while correcting false information and rumors.

We developed a customized and targeted SMS and IVR message campaign and behavior change messaging that reached 18,579 workers. We pushed information directly to employees’ phones, but also provided and info line where they could access the information on their own time. The latter approached proved to be more effective as employees could access the information as they need rather than getting phone calls at time that might be inconvenient for them. Giving the workers option to learn at their own convenience increased the uptake. 

Following this activity, we conducted an end-line survey with the same targeted industrial workers. The beneficiaries were able to enhance their understanding of when and how they are at risk of being infected. 72% of respondents felt that it was their responsibility to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection; 37% of respondents said they would stay at home and self-medicate if they or a household member had COVID-19(an increase of 2% from baseline); 36% of respondents thought that resting is one of the treatments for mild COVID-19 symptoms (an increase of 4% from baseline) and; 66% of respondents thought that COVID-19 symptoms without underlying conditions can be treated safely at home (an increase of 4%). 

Creating awareness in the work environment complemented with targeted information for management.

From our initial assessment, we were able to discern that the work environment itself was a source of stress for workers as they perceived a lack of communication from management on precautions and felt in the dark about the future of their jobs. 

To address this, we targeted six industrial parks and provided remote training for 230 supervisors. We used mobile phone-based IVR (interactive voice response) technology and SMS in four local languages. The training included crisis communication tools that effectively deal with misinformation and communicate risks to employees. 

The quiz results from the lessons had a correct rate of at least 70% (8 out of 12 modules) showing that most of the trainees understood what they learned. This controls the pandemic and creates a positive and productive working environment. 

Though we could see that trainees have acquired new knowledge, the remote nature of this exercise limited our ability to assess the exact impact of the intervention, especially to see if supervisors had started to practice what they had learned. 

Throughout this process, we were able to disprove prior assumptions that we had that it was impossible to reach industrial park workers due to locked down and the country's low technology experience.

Using these technologies made it easier for us to collect, store, analyze, use, and disseminate data. It enabled us to collect information without putting anyone in danger. And because we were using both voice and SMS, we made information accessible to workers with diverse literacy levels. Making sense of the vast amounts of data collected within the industrial park and visualizing it helped to support IPDC revisit its business continuity plans and take some corrective measure.The ongoing pandemic has taught us that partnership is key for accelerating solutions. This initiative showcased how we delivered and impacted our beneficiaries through collaboration, community engagement and an unusual way of doing things. We proved that behavioral change communication campaign can be enhanced by use of digital technologies like Voice based Information service, targeted mass messaging campaigns, mobile surveys, social media chatbot campaign, gamification and data visualizations. The success of this initiative is exciting. The platform that we used reached the masses with the right information.

We would be happy to hear your thoughts on this topic on our social media (Twitter @UNDPEthiopia or Facebook UNDPinEthiopia) or through email at ethiopia.acclab@undp.org.