,

I, Chatbot: Harnessing Digital Technology for Family Planning and Reproductive Health Education for West African Youth

Written by: Antonia Morzenti, Program Officer II, Breakthrough ACTION, and Brooke Huffman, Program Specialist, Breakthrough ACTION

 

The demographics in many francophone West Africa countries skew young—very young. The under-25 age group accounts for 64.1% of the population in Guinea, 66% in Mali, 64.8% in Côte d’Ivoire, 63% in Mauritania and 77.8% in Benin. Any comprehensive family planning (FP) program in this region must consider the FP and reproductive health (RH) needs of youth. Digital solutions, like chatbots, can help communicate key information about FP to young people.

In 2020, the Ouagadougou Partnership (OP, or PO in French)—a partnership between governments, civil society, and donors from nine francophone West African countries who strive to improve the quality and uptake of FP services in the region—updated its strategy to make youth the focus going forward. One operating principle of this new initiative, the OP Strategy Beyond 2020, is giving young people a powerful voice in defining their own agenda and priorities.

What is a Chatbot?

A chatbot is an artificial intelligence program that simulates human conversations by replicating the human communication model. The DSSR-Bot can interact with users through various messaging applications, websites, mobile applications, or a phone. It is optimized for What’s App and is also usable on other messaging platforms such as Telegram, Signal, and Messenger.

The OP Strategy Beyond 2020 calls for youth-focused programs that fill gaps in FP knowledge and increase opportunities for youth. Breakthrough ACTION is answering that call with the implementation of chatbot software that serves as a regional interactive family planning information center (RIFPIC), known to local youth as “DSSR-Bot.”

 

 

Breakthrough ACTION and the OP’s youth think tank, Think Tank Jeunes, is leveraging WhatsApp, one of the most popular free platforms among young people in the region, to establish access to a chatbot that supports healthy sexual and reproductive behaviors. The use of digital technologies to support healthy sexual and reproductive behaviors is a High Impact Practice for FP, and the RIFPIC capitalizes on the current digital environment of OP countries to allow adolescents and youth to access various information on FP/RH in a straightforward, interactive way.

What is Think Tank Jeunes?

TTJ is part of the OP and made up of youth and adult OP members. TTJ’s role is to ensure that the OP’s priorities regarding youth are determined by, with, and for youth through their own active participation in family planning and reproductive health activities, processes, and interventions.

 

In July 2022, Breakthrough ACTION led a regional design workshop to design the RIFPIC. The workshop involved and trained 110 youth chosen from over 700 applicants across the nine OP countries. Across four training sessions, facilitators introduced the concept of chatbots and guided participants through the process of creating and managing one.

After the training, Breakthrough ACTION held additional coaching sessions for each of the OP countries as they continue to finalize their own chatbots as well as provided tutorial videos that could be referred back to as needed. The RIFPIC platform has information on eight topics with 78 questions and answers more than 185 frequently asked questions related to FP/RH and gender concerns. Via a simple instant message on WhatsApp that directs users to the chatbot, millions of youths have this information at their fingertips. Planning for the promotion of the RIFPIC are ongoing while Breakthrough ACTION works with TTJ to finalize the RIFPIC. Already, the platform has seen 1,202 users just in the pretesting phase.

Breakthrough ACTION and the OP hope this effort establishes an innovative model for using social and behavioral change approaches to identify and apply solutions to local challenges.