Remembering Chief Francis Kariuki and the 8988 shortcode

Chief Francis Kariuki

One thing that made Chief Francis Kariuki stand out was his high regard for communication. He believed in passing the message to the people and in time. He constantly asked for feedback, and promptly shared out information that was relevant to the people.

“Am there to serve the people. Almost 80% of the people I serve receive my updates via Twitter SMS shortcode. To me this is the most effective way of holding a Chief’s public baraza as required by law,” he once told me as we took tea at the Nakuru library cafeteria.

That was Chief Kariuki. A man feted around the world for embracing technology to enhance service delivery. For several years from 2011, Chief Kariuki used Twitter as an integral tool in his work. He used the platform to share information relevant to his people. His followers, however, were not only people residing in Lanet-Umoja, but also included many Nakurians in the diaspora. His tweets were a source of updates on what was happening home.

Chief Kariuki would tweet about a robbery in real-time and many are the times such robberies were thwarted in the nick of time. He would share job opportunities, pleas for help and public announcements. Mostly, however, he tweeted about lost children, lost livestock and other lost items. The beauty of the platform was the fact that his followers, mostly who were local people without smartphones, always received the updates in real-time as SMS alerts on their phones.

Discontinuing the Twitter SMS short code, 8988

One of Chief Francis Kariuki’s lowest moments came in the middle of 2018. During this time, his rural followers who had always depended on him for updates could no longer receive his Twitter SMS alerts. It was a frustrating experience for him as he frantically tried to contact the service provider and look for alternatives. When I met him during this time, could see and feel that he was devastated by Safaricom’s decision to discontinue the Twitter SMS shortcode that enabled subscribers to receive tweets via the Safaricom line.

“Majority of my target audience don’t have smartphones and can only receive my tweets via SMS. The discontinuation of this service has been a huge blow to my community as it has over time grown to be their platform for reaching out and sharing information,” lamented the soft-spoken chief.

On the 16th of June 2018, Chief Kariuki had tweeted his frustrations and prayer that Safaricom would reconsider their decision.

Safaricom had just withdrawn the service then. The tweeting Chief could no longer tweet his message to the people and by then, he was trying to get the phone numbers of the residents to do direct SMS. But the hassle of collecting numbers and bulk texting was still a headache.

A month before, the tweeting chief had warned his followers of the impeding pulling down of the 8988 number in a few of his tweets. He has also requested his followers to try subscribing via the Airtel network where they could still get him.

Residents say crime went up during this period. Previously, a resident who was attacked by robbers just needed to send a text message with their details to the Chief. The Chief would then tweet the message and in a few minutes the whole community would know about the attack and neighbours would come to the rescue. The Chief used to joke that even robbers would follow him to monitor when they would be reported.

Due to the nature of his audience, the tweets were mostly made in Swahili. And due to the fact that he would forward the texts as received without editing, the tweets would sometimes come out funny and in broken language. But this suited his thousands of followers just fine. As long as they could communicate through the chief, they knew he had their backs.

Rest well chief. We shall dearly miss your progressive ideas.