A Nation Self-Organizing

Grassroot's vision is a nation self-organizing from the ground-up. Started in March 2015, it is creating simple, purpose-built tools to make organizing and mobilizing in low-income communities in South Africa easier, simpler and more effective. These tools will work on any mobile phone, even the lowest cost, in multiple languages, and are built to be as easy to use as possible.
So far they have built a meeting organizer, vote taker, action recorder, and group organizer. From March to December they built prototypes of these tools and deployed them with several communities and civil society organizations.

The response has been enthusiastic, with over 1,000 users just from pilots, the tools in regular use, and people starting to recommend us to others. In the next year they intend to build a low-end Android application, work even more closely with communities, and start to scale up.


1 -- Identify the real obstacles to organizing and mobilizing and design user-centric tools for mobile phones that help address them.
2 -- Form partnerships with social movements, civil society organizations and community groups to adopt, test and use the tools to strengthen their activities.
3 -- Build and continually improve the tools, incorporating feedback from early users, to ensure they are meeting real user's needs.
4 -- Build the tools to be resilient and robust, even at scale.


The organization began by conducting extensive research and interviews with community groups, civil society organizations and social movements. This was done to ensure that whatever was built would not be "technology first", i.e., determined by what technology can do, but rather determined by what potential users need.
After that extensive research, the organization defined the set of tools and features that it intended to build. It then built initial demos and prototypes of the first tool, the meeting organizer.
Alongside this it formed partnerships with a few communities and social movements that agreed to be early adopters and provide feedback on the tool. It also translated even at the prototype stage, to ensure inclusiveness. The campaign then continued to iterate through this cycle, building more features, fixing old ones, obtaining user feedback and tweaking it. By the end of the period, usage began to scale up, with user numbers crossing 1,000 and repeat use climbing.


1 -- Adopting the principles of "user centric" design. That is, not starting to build any technology until user needs were very clear, iterating rapidly on the basis of user feedback, and testing and adjusting rapidly.
2 -- Prioritizing inclusion first, ensuring that tools reach and work on SMS and non-smart phones (via USSD), again with ease of use, in situations of low connectivity, to ensure early adoption. This also included building in multi-language support from the outset, with translations already in place in Sepedi, Sotho, Tsonga, Venda and Zulu.
3 -- Building agile and with a light team, with a very senior architect matched to junior developers, to be able to make the most of limited resources.


Grassroot’s prototype has over 1,000 users. Several groups use the tools on a weekly basis, and are recommending us to affiliated movements.
Ultimately, its impact comes through enabling and multiplying the impact of others. The tools are built not for Grassroot itself, but to enable others who are mobilizing to effect change and augment their impact. In that regard, the system has, to date:
1 – Became integrated in the routine organizing work of two social movements (names withheld to protect privacy), allowing them to arrange meetings in response to emergencies, conduct their ongoing initiatives with greater efficiency, and have more impact themselves.
2 – Supported several specific campaigns by others, including the #TextbooksMatter campaign of Basic Education for All and Section 27, which mobilized almost 1,000 people in support of litigation to compel government to provide textbooks to all learners in Limpopo.


1 – Limited supply of required skills in SA, in particular entry-level development and programming skills. That required senior staff to do much of the entry-level coding themselves, taking time away from community building, user engagement, and so forth.
2 – Obtaining direct and honest feedback from focus groups and early adopters regarding features and usability. People are inherently polite, and reluctant to give what may sound like criticism to the people who have built what they are testing. This presents a challenge when doing user-centric design, as without direct criticism it is hard to improve.
3 -- Constrained budget. The organization has built the system on a shoestring, its funds only coming from the founders and the generosity of early donors.


1 – Focus on the real needs of the group for whom you are building, and keep refining and iterating the proposed solution so it is as easy for them to use as possible.
2 – Start working with partners early, rather than waiting for the solution or idea to be perfect, and bring their feedback directly into the improvement process.
3 – Try to work with service providers in the same stage of founding or growth, e.g., if a start-up, work with other start-ups that are eager to grow and also understand the challenges of a start-up / innovator.
4 – Keep close to the ground, to avoid becoming just narrowly focused on internal organizational issues or development that is detached from real needs and priorities of users.


South Africa