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BulkSMS.com, a Cape Town based messaging service provider, recorded its highest
ever monthly SMS volumes on the Community.BulkSMS messaging platform during the
recent refugee crisis fomented by xenophobic violence against foreign
nationals. These above average SMS statistics for organisations within South
Africa’s civil society were largely based on calls for volunteers and essential
items to assist displaced African immigrants.
“We have a large number of NGOS, faith-based organisations and schools across
the country registered on our Community.BulkSMS service. Daily messaging
traffic during May of this year more than doubled as the refugee crisis broke
out,” said Dr Pieter Streicher, managing director of BulkSMS.com.
One such NGO was SHAWCO, the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation
based at the University of Cape Town, which successfully used the
Community.BulkSMS messaging platform to coordinate relief efforts to assist
foreign nationals who fled from areas in Cape Town due to xenophobic violence.
SHAWCO sent bulk SMS messages to mobilise student and medical volunteers, sent
notifications of emergency meetings, and arranged for the collection of
blankets and food for immigrants.
“BulkSMS.com’s community messaging solution has been fantastic. The sending of
bulk SMS messages was massively helpful in coordinating efforts to assist
displaced immigrants. The ability to contact volunteers directly on their
cellphones enabled us to quickly mobilise a large number of volunteers to help
as the refugee crisis was beginning,” said Wendy Lewin, from SHAWCO’s health
On the evening of Friday, May 23rd 2008 SHAWCO received a call requesting
volunteers to help with the distribution of blankets and food to the five
hundred immigrants who had gathered at the police station in the Cape Town city
“On the Friday night we realised we needed to top up our SMS credits before we
could send out more messages to our database. I thought I would have to wait
until after the weekend to go through our usual procurement process.
Thankfully, all I had to do was go online to the BulkSMS website and purchase
credits with my credit card. The SMS credits were available immediately and we
were able to start communicating with our volunteers,” said Lewin.
SHAWCO immediately began mobilising recruits by sending out a bulk SMS at 22h45
from the office’s internet enabled computer to its list of volunteers,
including students and medical doctors. By 01h30 that Saturday morning, SHAWCO
had already started collecting blankets and medical volunteers were deployed to
assist foreign nationals at the police station.
Later on that same Saturday morning, SHAWCO’s student leaders were alerted via
SMS to an emergency meeting. The SMS was sent out just over an hour before the
meeting and gave venue and meeting time details as well as noted the need to
assess SHAWCO’s ability to offer support during the escalating refugee crisis.
At the meeting it was decided that the SHAWCO students assembled should drive
SHAWCO’s relief efforts and one of the first tasks was to make further calls
for health volunteers and essential items.
A further bulk SMS was thus sent to SHAWCO’s database of volunteers early on
Saturday afternoon. The SMS succinctly specified what relief support was
needed, collection drop off locations and time as well as the contact person
coordinating volunteer activities:
SHAWCO was also involved in the first coordinated NGO assessment of refugee
sites around Cape Town on Sunday, 25th May. In planning for these site visits,
SHAWCO sent out an SMS alert the night before calling for medical students and
volunteer doctors to assist with assessments of, amongst other aspects, the
shelter, medical care and meals provided to immigrants in camps.
As the week progressed SHAWCO continued to use SMS to mobilise medical students
as volunteers for its medical assistance outreach programme. Over and above the
weekly evening health clinics run in Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, Masiphumelele,
Nyanga and Joe Slovo in Milnerton, the student volunteer organisation also ran
an additional nine clinics at various refugee sites within the first two weeks.
“SHAWCO provides a perfect example of how mobile messaging technology enables a
non-governmental organisation to address a local crisis by quickly mobilising
and coordinating local resources. By using SMS messaging, SHAWCO was able to
instantaneously broadcast to their contacts their need for volunteers to help
with the refugee crisis,” said Dr Streicher.