Why We Invested: Grassroot

By Ory Okolloh, Director, Investments at Omidyar Network

Photo credit: Grassroot

Active citizen engagement and collective action is a fundamental pillar of democracy, and was critical to the fall of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994. Since then, technology has opened up new ways for citizens to perform their civic duty, enabling marches to be organized overnight, petitions to be sent to millions of people instantly, and government officials to be contacted directly. But how can technology-enabled collective action happen in a country where a significant part of the population doesn’t have access to smartphones and data costs are prohibitive for the majority at almost 20% of monthly income? This is the problem that Grassroot is trying to solve.

Grassroot is a nonprofit civic tech organization that developed a set of simple but powerful collective organizing tools. These tools allow users to start a group, invite members who share an interest in the cause, organize meetings, send reminders, record actions, and take votes, all on a simple, purpose-built platform accessible to all. Grassroot’s suite of tools operate on USSD, which is free and simple to use on non-smartphones, as well as on low-bandwidth Android and web apps. This makes it simpler, easier, and cheaper for anyone to mobilize others who care about the same issues, to amplify their opinions, and to organize to make a change.

What does this mean in the real world? Take the example of Sandile, a community leader in Kliptown — an informal settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Kliptown has a storied history as the birthplace of the Freedom Charter, the core principles of freedom upon which the new South African constitution was based. Nevertheless, it remains a challenging place to live with residents struggling to cope with a number of service delivery challenges from no running water or electricity, to sanitation facilities or schools. Sandile has long been passionate about improving conditions for his community as a voluntary community leader, advocating for formal housing allocations from the state and organizing service delivery protests. He would spend hours each week walking the street with a loudhailer, announcing the details of group meetings to residents. That was, until he met Nokwanda, then Grassroot’s community builder, who showed him how their tools can be used to organize community meetings, notify residents, take polls among group members, and much more.

Community meetings are now held more regularly and have consistent attendance, allowing Sandile and other leaders to focus their time and attention on planning, inspiring, and acting rather than on logistics. Sandile reports a much greater sense of unity among the members of his group as a result of better communication and more frequent in-person meetings. When a group of local residents were enraged by rumors about a local criminal, Sandile set up a direct line of communication with the police and kept the community up to date about progress with the court case, preventing a potential case of mob justice.

Grassroot’s tools also have an emergency notification function. This meant that when officials from the Presidency visited a community in the East Rand of Gauteng unexpectedly last year, group leaders were able to notify residents immediately, and they arrived in time to voice their grievances directly to the officials as a group.

One of Grassroot’s largest user groups is using the tools to advocate for a land audit in a suburb of Soweto by organizing the occupation of a piece of unused municipal land in reaction to the housing shortfall they’ve suffered for decades.

Since its founding in 2015, Grassroot has recruited over 40,000 users, and more than 400 meetings are now being called through its platform each month to address issues like these.

As South Africa gears up for the ANC leadership decision and the General Election in 2019, the voices of ordinary citizens risk being drowned out by party politics and electioneering. In this context, Grassroot’s tools are more important than ever to give those who are not being heard a way to surface their issues and mobilize.

The organization also recently announced plans to build a service connecting grassroots protesters to the media (LiveWire). This will inform subscribing journalists and media houses about upcoming protests or civic action, providing a much-needed communication channel between media and citizens.

Omidyar Network’s grant of $180,000 will allow Grassroot to reach more communities within South Africa, to connect with other civil society organizations such as trade unions, and to expand their work to municipal governments exploring how to better incorporate citizen voices in local policymaking and participatory budgetmaking.

Grassroot Executive Director, Luke Jordan, believes that “the voiceless find their voice and the teeth to compel a response when acting together.” Omidyar Network is proud to support Grassroot’s work enabling each and every citizen to find their voice.

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