Airtel Wikipedia Partnership to provide articles via SMS

Airtel and Wikipedia have partnered to provide free access to Wikipedia articles via text messages. This partnership is in line with Wikimedia Foundation’s project of providing free access to free knowledge to people living in developing countries through its Wikipedia Zero initiative.

The renowned method for accessing Wikipedia Zero articles is via browsers where mobile service providers like Airtel zero rate the data for accessing Wikipedia through or But it seems both Wikipedia and Airtel have realized that a significant number of phone owners in Kenya do not have Internet access so they have introduced the SMS service for accessing Wikipedia articles.

This is how it works:

If you are on Airtel, Dial *515#. You will receive a feedback message reading, “Welcome to Wikipedia, a free information service. What topic would you like to search for?”

And there is where the problem begins. How do you reply? There are no choices as normally is the case with USSD services. If you dialed *544# for instance, you would receive this information:


Buy data bundle please select

  1. For your number
  2. For another number
  3. Check Balance

So I’m not sure if Airtel forgot that they needed to give us the list of available topics in similar manner? Anyhow I decided to reply *515#  with 2 and got this feedback:

  1. 2 (number)
  2. Square (algebra)
  3. RTP2
  4. Square root of 2
  5. Coxless pair
  6. 2degrees

From the looks of things the feedback is basically topics about the number 2. If I wanted to learn something about Genetics, how I’m I supposed to reply since the USSD reply option does not accept text input? For the purposes of this article I decided to proceed and see how the next step would work out. I replied with 5 as learning something new would be double for me. Here is the feedback then what Coxless pair is briefly about:

  1. Coxless pair
  2. See also
  3. References

Reply with 1 and we have:

A coxless pair is a rowing boat used in the sport of competitive rowing. It is designed for two rowers, who… (Full content sent by SMS).

The full text version from from 32343 reads:

A coxless pair is a rowing boat used in the sport of competitive rowing. It is designed for two rowers, who propel the boat with sweep oars. The crew *some repetitions ignored* consists of a pair of rowers, each having one oar, one on the stroke side (rower’s right hand side) and on the bow side (rower’s lefthand side). As the name suggests, there is no coxswain on such a boat, and the two rowers must co-ordinate steering and the proper timing of…Reply 1 for more

So there you have it. Today’s featured article on Wikipedia has 27,241 characters (minus notes and references) hence will require 20 text messages to be accessed via *515#

Overall I don’t think the project is such a bad thing. Airtel only needs to work on availing a list of topics at the feedback of *515#. I wouldn’t mind receiving 20 text messages free of charge to get that much needed information…

Odipo Riaga1802 Posts

Film Director, Tech and Business Blogger, Chess Player, and Photographer. God is Science.


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