Alphabétisation de Base par Cellulaire (ABC): Mobiles 4 Literacy

Country Profile: Niger


17,831,000 (2013)

Official language


Other languages

Hausa, Zarma and Songhai, Tamajeq, Fulfulde, Kanuri, colloquial Arabic, Gurma, Toubou, Buduma, Tassawaq

Poverty (population living on less than US $ 1.25 per day)

44% (2008)

Total expenditure on education as % of GDP

4.44 (2012)

Net enrolment rate, primary education (2012, UIS)


Youth literacy rate (15 – 24 years, 2015, UIS estimation)

Female: 17.15%
Male: 36.43%
Both sexes: 26.56%

Adult literacy rate (15+ years, 2015, UIS estimation)

Female: 11.04%
Male: 27.29%
Both sexes: 19.13%

Statistical sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleAlphabétisation de Base par Cellulaire (ABC) : Mobiles 4 Literacy
Implementing OrganizationCatholic Relief Services
Language of InstructionAll classes were taught in the native language of the community, either Zarma or Hausa
FundingCatholic Relief Services, Tufts University, Hitachi Foundation, CITRIS and private donors
Programme PartnersTufts University, Oxford University, UC-Davis
Annual Programme CostsAnnual programme costs: approximately US $175,000
Date of Inception2008

Country Context and Background

Niger is a country stricken by poverty. It is ranked bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living and quality of life in countries worldwide. Although the government has increased education spending by almost 2% since 1999, Niger still has one of the world’s largest populations of out-of-school children. Compulsory education lasts six years, yet more than 50% of Nigerien children who should be in grade 5 are not going to school, while nearly 75% of young people spend only four years at school. Those who do attend primary school often emerge with few or no basic literacy skills, perhaps because only 17% of teachers in Niger are properly trained (UNESCO 2014). If current trends continue, Niger would achieve universal primary education only in 2070 (ibid.).

Women in Niger fare significantly worse than men when it comes to literacy, with 30 per cent fewer literate women than men and less than a quarter of young women achieving basic standards of literacy. Gender inequality is also reflected in the recruitment of teachers: only 18% of teachers in upper-secondary school are women.

Internet access is a huge challenge in Niger, due to limited financial resources and poor infrastructure. Only one person in every 100 is estimated to use the internet (UNICEF 2011). In contrast, 27 out of 100 people in Niger own a mobile phone with the number of users growing fast thanks to the expansion of cell phone coverage in the country (ibid.).

The desire to learn how to make a call or write an SMS text message, a cheap and increasingly popular means of communication in Niger, has proved an important factor in motivating illiterate adults to learn numbers and letters. For that reason, the ABC project has used the mobile phone as a simple and low-cost pedagogical tool to encourage adults to engage in literacy learning and to enable them to practise their skills not only in the classroom, but outside too – a significant challenge for most adult literacy programmes.

Programme Overview

The ABC programme is a collaborative initiative that uses mobile phones as tools in promoting adult literacy and numeracy in Niger. The programme stemmed from the observations of researchers at Tufts University and Catholic Relief Services, who noticed previously illiterate traders teaching themselves to read and write using a mobile phone, in order to take advantage of SMS text messaging, as a cheaper alternative to calling. The programme was designed to assess the impact of mobile phone use on adults’ learning and socio-economic outcomes. It integrated phone-based literacy and numeracy modules into a conventional adult literacy course, attended by 50 learners (25 men and 25 women) in each of the 113 villages selected in the Dosso and Zinder regions of Niger. All students followed a regular adult education programme. However, in half the villages (the ‘ABC villages’) participants also learned how to use a mobile phone.

Aims and Objectives

Programme Implementation

Using the Ministry of Non-Formal Education’s adult education curriculum, the course taught students how to read and write in their native languages (Hausa and Zarma), and how to solve simple math problems. In addition, they learned about agricultural, environmental and health issues. The adult education modules involved daily lectures, repetition, practice and exercises.
The adult education programme comprised eight months of literacy and numeracy instruction over a two-year period. Students attended classes five times a week, for three hours a day.

Courses started in February and continued until June, with a seven-month break in between each year of study, due to the planting and harvesting season. Prevailing socio-cultural practices in Niger meant that each village had two literacy classes, one for men and one for women.

Some two months into the programme, students in the selected villages began the ABC module. The module gave learners basic instruction on how to use a mobile phone, including turning the handset on and off, making and receiving calls, and sending and receiving text messages. As per the Ministry of Non-Formal Education’s curriculum guidelines, the students used learning materials in either the Hausa or Zarma language.

Recruitment and Training of Teachers

Teaching staff were chosen from within the community on the basis of their level of education and were trained by the Ministry of Non-Formal Education in the basic adult education curriculum. Catholic Relief Services and Tufts taught the literacy teachers the basis of the ABC methodology. Teachers earned a salary of around 40,000 CFA francs (US $80) each month. In order to ensure the engagement of the teachers, they chose the classroom schedule in collaboration with members of the community.

Enrolment of Learners

There were a number of criteria for student eligibility. Students had to be members of a producers’ association within the village. They had to be unable to read or write letters or numbers in any language. And they had to be willing to participate in the programme. If more than 50 people were eligible in any one village, the students were chosen by public lottery.

All students undertook an initial baseline assessment, conducted by Tufts University using tests devised by the Ministry of Non-Formal Education. They were assigned scores between 0 to 7, with level 0 corresponding to ‘complete illiteracy’ (that is to say, not being able to recognize or write any letters of the alphabet), and level 7 applying to students able to write two complete sentences with more complex word patterns. The levels correspond to those used in the numeracy test, which ranged from level 0 (‘complete innumeracy’) to level 1 (simple number recognition), up to a maximum of level 7 (number problems involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division). Almost all students were assessed at either level 0 or 1.

Monitoring and Evaluation of the Programme

In order to compare literacy and numeracy test scores between the villages that had mobile phones and those that did not, several rounds of literacy and numeracy tests were conducted by Tufts University, using the Ministry’s test materials. The first round of data collection was conducted by Tufts in January of each year of the programme, generating information about learners’ literacy and numeracy levels prior to starting classes. A second test was carried out at the end of the course, by Tufts and the ministry, in order to measure the immediate impacts of the programme. A third, conducted by Tufts during the following January, sought to determine whether the acquired literacy and numeracy skills had endured over time.

Tufts’ research also involved a household survey, with interviews conducted at 1,038 student households across 100 villages over a three-year period. The purpose was to obtain information about household demographics, assets, production and sales activities, access to price information, migration and mobile phone ownership and usage, before, during and after the programme. Tufts University also collected monitoring data from Catholic Relief Services and the Ministry on teachers’ characteristics and engagement and students’ enrollment and attendance.

Programme Impact and Challenges

Between 2009 and 2012, Catholic Relief Services’ adult education programme engaged 7,000 people with literacy problems. Examining changes to reading and writing and maths scores over time, students, overall, increased their test scores from 0 to, on average, between 2 and 3, meaning that they could read and write sentences and complete addition and subtraction problems. However, the writing and maths test scores of ABC villages were between 20% and 25% higher than those of non-ABC villages in the short-term, and 20% higher in the longer-term (that is, seven months after the end of the programme). Although both groups experienced a decline in literacy and numeracy skills during the six months when classes were not held, the level of depreciation was lower in ABC villages.

Almost a third (31%) of adults in traditional literacy programmes in Niger achieve level 1 in maths or writing during the first year of literacy classes, whereas 36% of adults in the ABC programme achieved level 1 after only six weeks of using a mobile phone. The traditional programme cost is US $21.50 per student, compared to the ABC programme cost of US $27.5 per adult participant. These figures, of course, prompt the question: Does the ABC programme promote more adults to level 1 per dollar than the traditional literacy programme? During the first year, for every US dollar spent on the ABC programme, approximately 80% of the students reached level 1, compared to 69% of students on conventional literacy programmes.

Programme Challenges

The programme faced a number of challenges, including an unpredictable funding environment, problems with logistics, and drought. Funding issues caused delays to the programme, which reduced the amount of contact time between teachers and students. A devastating drought in 2009 meant that fewer students were able to attend the course in 2010. And poor monitoring meant that shared mobiles phones were not used, as had been planned.

Lessons Learned

In conventional adult literacy courses, learners often find it difficult to put into practice what they have learned, principally because of a lack of recent and relevant information in their local languages. However, the use of mobile phones gives learners the opportunity to practice their literacy and numeracy skills more regularly outside the classroom. SMS text-messaging is a simple and low-cost means of communication, which allows learners not only to communicate news of events but also to have regular conversations with family, friends and commercial contacts. The relative cheapness of SMS, compared to making calls, may have important unintended benefits in poorer communities where illiteracy is most prevalent and where cheap SMS rates can prove a powerful financial incentive to learn to read and write text messages.

The use of mobile technology inside the classroom has motivated both teachers and learners, as it allows individuals and their families to use the technology for other purposes, for example to obtain market prices or labour market information (Aker and Mbiti 2010). The results also suggest that better-educated teachers are better able to harness mobile technology to improve students’ educational experiences, suggesting that teacher quality is essential. Moreover, since mobile phones were supplied for the purposes of the programme, they would not need to be purchased for future projects, which would substantially lower the cost of the programme. Although, as mentioned above, government expenditure on education in Niger has improved, it remains one of the lowest in the world. Consequently, the use of mobile phone technology in adult education programmes is one of many educational interventions competing for scarce public resources.


Despite a lack of funding, the ABC programme has spread to more than 400 villages in Niger over the past three years, thanks to support from USAID’s Food for Peace programme. The ABC programme has also proved an inspiration to other projects, for example CellEd (, a mobile phone-based education platform working with ESL (English as a Second Language) learners in the United States.


Contact details

Bill Rastetter
Country Representative
Address: Blvd. Mali Béro/Ave. Sultans BP 871 Niamey, Niger
Tel: +227 20 72 21 25, Fax: +227 20 72 30 04
Email: Bill.Rastetter (at)