You work at an international NGO in Kenya that focuses on agriculture. You go out into the field and meet with poor smallholder farmers from whom you’ve gathered 20,000 mobile phone numbers. These farmers all happen to be literate, so you’ve decided to engage with them via SMS, but the only language they all understand is Swahili.

You put together some important SMS messages and polls in Swahili and send them out (hopefully using engageSPARK!) to the farmers. All works out well. Your mobile phone behavioral change program has impact that you can measure. Awesome!

Now let’s fly half way across the world to your colleagues in Cambodia. They want to implement the same mobile phone behavioral change program via SMS. They put together the messages and polls in Khmer, which is the only language that the farmers in Cambodia can read or speak.

Your colleagues send out the SMS messages (again, hopefully using engageSPARK!), but something bad happens – all the Cambodian farmers see on their mobile phones is this: ????? ? ??? ??????? ??????. That’s because most mobile phones in Cambodia cannot support the alphabet in which Khmer is written.

Swahili is written with Latin characters, so basic mobile phones with no Internet capability – which are the most common phones in developing countries – can display Swahili without an issue. But, there are many languages with uncommon alphabets that are not supported by these basic mobile phones, which can be used only via SMS and Voice (i.e., phone calls).

Khmer, spoken by only 15 million people in the world, is just one of them. Assamese, a language in India spoken by about 13 million people in the Assam State, is another. While developers have created virtual keyboards and apps for many of these languages – here’s one for Assamese and one for Khmer – those don’t help the millions of poor people who can’t afford Internet-enabled mobile phones and only have basic ones.

So, what’s the solution? How can NGOs engage with individuals who can only read one of these unsupported languages? Ideally, mobile phone makers like Nokia – which is the most common brand of basic mobile phone in developing countries – will update their phones to support every language script in the world. But, in the meantime, the only real solution is Voice Calls, where individuals receive a phone call that plays back a pre-recorded audio message in their local language when they answer the call.

In the past, we’ve written about how SMS programs automatically exclude the illiterate – and in sub-Saharan Africa in particular, we are talking about 50% of adult women. Voice Calls are the best way to reach these illiterate people. What we didn’t previously realize is how many people are “functionally illiterate” when it comes to engaging with them via the mobile phone because the technology they have access to – basic mobile phones – doesn’t support the only language they can read.

There must be dozens of languages used by hundreds of millions of people across the world that are not supported by basic mobile phones. It looks like Armenian and Azerbaijani also face this problem. Have you experienced this issue in your country? Do you know about any other countries / regions / languages that are affected by this problem? List them in the comments!