African arts, culture + politics

Getting the message out: Working on the BBC Ebola WhatsApp Service


The BBC Ebola WhatsApp project began in September 2014. When I came on board in December to take over from BBC UGC producer Andree Massiah, the service was already up and running – sending twice daily messages to affected communities in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

My role was to continue sending those vital daily messages – as well as manage the BBC Ebola Facebook page. Time constraints meant I was limited to sending one message a day rather than the previous two or three. But there were plenty of options in terms of material.

Courtesy: WHO

There were simple but effective infographics in English and French produced by the WHO, Unicef CDC and other bodies, which we had permission to share;

There were audio files produced with the help of BBC science reporter Smitha Mundasad, which answered popular questions about Ebola in more depth;

There were news snippets from other BBC platforms, which BBC Afrique staff (special thanks to Genevieve Sagno, Mamadou Moussa Ba and Clarisse Fortune) helped translate into French;

Courtesy: WHO

There were weekly Ebola case numbers from the WHO.

And much more besides…

The challenge was keeping the messages short, clear and practical. Large audio files might either crash the phone we were using to send the messages – and prove costly or difficult for our followers to download. Video files were far too bulky. Lengthy text messages may be hard for some to read (literacy levels are 43.3% in Sierra Leone, 25.3% in Guinea and 42.9% in Liberia). And messages about vaccines and trials, while popular, were frustrating and impractical for followers, who would often respond wanting to know exactly when and where the vaccine would be available for them to use.

This was not a one-way communication. Some people would just respond ‘thanks’ or tell us how important the service is to them: how they would share the messages and information with their friends, neighbours or students. Some would add us to their own groups, in which they discussed Ebola prevention, shared photos from sensitization campaigns or discussed other unrelated issues. Many would ask follow-up questions. We responded where we could – myself or the project’s admin assistant Sandrine Lungumbu copying and pasting answers to similar questions, or seeking out answers to new questions from the WHO, the BBC health team or elsewhere.

We realised this captive audience had lots to say – and could help inform our news reporting about Ebola. Already on the Facebook page I had been making contact with keen commenters and carrying out interviews with them, which I edited into personal stories and published using the Facebook ‘Notes’ function. Conrad Kamara in Freetown told me how people were getting frustrated and angry. Joseph Khanu spoke about not being able to go to school. While Fifth year medical student Haja Safiyatu Sovula shared photos and stories from her workplace – screening visitors at Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone.

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So when Sierra Leone imposed restrictions on movement and church attendance, we sent out a message to our followers in the country (the lists were divided by country code) asking them what they thought of the restrictions. As well as many text messages, we also received some fascinating, lively and engaging audio files. We added these to a playlist on the BBC Africa Soundcloud page and shared this on the BBC Ebola Facebook page:

Encouraged by the response, we sent out more messages. We asked what people missed about life before Ebola, and I turned their moving stories into a Medium story – while BBC Africa Online published a selection on the BBC website, as did BBC Afrique. I also joined Ebola News lead Jonathan Twigg on Outside Source to share stories from the WhatsApp followers – the tyre seller who was struggling due to transport restrictions, the teacher keen to return to work, the students missing out on an education.

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Given the restrictions on touching others – to prevent Ebola spread – we asked people how they’d be spending Valentine’s Day, which producer Uwa Nnachi – who joined the project in January – reworked into an article for BBC Africa online. And when we held live Facebook Q&As, for example during our own BBC Ebola Digital Conference – a series of fast-paced live Facebook Q&As held with key Ebola figures from the WHO, UN and beyond at the EU’s Ebola Conference in Brussels), we asked the WhatsApp users to send in their questions. Which they did – in their hundreds.

We of course had to keep in mind that this was primarily a public health service, and we did not want to neglect this primary function. So the requests for user generate content were kept to a minimum or targeted to country specific lists.

The maintenance of the phone, broadcast lists and message admin also took a significant amount of time. At this point, WhatsApp had not yet released its desktop version – and when it arrived it was just for android phones – so everything had to be done physically on one phone. Adding new followers manually, responding to messages, saving audios and images sent in, reducing the sizes of broadcast lists when they became too large (and messages could no longer be sent). As the list grew, some followers messaged to say they were no longer receiving messages so we had to readjust the size of the groups and ensure we left a gap between the sending of each message to our 22 broadcast lists – to allow time for the message to send to everyone.


The BBC Ebola WhatsApp service had only intended to be temporary. I joined as there had been outcry from the followers were plans to shut it down were announced. In the end, the project finally ended on 1 June 2015 – the day after the BBC was awarded a prestigious Peabody award for its Ebola public service.

As a lasting legacy, I worked with video producers Baya Cat and Sabrina Belaiba to create a series of videos: Ebola: Key Questions Answered; Ebola: Health tips for survivors; Ebola: Mental health tips for survivors; and Ebola: Your stories of living with the outbreak. The final video shared audio clips and photos from users of both the BBC Ebola WhatsApp and Facebook services.