TechTip: Project support with SMS

RapidSMS helps organisations manage communications, data collection and logistics support using cell phones. The system was designed to be adaptable to many situations, and has been used effectively in a wide range of agricultural, health and emergency work.


RapidSMS is free and open source software, which you need to download and install to set it up. However, there is no need to install anything on the computers or phones of other users who will interact with the system, they only need a basic cell phone that can send and receive an SMS.

Download the software from the RapidSMS website: or from


Since the system was designed to be flexible to meet the needs of organisations in a wide range of situations, there is no single setup that suits every use. The list below indicates the equipment needed in a typical setup. Some technical expertise is necessary to install and customise the software.


The server should:

- run a Linux operating system, (the latest version of Ubuntu is recommended)
- have a reliable electricity supply, or connected to a backup battery unit
- be securely hosted
- be accessible to install modems
- have an internet connection for remote access and updating
- but it can be an older, low-end desktop computer.

GSM modem(s)

- one for each cell phone network that you will send messages to
- a SIM card for each modem
NOTE: the modem must be compatible with RapidSMS. A Multitech MTCBA-G-U-F4 is recommended, but check the full list at


A RapidSMS system can:
- allow thousands of users to interact with the system simultaneously
- can instantly deliver data to users anywhere with an internet connection
- integrate with existing software, including converting data to an Excel sheet, or query existing databases
- trigger pre-determined actions in a given set of circumstances
- can be used for small or large volumes of data transfer, from a single village to a whole country.


The developers of RapidSMS stress the importance of good preparation and planning before using the software to support a project. Managers should first assess whether it would be feasible to use RapidSMS. There are ten main factors for determining the success of a project intending to use the system, many of which could also be applied to any project using ICTs:

Context: the project should fit within the target community’s cultural, technological and social setting. For example, do all the users have regular access to a cell phone, and can they easily recharge the phone’s batteries from an available electricity supply? Carefully consider the roles of authority figures, religious practices, traditional customs, gender participation and the available technologies.

Motivation: people need a good reason to participate. The project might provide them with new skills, useful information or financial compensation – money or phone credits, for example.

Behaviour: participants should not be inconvenienced by the project. Ensure that the project is easy to understand and easily fits into the existing daily routine of the users.

Critical mass: the project will need a sufficient number of people contributing enough data to make the project a success. Look at ways to encourage people to participate, particularly those who are involved in the early stages and who will help to develop a wider network.

Sustainability: project participants have to be motivated to continue contributing information beyond the initial stages. Evaluate how the project is used as time goes on, and whether you can find new ways to encourage continued participation.

Awareness: have a system in place to remind people to contribute to the project, perhaps through a local manager who visits regularly, or by sending reminder messages. It is also useful to provide brief summaries of training materials – small cards or posters – and a contact number in case participants have questions about the process.

Expense: try to work out the cost of setting up and maintaining such a system for your organisation. Consider too the costs to participants. If they have to pay to send each SMS then they will be less likely to contribute. Talk with the local cell phone network providers to arrange low-cost or free tariffs for users.

Usability: users should be able to take part in the project without too much training. Their input should be suited to their abilities.

Quality: monitor the project throughout the development process to make sure that users supply the kind of data required, and that the software functions as expected.

Support: participants need to be able to access information quickly if something goes wrong, while project managers need to develop links with local software developers to ensure the technology operates as it should.


Related links

TechTip: Group text messages by computer
How to set up and run FrontlineSMS software.

Project Mwana
This project uses RapidSMS to provide health services to mothers and infants in Zambia.

Jokko Initiative
Uses RapidSMS to encourage group decision-making in Senegalese villages.

17 December 2010

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)