TONSE – From Zambia to the Google Play Store

BY Matts Weurlander | October 24, 2018|Comments 0

This is the story of a creative and ambitious collaboration, led by the UN in Zambia, that brought together a non-conventional Finnish software company, a Lusaka-based coding school, an up-and-coming Zambian media company, and young minds from all over Zambia to come up with an application to engage young people in the promotion of the Global Goals.

Tonse is a mobile application, which allows anyone to easily create and join community projects and become active participants in sustainable development. We can proudly say that Tonse was born and made in Zambia and is now ready for worldwide testing on the Google Play Store.

When brainstorming spins in empty circles, let  go and let the young people design it

We started this project with the idea of using a digital scorecard to track progress on SDG  indicators related to youth (for example, education, employment and income). The team quickly realized that while this seemed like a fine idea on paper, it would be problematic to implement, partly due to the slow pace by which SDG indicator data is generated in Zambia, and partly due to the technical and rather boring nature of indicators.

A mobile application needs new data by the minute to stay interesting.  Not every year, or every four years, like data for national SDG indicators.  Could we develop an application that would serve our overall objective of giving young people a voice in sustainable development, but at the same time be fun, simple and interactive? What would it be? What would it look like? What would it do?

Our internal brainstorming sessions were taking us nowhere. Our discussions, though well-intentioned and lit up by occasional buzz words, spun in empty circles. We were like square-shaped objects aspiring to become something round and fluid-like, but not knowing how. It was, to be honest, frustrating.

Our team decided to leave the content part to the intended users: we would invite networks of young people to workshops and they would tell us what to do. Meanwhile, we turned our attention to the “how” part of things.

None of us in the UN team working on young people’s rights and development knew how to code. On top of that, software developers are a rare breed in Lusaka and the few quotations that we received from commercial companies far exceeded our budget.

We were in a double bind: we didn’t know what to do, and we didn’t know who could do it.

Pro bono partnerships to the rescue

Things started to look brighter after we contacted Vincit Ltd., a Finnish software company. We had been in touch with the company a year ago to discuss pro bono opportunities and this project seemed to be the perfect match! Vincit brands itself as “not another software company”, which was exactly the kind of spirit we wanted to embrace.

We were both surprised and excited when, towards mid-October, Vincit confirmed that an experienced full-stack software developer would collaborate with us for two months, the first month in Lusaka to get the project rolling. We had found our project manager, and he was both world class and affordable.

Amidst our excitement, we discovered that the developer from Vincit was not enough. We would also need local partners to ensure that the look and feel of the application would appeal to the Zambian market and to ensure sustainability. This is how we found Hackers Guild and Oemph Media, who quickly grasped what we wanted to do (although we had yet no clue about this ourselves) and were ready to jump on board.

Hackers Guild is a technology organization that provides training on software development to young people, as well as product development and consultancy services. They put together a team of young developers who implemented the application in collaboration with the Vincit developer.

For the look and feel, we discovered Oemph Media, a small media and marketing company founded by Zambian young talent Catherine Fundafunda. Oemph Media’s role in the partnership was to be provide the visual concept and user experience/user interface design and development of the marketing strategy.

From ‘Tinder for Good’ to…. Tonse

The software developer from Helsinki arrived in Lusaka in the beginning of November. After a round of introductory meetings with our UN team, we threw the happy Finnish developer straight into a series of workshops with young people.

Through the UN Youth Partnership Platform, which brings together 23 young people from all over Zambia, we convened a diverse mix of young women and men to brainstorm about possible application concepts.

Organised at the youth hub Global Platform, the half-day workshops aimed to bring out ideas, thoughts and suggestions – the crazier, the better – on how a mobile application could increase young people’s participation in sustainable development. Through group exercises and discussions, a total of 51 participants helped us to identify the obstacles that hinder young people’s participation and how these could be overcome with the help of a mobile application.

We encouraged the young people to design applications that they would like to use, without consideration as to what is possible. While the emerging list of ideas was long, the common message was clear: the new application should inspire action, strengthen social accountability, and be rooted in real-life experiences. The focus should not be on learning the SDGs (i.e. reciting the goals from 1 to 17), but on living the SDGs. In short, the app should be practice, not theory; action, not words.

Workshop participants are all smiles after brainstorming around application concepts.

After the brainstorming workshops, the core team, led by Vincit software developer Sten Karlson, analysed all the ideas and suggestions and distilled these to three separate application concepts, called “SDG Dinner Challenge”, “Self-improvement app” and “Tinder for Good”. They presented these concepts to the project steering group in the form of simple, but working applications simulated on a mobile phone and wireframes. The aim was to let the audience grasp the concepts intuitively, without lengthy explanations. The steering group agreed to pursue with the “Tinder for Good” concept, which eventually acquired the Zambian name “Tonse”. Tonse means “all of us” or “everyone” in Nyanja. The name was born at the first workshops, and it stood the test of time, receiving strong positive feedback from test users.

Sten Karlson, Vincit, and Catherine Fundafunda, Oemph Media, design wireframes for presentation to steering group.

Tonse is about inspiring people to take action on issues that matter to them and to get others involved in improving local communities. Thus, the core concept is a direct enabler for Agenda 2030 and the SDGs.

The basic idea is simple: Tonse provides a platform where anyone can effortlessly launch, browse and join community initiatives. As in the popular dating application “Tinder”, the user sets his or her preferred radius and the application then shows only initiatives that fall within that radius.

If you are, for example, keen to see initiatives within walking distance from your house, you can set the radius at, say, 5km. As in Tinder, the initiatives appear as cards, with a picture and a brief description, and the user then swipes right if interested and left if not interested. The beauty of the concept lies in the interplay between local and global: while facilitating local action, the application itself can work anywhere in the world.

Coke Zero, Skype and Fast Food to make it happen

Once the concept was chosen, it was implementation at full throttle. At this stage, the Vincit developer was wrapping up his one-month stay in Lusaka. We used that time to set up practices and systems that would allow Vincit, Hackers Guild and Oemph Media to work as a team despite the roughly 14,000km distance between Helsinki and Lusaka. During the next couple of months, we were constantly having  Skype meetings, long WhatsApp calls, and new cards on the ever-expanding Trello board.

In March of this year, the developer from Vincit returned to Lusaka for a two-week polish sprint. We pushed code for long hours and worked together solving problems with the Hackers Guild team, fuelled by Coke Zero and fast food, the preferred diet of any software developer, Zambian and Finnish alike. At the end of the two weeks, we shared the first working demo of Tonse with a diverse test group consisting primarily of young people of different affiliations, but also of UN colleagues across agencies. We received overwhelmingly positive feedback and this encouraged us to continue with the development of the application and implementation of further features.

Check us out on the Google Play Store

The Tonse application is now available on Google Play Store, for users with Android phones. The UN Youth Group continues the collaboration with Hackers Guild, with the aim to launch the application in Lusaka through social media campaigns on 5 December 2018. Vincit remains involved as part of the project advisory board.

Before the launch, the UN country team is planning outreach activities to existing organisations. While it has taken a long time to reach this stage, the team is conscious that much work still lies ahead – a thousand technical bugs await to be fixed and tens of strategic decisions to be taken. The Tonse story is just starting – download the app, send us your feedback and stay tuned for more updates.


Matts Weurlander Former Planning and Coordination Specialist at the UN Resident Coordinator's Office in Zambia and member of the Tonse team, currently an independent consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya. You can follow him on Linkedin.  

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