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Tanzania: ‘Don't Drown’ SMS-Based Maritime Early Warning System

Usizame is a free SMS-based ferry check-in and alert system designed to help prevent marine accidents in Tanzania. The system will also include an early warning system about bad weather conditions so that people can choose whether they want to travel on a particular boat or day.

Tanzania has witnessed one of the worst maritime accidents over the last couple of decades. In 1996, MV Bukoba sank killing over 1000 people. MV Spice Islander sank in 2011 killing 200 people followed MV Skagit this month that left over 70 passengers dead and others missing.

Rachel Hamada, the founder of Usizame, spoke to Global Voices Online about Usizame initiative.

Ndesanjo Macha (NM): Can you briefly tell us about yourself?

Rachel Hamada (RH): I am an experienced journalist and the founder of Mambo magazine, the online magazine for Zanzibar. I moved to Zanzibar in 2008 with my husband, who is from the island of Unguja (the larger island of the Zanzibar archipelago) and our daughter – though I have been coming and going from the island since about 2001. Originally, I am from the UK and have worked in the fields of travel, politics, culture, business and technology journalism.

Founder of Usizame – Rachel Hamada. Photo courtesy of Rachel Hamada.

NM: What is Usizame?

RH: Usizame is Kiswahili for ‘don't drown'. The system is a prototype that allows ferry passengers traveling between Zanzibar (including Pemba) and Dar Es Salaam to check onto their boat via free SMS. The idea is to relate passenger counts to boat capacities so that an alert can be triggered in the case of a boat being overloaded. The system will also establish a digital passenger manifest for each boat, warn passengers about severe weather conditions or that they are traveling on a deregistered boat, and will also include an early warning system in the case of an actual disaster.

NM: How did the idea come up?

RH: My husband's mother and niece, Bi Tatu and Asha, were on the MV Skagit, which capsized on Wednesday 18 July. They were traveling back from Morogoro on the mainland via Dar Es Salaam. They were supposed to travel the week before, but were delayed in Zanzibar by a family funeral. So as it happened, they had the bad luck to be on the wrong boat at the wrong time. The MV Skagit was over its capacity, was anyway not designed to travel in open ocean over such a distance and sailed in rough seas despite a warning from the Tanzanian Meteorological Agency. The boat capsized and rescue efforts were thwarted by bad weather and petty problems such as lack of fuel at the port for rescue boats.

As a result, not many bodies were recovered and those such as us have to deal with the fact that our loved ones cannot even be buried. This tragedy followed on from the MV Spice Islander disaster last September, in which some 200 people were confirmed dead but over 1,300 missing – making this, I believe, one of the worst maritime disasters of this century globally.

I was trying to think of a practical way to stop these disasters from ever happening again – and was coming up with the tired old chestnut of lobbying government, when a friend of mine with a tech background, Mbwana Alliy, suggested a different angle of approach. This was to look at the issue from the bottom up and find a way to protect passengers without, at least in the early stages, involving any authorities and bureaucracy that might slow things down.

We want to harness the momentum of the tragedy positively to engage passengers and ensure take-up of the system early on is high. So we are working on a rough pilot system that we will test and hone over time, but that can be launched quickly. Down the line it may well be that we work more closely with mobile operators and Tanzanian authorities.

Usizame logo. Image courtesy of usizame.org

NM: Can you give our readers a bit of background to boat accidents in Tanzania in recent years?

RH: As I mentioned, within the last year, there have been two major marine disasters near Zanzibar (and a good number of small ones also). This is against a background of other tragedies on Zanzibar and the mainland, such as the Gongo La Mboto bomb blasts, with a feeling that life is cheap, despite the cost of living being very high now in Tanzania. The Citizen newspaper today led on a story headlined “Disasters are killing TZ minds and souls,” which highlights the psychological damage that such recurring disasters can incur.

In terms of boat disasters specifically, Tanzania also saw the horrendous sinking of MV Bukoba on Lake Victoria – with some 1000 passengers reported as having drowned. Tanzania has few if any rivals for numbers of boat deaths over the last couple of decades.

NM: What do you expect to achieve from this initiative?

RH: This is a ‘suck it and see’ project – it's new, it's experimental and we are going to learn through trial and error. So ‘expect’ might be too strong a word. But certainly what we hope to achieve is to design a system that will be effective in terms of protecting all boat passengers (almost everybody in Tanzania has at least a basic mobile phone) or at least in helping them to make much more informed choices and putting mismanagement of boats, such as regular overloading, on the record. It's civic action, and the idea is that passengers take on their own ‘duty of care'.

Friends, relatives and concerned citizens in Zanzibar standing in shock after MV Spice capsized. Photo courtesy of @Tanganyikan.

Friends, relatives and concerned citizens in Zanzibar standing in shock after MV Spice capsized. Photo courtesy of @Tanganyikan.


NM: What would be the role of social media in Usizame initiative?

RH: Social media is important to some extent. It will help with making Usizame known to some tourists and expat ferry passengers and to a limited segment of the Tanzanian population. However, we are also putting a heavy emphasis on offline marketing. We will distribute flyers at local ports during the trial runs to inform passengers about what Usizame is, how it works, and the fact that it is free. If the trial is successful, we aim to scale up the scheme to all ferries running between the mainland and the archipelago, and at that stage we will look at much greater media saturation, with more interviews and radio and TV campaigns to raise public awareness. But we are clear that we have to concentrate first and foremost on making the prototype work on a small scale.

NM: How would you describe the state of social media and mobile phone penetration in Tanzania?

RH: Mobile phone penetration is high in Tanzania – most people have at least a basic phone. That's why few Zanzibari fishermen were out when the tail end of the tsunami hit the island's shores. They had all been forewarned by family or friends, and returned to shore to be safe. Social media penetration is much more in its infancy. Twitter is still relatively unused here.
Facebook, however, is seeing exponential growth. It only has penetration still of some 1.3 per cent of the population but in the last six months Facebook use increased by more than 28 per cent – and this trend looks likely to continue.

NM: Who else is involved with Usizame?

RH: Myself and Mbwana Alliy, who is from Dar Es Salaam, has Silicon Valley experience and is currently running East African tech investment firm Savannah Fund, conceived the idea on the day after the MV Skagit tragedy. The main other core members of our team thus far have been IT systems engineer Jones Mrusha and coder Allen Machary. Danish blogger Pernille Baerendtsen has been helping to build social media around the new brand.

Zanzibari graphic designer Tahir Othman designed a great logo for us at short notice. Umayra al-Nabhany at the State University of Zanzibar is helping us out with translation of all relevant literature into Kiswahili – we aim to have two parallel Usizame websites – one in Kiswahili and one in English. Multi-Color Printers in Zanzibar have offered to print flyers for us for the pilot run. We are all working on Usizame on a voluntary basis.

You can find out more about Usizame on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Nampspm

    Great initiative…wishing you all the best

  • guest


    MV Spice Islander sank in 2011 killing 200 people followed MV Skagit this month that left over 70 passengers dead and others missing”

    can you please correct the data? at least to show respect to our dead. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Foot/100003585230421 Brian Foot

    To Guest, Think you need to reprioritise you berk, maybe YOU should show some respect to someone prepared to do something about the situation not just whinge about semantics!!!

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