Our WhatsApp chatbot helps the most vulnerable South African individuals and businesses access information on government financial support available to them during the national lockdown. Our service not only provide citizens and businesses with financial support but also encourages social distancing as people don't have to go to physical offices to inquire and apply for government programs. This is particularly important in the context of South Africa where over 20% of the population is HIV positive and therefore immunocompromised. Furthermore, our WhatsApp tool allows users to use minimal data to access information, a vital feature in a country where data costs are extremely high relative to average income.

South Africa is #StrongerTogether


The Covid-19 epidemic has led to unprecedented and previously unimaginable global challenges for individuals, businesses, governments and the global community. As governments around the world issue stay at home orders and full-scale lockdowns, some countries will be disproportionately affected. Specifically, governments in emerging markets with less resources will face serious challenges to provide support to the most vulnerable members of their societies. In South Africa, the initial market for our service, 37% of the population is unemployed and over half of people live below the poverty line. With a 21 day lockdown imposed on the 26th of March, many citizens will be facing dire financial uncertainty in the coming weeks, and it remains to be seen whether the government has the capacity to reach all those in need of support.

A number of government programs (from social grants to tax incentives) have been launched to help individuals and businesses, however they have been published by various government departments, without a centralized system for potential beneficiaries. With a lack of policy clarity, ever crashing government websites and overloaded telephone hotlines, there is a need to help people understand their financial options in this uncertain time. Furthermore, high infection rates of Covid-19 put many people at risk should they go to government offices to inquire about financial support programs. The challenges resulting from the global pandemic coupled with South Africa’s local dynamics present many opportunities to develop digital solutions.

We are driven to build a service that streamlines access to personal and business financial support for the most vulnerable South Africans through a multilingual WhatsApp chatbot.

What it does

Our WhatsApp chatbot provides individuals and businesses with information on government support programs available to mitigate the economic costs of a national lockdown. Our system allows individuals to submit a profile that stores personal information, apply for and access government grants, and find out about debt relief programs. For business owners our system provides an information platform, informing what government financial relief programs (such as tax incentives, low-interest loans and sickness compensation) are available to specific firms. Finally, our system helps users connect with verified organizations and funds to donate to government programs for financial support to the most vulnerable in South Africa.

Why a WhatsApp Chatbot?

The South African digital landscape is unique because as an emerging market, the majority of internet users are mobile based. With relatively high costs for mobile data, and only 30% smartphone penetration in the country, internet users spend relatively more time on messenger apps than on browsers. Of messenger apps, the most popular is WhatsApp, which is used by 9 out of 10 internet users. As a result we have chosen this platform as the most effective avenue to reach the most people, particularly those of lower income who are most vulnerable to the financial effects of a national lockdown. We have chosen to develop a chatbot which allows us to reach users at the lowest cost as minimal human capital is required once the chatbot has been built. The effectiveness of a WhatsApp chatbot has been proven by Praekelt.org who launched a Covid-19 Health Information Chatbot which gained 2.6 million users across the country.

How we built it

We based our developments on the platform Twilio, which provides a simple integration with the WhatsApp API to create user journeys by using the Autopilot tasks. To avoid leaving the user unsuccessfully trying different options we implemented user management and a menu system using our Backend API (a python flask application) and helping the user follow a simple journey to get the right information in a simple few steps.

This website was built with Angular 9.

Challenges we ran into

The navigation through the chatbot journey was very challenging. The goal was to make the content accessible in the easiest way possible. Twilio does have some basic NLP (Natural Language Processing) technology, but it needs to be trained with a lot of sentences to be very performant and make it natural to access the right information. The menu feature we implement solves that problem by giving the user the control of his journey and not getting lost while getting the information they need.

On the research front a significant challenge was finding verified information as many government departments have announced financial support programs without passing them into law yet. We have tried our best to include the most updated and verified information available.

What’s next for Digisist

Our next step is partnering with government agencies such as the Social Security Agency and Department of Small Business Development to become a verified platform. This will give our chatbot credibility at a time when misinformation is widespread. Additionally such partnerships will allow us to tap into government channels to promote our tool.

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