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How SMS Messages Revitalize the Lives of Cambodian Youth

By Tharum Bun on October 5, 2015


While social media and radio are two of the most popular channels among young people in Cambodia, text messaging has remained a basic mean to send and receive short-yet-useful content. Even today about 96% of Cambodian youth have access to mobile phone, more than 30% of them use the device to send and receive text messages.

Youth Chhlat, a project of OneWorld, heavily uses SMS as part of its Questions and Answer platform to respond to questions about sexuality and reproductive health and rights from Cambodian youth, the nation’s largest population. However, as subscribers are on many different mobile network services, delivering those SMS content to them was a challenge. To overcome the delivery and dispatch of messages, OneWorld’s Youth Chhlat (Smart Youth) uses InSTEDD’s Nuntium to respond to questions from young Cambodians.

In my interview below, OneWorld Cambodia’s Project Officer, Sanary Kaing, and OneWorld Global Programme Coordinator, Jeffrey Allen, discussed how the open-source messaging service acts as a one-stop for all the messaging needs of applications, while helping them focused more on providing valuable content to their target groups.

What is Youth Chhlat?

Youth Chhlat, is a cross-media life skills programme that enables and encourages young people to engage with gender, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) issues. It combines a computer-based eLearning system with a mobile phone question-and-answer service.

OneWorld is working with local NGO partners including Child Helpline Cambodia and Inthanou to implement the question-and-answer service. Young people can text their questions anonymously to a short code, and they will receive accurate, confidential, and non-judgemental answers, usually within 24 hours. They can also submit questions via email or Facebook’s private messaging system.

The eLearning platform is being implemented by teachers in Cambodia’s public school system. The national Life Skills curriculum has been adapted into a series of “info-cartoons” and interactive exercises, [offering life lessons in an entertaining way] and enabling them to tackle difficult subjects. The Reproductive Health Association of Cambodia (RHAC) has worked with OneWorld and the Cambodia Ministry of Education to develop the eLearning curriculum and implement it in schools.

Youth Chhlat is part of the “Learning about Living” programme OneWorld and its partners have developed and implemented projects in six countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East since 2007. The programme is adapted to the local context in each country, making use of whatever new media is popular among young people. It was conceived and co-developed by OneWorld and Butterfly Works, a social innovation studio in the Netherlands, which has worked closely with RHAC to develop the eLearning platform for Cambodian schools.

The mission of Youth Chhlat is to leverage cross-media ICT innovatively to promote sex education, gender empowerment, and life skills among young people. It launched in July 2013.

What are some of the key technologies used for this project?

An eLearning Platform provides young people accurate, in-depth information on sensitive subjects in a fun and entertaining style. The question-and-answer platform makes use of SMS texting, email, and Facebook. Radio spots have also been used to reach out to young people in schools and out of schools.

Why SMS?

We decided to focus on SMS (as well as Facebook) because during our scoping study we saw how much young people liked to communicate with their friends by chatting and SMS. We knew these trends would only continue to get stronger as mobile phones and the Internet became more accessible for more young people.

Also, information about sexual and reproductive health and rights is very sensitive – it’s a difficult subject for many people to talk about everywhere in the world, and this is definitely true in Cambodia, too. SMS allows young people a private, “safe space” to ask their questions without fear of judgement.

To overcome the delivery and dispatch of messages, OneWorld’s Youth Chhlat (Smart Youth) uses InSTEDD’s Nuntium to respond to questions from young Cambodians.


How has Nuntium been utilised? How does it work as part of the overall system?

Nuntium transmits SMS messages from the various telecom operators to OneWorld’s cloud-based Q&A platform, and back again. So a Cambodian young person can send a text message to our short code (1293) using a Smart SIM card. Smart will send the message to Nuntium, which recognises the short code as belonging to the Youth Chhlat project and then sends the message on to OneWorld’s Q&A platform. When one of the counselors answers the question, it’s transmitted back to Nuntium. All this happens in just a matter of seconds each time a young person or a counselor sends a message.

Why is this technology so vital?

The technology is very important for OneWorld because it allows us to connect our platform to several operators without the difficulty of developing a new set of code for each one. Our time is freed up to develop the platform for the counsellors, while Nuntium manages the connection with the operators.

What did Nuntium help the project achieve?

Nuntium transmits SMS messages from the various telecom operators in Cambodia to OneWorld’s cloud-based Q&A platform, and back again. This has freed up OneWorld to focus its limited resources on developing the technical platform counselors use to respond to young people’s questions. [This has made] it easier for them to provide accurate, confidential, and non-judgemental information about youths’ daily problems related to reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, STIs, love, family issues, and gender.

How was the experience working with the iLab Southeast Asia team? What aspect did you like most?

The tech team of iLab Southeast Asia is very supportive and collaborative. We like that we can contact them whenever we notice problems with the messages arriving on our platform, and they are available to troubleshoot the problems quickly. Young people expect to get answers quickly, so it’s important that we can work closely with the iLab Southeast Asia team to keep the whole system working smoothly!

Would you recommend InSTEDD tools to others?

Yes, we find the service very convenient, and we very much appreciate working with iLab Southeast Asia!

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Written by
Tharum Bun is a Communications and Digital Media Manager at InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia. He's also a tech blogger and photographer. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Huffington Post, Asian Correspondent, Tech In Asia, Global Voices Online, and The Phnom Penh Post.
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