‘Ask Viamo Anything’ Combines AI with Basic Mobile Calls to Bring Next Billion Online

  • Fastest democratisation of technology as Zambia pilot extends to Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Tanzania

LUSAKA, Zambia–(BUSINESS WIRE)–These are some of the questions Zambians asked a new service, ‘Ask Viamo Anything’, that blends aspects of the artificial intelligence behind ChatGPT, Alexa and Siri with targeted health, education, agriculture and other expertise from the likes of UNICEF to Unilever:

Viamo Main Logo RGB Colour

Viamo Main Logo RGB Colour

  • How can I plant beans?
  • What is a democracy?
  • Why am I so emotional that sometimes I even feel lonely or unwanted?
  • What business can a 12-year-old do in Zambia in the winter?
  • Why doesn’t it snow in Zambia?

By bringing the latest iteration of AI to some of the world’s poorest and most remote communities, ‘Ask Viamo Anything’ heralds the fastest democratisation of technology to date. Currently under pilot in Zambia, the project is being rolled out next in Pakistan, India, Nigeria and Tanzania.

“Generative AI shouldn’t just help lawyers in LA do their job 10% better,” says David McAfee, the CEO and Cofounder of platform provider Viamo. “As a species, we should have a more ambitious goal for the transformative potential of technology. There’s a real opportunity to help every person on the planet.”

The pilot project in Zambia takes Viamo’s platform, used by 24 million people worldwide, from a menu of pre-recorded public service messages on health, education and agriculture to full AI interaction on every conceivable topic.

The user experience even leapfrogs what is available in the US and advanced economies. While most ChatGPT users type their requests into a small box – a barrier for many in communities with low literacy rates – Viamo converts voice to text and back to voice in real time. The quality is enhanced by bespoke information that is geographically specific and therefore more relevant to users, in addition to regular open access information available on the Internet. In Zambia, Viamo references lists of family planning clinics, for example, and localised, approved agricultural advice.

“When a caller in Zambia gets her own smartphone, we want her to keep on calling us because she’s getting better answers from Viamo,” says McAfee. “In fact, a third of our active users worldwide call us from an Internet-enabled device.”

While only 33% of Zambians have access to the Internet, over 80% own a mobile phone. By using basic voice calls as the interface, the Viamo platform is accessible to more people than can currently log onto Facebook, Instagram or TikTok.

“Combining AI and mobile is the necessary solution to bring the next billion people online,” says McAfee. “For the first time, people in emerging markets can benefit from technology at the same time as the Global North. Never has transformative technology been able to penetrate so far so fast.”

A for-profit social enterprise operating in 25 countries, Viamo, based in Canada, is part-financed by social impact institutions including the Global Innovation Fund, and supported by US, UK and other government development agencies, as well as commercially focused investors including VestedWorld and SaskWorks Venture Fund Inc. In much the same way as Google, Viamo earns revenue by enabling organisations and commercial companies to engage with and activate its millions of users. UNICEF, for example, provides information on HIV, tropical diseases, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene.

Viamo targets raising around US$30 million of additional capital in the first half of 2024 to incorporate the benefits of generative AI into its platform in 22 countries in Africa and Asia.

Following its successful pilot project running in Zambia since May, ‘Ask Viamo Anything’ is being rolled out as an Urdu service in Pakistan and in Hindi for India, along with an English service for Nigeria and in Swahili for Tanzania in the first half of 2024. The priority is on languages best supported by the Whisper AI transcription tool and in countries with significant populations underserved by current information services and technology.

As a social enterprise, bringing the first experience of generative AI to isolated communities carries immense responsibility. Women and girls account for 54% of calls in Zambia, with more questions on health than any other topic, followed by education and religion. Male callers focus more on education, closely followed by health and technology. Nearly a third of users are aged under 18.

Viamo reviews responses manually on a daily basis to ensure appropriate responses, especially for questions relating to mental health issues such as isolation and depression. Any indication of a user seeking to develop a relationship with the AI tool itself – questions like “who are you?” – are answered in a way to clarify that Viamo is merely an application, while providing appropriate self-help advice and contact points. Responses take careful account of regional social norms and laws when addressing potentially sensitive topics such as sexuality or religion.

“In 2023, our users have spent 2.1 billion minutes on our platform – or 4,000 years – and, prior to our Zambia pilot, hadn’t said a single word,” says McAfee. “We’ve been delighted at how quickly our users have taken to asking us anything – and everything. So far, around 10,000 people have asked nearly 90,000 questions. The questions are increasingly wide ranging and sophisticated as callers become more familiar with this new functionality. Now the onus is on us to make sure we’re reliably providing genuinely helpful, geographically specific responses.”

About Viamo:

Founded in 2012, Viamo is a global social enterprise with a presence in 25 emerging markets. We believe everyone deserves access to information to be able to make well-informed decisions, large and small.

Nearly 3 billion of us remain unconnected, hard to reach by traditional media or even the Internet. This means too many people don’t get the information that helps us reach our full potential, don’t get our voices heard, or our markets and economies developed.

Viamo has found a way to change this. We give people access to information to improve businesses, governance, health and education. And we do it in the way that suits our users best: through voice, on their simple mobile phones, at the moment of their choosing, in their own language.


Emily Worrall

[email protected]
+254 799 746 984

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