The Cartoon Corps

SAWBO draws on the power of animation to share vital health, agricultural and women’s empowerment information with people living around the world.

SAWBO draws on the power of animation to share vital health, agricultural and women’s empowerment information with people living around the world.

Julia Bello-Bravo and Barry Pittendrigh removed their shoes and took a place on the ground in front of the village chief, as protocol would have it. The dry, flat horizon was broken up by an occasional tree amid a cluster of small, brown earthen huts with thatched roofs.

The two University of Illinois experts could hear the sound of a hammer from a blacksmith’s shop in Naobo, a remote village of 300 people in West Africa. But mixed in with the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer was a distinctive 21st century sound—the ringing of a cellphone.

The chief, a thin man in a long, bright-white robe and multicolored kufi cap, was using his phone to view a variety of unique, animated videos created by Scientific Animations Without Borders, or SAWBO. This UI organization takes advantage of the pervasive presence of cellphones to carry vital health, agricultural and women’s empowerment information to remote areas across the globe.

All of the information is conveyed via 2- to 3-minute animations, which are given away for free, shared from phone-to-phone and computer-to-computer.

Think of the concept as a Peace Corps made up of animators—a Cartoon Corps, if you will.

“Long before we launched the SAWBO project, I saw cellphones cropping up in these villages,” says Pittendrigh, a UI entomologist who has been going to Africa for more than 15 years. SAWBO estimates roughly 60 percent of mobile phones today are being used in developing countries. Even in small villages, you can find centralized stations where people recharge their cellphones on power strips.

“That’s when we realized that cellphones would be the logical strategy to deploy our animations,” Pittendrigh says.

Learning to speak the language
SAWBO had its genesis during a car ride from Chicago to Champaign, Ill., in the spring of 2010, when Pittendrigh and Bello-Bravo were brainstorming on ways to reach the 800 million to 1 billion low-literacy people around the world. Pittendrigh says the two had already searched the global community for appropriate materials, “but we just didn’t find much.” Almost everything required some level of literacy.

“Then, the light came on,” adds Bello-Bravo, assistant director of the UI Center for African Studies. “We said, ‘OK, the best way to reach them would be to create short animations that they can watch on their cellphones.’”

One year later, the two released their first video—a cartoon demonstrating how to protect cowpeas from insects by storing the seeds in three nested bags. Cowpeas were a natural starting point, as Pittendrigh had spent years researching ways to control pests that attack the drought-tolerant legume, a vital food source in many developing nations.

“Cowpea is a very important crop for people who live on less than $2 per day,” Pittendrigh explains. Preventing harvest loss can mean the difference between a family having enough money to send their children to school—or not.

Since that first simple video, SAWBO has reached countless people across the globe. Its growing library of more than 50 animations is divided into three categories—health, agriculture and women’s empowerment. They are available in 60-some languages and dialects, and cover everything from malaria and dengue fever prevention to soil testing, maternal health, clubfoot correction and even microeconomic issues, such as taking out a loan.

The information is presented using easy-to-understand words in the local language, and the scientific details are illustrated in either 2-D or 3-D animation, making it ideal for people with varying levels of literacy.

Expanding beyond Africa
Pittendrigh likens SAWBO to a wholesaler and user groups to a retailer. “People can grab our materials and integrate them into their educational program, reducing their costs,” he says.

Although many of SAWBO’s animated videos were initially targeted at the populations of Africa, their use has spread to North and South America, Asia and Europe. Its most popular video worldwide focuses on tuberculosis, and has garnered tens of thousands of YouTube views. In addition, Studio Monitor, an investigative media organization that covers issues facing the Republic of Georgia, incorporated portions of SAWBO videos into a documentary that it broadcast nationally.

When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, SAWBO responded with a cholera-prevention animation. Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the government installed SAWBO videos on the hundreds of Samsung tablets it bought for extension agents. Most recently, SAWBO reacted to the Ebola crisis by partnering with Njala University in Sierra Leone to produce Ebola-prevention animations.

SAWBO’s next step is to bring its videos to developed nations. The University of Illinois at Chicago plans to use SAWBO animations in the waiting rooms of 70-some city clinics to increase awareness of the importance of colorectal cancer screening.

Finding partners
Like Pittendrigh, Bello-Bravo has worked in Africa for more than 15 years. Together they have cultivated a global network of collaborators that includes extension workers, village leaders and nongovernmental agencies. While some partnerships take time to develop, others are more happenstance.

“I just walk up to people on the street and talk to them,” says Bello-Bravo. “That’s my personality.” For example, her conversation with Abdou Rasmane Ouedraogo in Ouagadougou, the capital of the West African nation of Burkina Faso, led him to download SAWBO videos, which he shared with his village.

The two professors eventually visited Ouedraogo there, and that’s when they met the chief. For Pittendrigh, it was a remarkable trip, because they were able to see how SAWBO’s simple animations had changed the village’s way of life.

For instance, after viewing a video on how to grind up neem seeds and turn them into a safe biopesticide, the chief instructed villagers to plant 100 such trees.

In Sierra Leone, meanwhile, Pittendrigh and Bello-Bravo chatted with Francis Ngeba, a ferryman on the River Taia. That conversation resulted in another animation.

“Julia asked him what was being taught in his village that people find useful,” Pittendrigh recalls. “And he [told us about] a water-purification approach in which they use charcoal and sand.” The script was written then and there, and upon their return to Illinois, the information was checked by UI soil and water resources engineering professor Prasanta Kalita, a water-quality expert.

The charcoal filtration animation is a classic example of how SAWBO takes local knowledge, filters it through a review process with UI experts and others, and creates easy, low-cost solutions to vital problems. Funding for the work comes from an array of sources, such as a grant from the UI-related ADM Institute for the Prevention of Post Harvest Loss; contributions from the C.W. Kearns, C.L. Metcalf and W.P. Flint Endowment; and various donations, some of which are targeted for specific topics.

Drawing on student talent
SAWBO began with Pittendrigh, Bello-Bravo and a small team of students, but since 2013, it has expanded into a thriving, busy studio, tucked into a small room in Pittendrigh’s lab on the fifth floor of Morrill Hall on the UI campus. The office buzzes with energy as the SAWBO team produces a half-dozen or more animations at a time, with roughly 40 scripts in development.

SAWBO draws on the talents of a dozen undergraduate and graduate students, who work on scripts, storyboards, animation, music and translations. An international bunch, the group includes students from the U.S., Spain, Argentina, Uruguay and Thailand. In addition, the group makes use of collaborators from around the world.

“The great thing,” Pittendrigh says, “is that these students are getting global exposure while sitting in the room next to my office.”

“If you had asked me in high school what I would be doing in life, it definitely would not have been making a Skype call to someone in Ethiopia on a Saturday afternoon,” says Laura Steele, MS ’12 LAS, Ph.D. student in entomology who coordinates scriptwriting.

Another student team member (and recent graduate), Pakpoom Buabthong ’15 LAS, came from Thailand to the U of I because of its stellar physics program. But it’s his passion for cartooning, which began at age 9, that attracted him to SAWBO. Back in his homeland, he even drew a satirical comic for a magazine known as Kayhuaror, which means “selling humor.”

Buabthong’s studies in physics required him to “solve a lot of mathematical expressions,” he says. But when he worked at SAWBO, “I change[d] into a different person.”

Buabthong recently did put his mathematical talents to work, creating an app that provides access to the entire library of SAWBO animations.

SAWBO also takes advantage of the latest low-cost technology to distribute its videos across the world. For instance, its Extension System in Your Wallet uses a credit-card-shaped USB drive that has more than 6 gigabytes of SAWBO productions. It can be used with a computer to transfer information to cellphones and other video-capable electronic devices.

Then, there is the Extension System in a Box—a small container that fits in the palm of your hand and contains all of the SAWBO animations. You simply set up the box in the middle of a village, and it begins sending the videos to any phone that has Bluetooth or Wi-Fi capability. The goal is to have a solar-charging unit that powers the device in areas without electricity.

A world-changing project
But why animation? Why not live-action videos?

“To send a film team to Africa, or even to somewhere that looks like Africa, is a humongous project to take on,” says Ben Blalock ’14 FAA, ’15 FAA, SAWBO’s project manager. It’s also much less expensive to do animations from Morrill Hall and connect virtually with collaborators around the world than it is to send a film crew to the other side of the planet.

Animation gives the group the ability to adapt a video to the needs of different cultures to make it acceptable to people in different areas. It is much easier to change the animation than to re-film with live actors.

The biggest challenge when adapting a video for another culture or region is incorporating the appropriate language. SAWBO draws upon the University’s large pool of international students to find volunteers willing to record voiceovers in their native tongue.

Sometimes, however, the animation team uses volunteers on other continents. Among the available languages and dialects for its animations are Chinese, Hausa, French, Swahili, Tamil, Yoruba, Portuguese, Zulu and Dioula.

Consequently, “there’s no limit, no boundaries, to the global reach this program can have,” says Steele.

Editor’s note: If you are interested in lending your language expertise to record voiceovers for SAWBO, contact Barry Pittendrigh at