Transformations With Animations: Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO)

  • Julia Bello-Bravo, Ph.D.
  • Assistant Professor
  • Food Science and Human Nutrition
  • Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Barry Pittendrigh, Ph.D.
  • MSU Foundation Professor
  • Director, Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research
  • Associate Chairperson
  • Entomology
  • Agriculture and Natural Resources

Project Overview

  • Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO) is a one-step educational system, from global expert to end user.
  • Animations bring critical information to remote communities, free-of-charge, about issues specific to communities, according to their cultural values, priorities, and languages.

Why This Work Matters

  • As a result of distance, language, literacy, and resource barriers, millions of people living in remote areas of developing nations often lack access to critical information. The SAWBO team works with government, extension, and NGO partners to create and deploy animations that make that information available.


  • More than 80 animations in over 140 languages have been produced.
  • Over a dozen research papers and articles have been published by Bello-Bravo, since joining MSU in 2017, which can be accessed here.
  • 43 million people have been touched globally by SAWBO animations as of 2019.

External Partners

  • Many international government agencies, extension agencies, and NGOs
  • AREWA24 – A TV station that broadcasts to 38 million people across West Africa
  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • TB Reach – Stop TB Partnership
  • Farm Input Promotions Africa (FIPS-Africa)
  • USAID Fall Armyworm Task Force
  • USAID Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab
  • USAID Feed the Future Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: Hospital & Health Sciences System
  • International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Benin
  • CIMMYT: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
  • CURE Ethiopia Children's Hospital and Headquarters
  • Some example international partners: Rick Gardner (Ethiopia), Samuel Amoa-Mensa (Ghana), Manuele Tamo (Benin), AbduRahman Beshir (Nepal), and Thomas Songu (Sierra Leone)

MSU Collaborators

  • Weilin Sun, Research Specialist, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Severina Adames, Project Manager, Scientific Animations Without Borders
  • Ben Blalock, Technical Aide, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Annie Lin, Technical Aide, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Form(s) of Engagement

  • Community-Engaged Teaching and Learning
    • Materials to enhance public understanding
  • Community-Engaged Creative Activity
    • Multi-media (animations videos, comic books)
  • Community-Engaged Research
    • Community-based, participatory research
Julia Bello-Bravo, co-founder and co-director of Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO)

One of the challenges facing millions of people living in remote regions of developing countries is access to information. Barriers of distance, language, literacy, and resources can place critical—even life-altering information out of reach. Julia Bello-Bravo and colleague Barry Pittendrigh, both faculty members in MSU's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, have been collaborating for a decade to make information accessible to remote populations all over the world through an initiative they co-founded, Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO).

Bringing together scientifically and locally generated knowledge, SAWBO offers research-based information in easy-to-understand animation videos, developed with and for local communities, according to each community's own priorities, cultural values, and language. Each short video contains information on a specific technique or procedure that addresses an issue or problem impacting the community. The information is made accessible through a variety of means, especially through cell phones, ubiquitous in the developing world.

"That is the rationale behind the program: how to bring information and knowledge to people who live in rural areas, who speak many languages, and who may not read and write. And, they have cell phones," said Bello-Bravo. "This is why we decided to take the approach of animations—because it is a format that can be taken across age groups, literacy levels, and cultures. It's entertaining and people learn with animations. The animations can be stored and viewed on cell phones. Even if viewers don't understand all the content the first time, they can repeat it many times. So that was the idea when we launched this program."

Starting SAWBO

Bello-Bravo, with a background in law as well as foreign languages and cultures, and a native speaker of Spanish, and Pittendrigh, a molecular biologist and entomologist, launched SAWBO in 2011 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Bello-Bravo was recruited to MSU in 2017 to build SAWBO as part of MSU's commitment to global research, engagement, impact, and diversity. Pittendrigh was recruited in 2016 to obtain funding for—and became the director of—the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research, a $13.6 million USAID grant that was awarded to MSU.

"When we were at the University of Illinois, we were doing work around cowpeas in West Africa," said Bello-Bravo. "The problem was that the collaborators had all these great solutions, but they had no way to get them out to people in an efficient manner. The resources we had were insufficient to do live-action filming. It was cost-prohibitive, especially in countries where there are dozens of languages. We realized that the only way we were going to be able to accomplish this is by animation, because we can put it into numerous languages. So, we started doing this specifically around cowpeas, but then we realized, 'Wait a second—it doesn't just have to be on cowpeas; it can be around anything else.' So, we developed and launched the program, and it has grown out of that initial agriculturally-focused effort."

Since then, the SAWBO library has grown to more than 80 animations in over 140 languages, covering four topic areas: agriculture, health, women's empowerment, and peace and justice. SAWBO's health related topics include malaria, tuberculosis (TB), TB and HIV, and cancer screening, among others.

The process of developing the animations takes place in four collaborative stages:

Producing the Content with Global and Local Experts

Bello-Bravo works with global experts on a given topic to develop, peer-review, and create a script that is both technically accurate and understandable by people of diverse literacy levels. Local experts from the communities volunteer their time and language expertise to translate the animations into the target languages. "This allows us to place content in many languages from around the world, including rare languages," said Bello-Bravo. "Language can marginalize people, especially when there are few speakers—many languages are disappearing because many people don't speak these languages anymore. So, in a small way, we are helping to preserve the languages, and more directly, helping speakers of those languages to access life-changing knowledge that they may never receive any other way."

Developing the Animations with Students and Professional Animators

After the script is finished, it is passed to professional animators all over the world, all of whom have been trained in the SAWBO program. "Many of those were students that we brought in internationally for a year to train them," said Bello-Bravo. "There was a series of students that we trained when we were at the University of Illinois. And that's the pool of people who know how to work with us in our creation processes. This distributed network of animators also allows us to create content with a globalized perspective."

Deploying the Animations through Technology, Government and Extension Agencies, and NGOs

The SAWBO team works with numerous platforms to deploy their animations, both online and offline—cellphones, tablets, USB cards, the SAWBO deployer app, the SAWBO YouTube channel, TV stations, and even a comic book. By the end of 2019, SAWBO animations have touched over 43 million people globally through known deployment pathways. However, there is a lot of offline use of SAWBO content beyond this number. The animations are carried by government and extension agents and NGOs into villages all over the world. Because many remote villages lack reliable internet access, the videos can be downloaded ahead of time. "Then when you are in a remote area, and you don't have internet access, you can access these videos and you can share them with other cellphones through Bluetooth technology," said Bello-Bravo. "We do online training with many different groups around the world, to access the SAWBO app, so then they have a tool to do their training and to show these animations."

Interacting with End Users

The SAWBO animations are freely available to anyone using them for educational purposes. As a result, there are many users all over the world who are completely unknown to Bello-Bravo and Pittendrigh. "There's a considerable amount of use that we just don't know about," said Pittendrigh. "And that's actually ok—in fact, that's fantastic. What we want is for others to easily use and scale our content." But then there are also users who will give feedback on how they're using the material, and even those who will work with the SAWBO team translating the material into a new language. Finally, there are users who collaborate on grants with Bello-Bravo on the research end of SAWBO or to develop a specific animation or animations together.

A Repeat Animation Collaboration with CURE Ethiopia

An example of such a collaboration is with Rick Gardner, orthopedic surgeon and medical director of CURE Ethiopia Children's Hospital. The services and procedures performed at the CURE hospital are provided free-of-charge to families all over Ethiopia. One of the procedures offered at the hospital treats clubfoot, a common condition affecting many thousands of children in the country.

Thankfully, the condition can be corrected safely and effectively. The challenge is making families aware that the procedure is available, so that they seek treatment for their children. The CURE Hospital approached SAWBO to develop an animation for clubfoot; once completed, the hospital coordinated the distribution of the animation to healthcare and extension workers throughout the country.

"A lot of it comes down to parental motivation," said Gardner. "If a parent who lives in a village has to travel many hours to get to a clinic and receive casting for the clubfoot, they will only go if they know that treatment can be done. Why would they travel so far, at great expense and difficulty, carrying a child with a cast on, unless they know they can expect an excellent result?"1

The animation, which can be viewed and downloaded at, informs parents of children with clubfoot that there is a safe and effective, non-surgical procedure available to correct their child's condition. This knowledge is transformative to parents who otherwise may not realize the benefit of making the journey with their child to the hospital to have the procedure done.

"The SAWBO video has enabled us to show parents throughout the country that they can have help for their child, and they can expect an excellent result," said Gardner. "It's all about communication. Once they're given that information and know it can be done, they will travel to the ends of the earth for that child. And that animation has helped us show that that is possible."1

As a result of the success of that animation, Gardner approached them about doing another animation, this time about hip dysplasia. "So, we made that animation," said Bello-Bravo, "and they've been using both videos extensively in their programs. CURE Ethiopia has been great to work with. It's a very impressive organization because it's making sure children can walk – their efforts are life-transforming for these children and their families. It is gratifying to know that we can help an organization, such as the CURE, in their efforts to make sure children can walk."

A Sustainable Process

When they first started SAWBO, Bello-Bravo and Pittendrigh had to make frequent trips all over the world. "Now it's a little less, because it's more like a routine process," explained Bello-Bravo. "We work more online with partners, so I don't need to travel all the time."

Currently, Bello-Bravo works on 4-6 animations each year, placing the emphasis on quality over quantity. "It's one of these things where you can do something fast—you can do a lot of them—or you can do them high quality," said Bello-Bravo. "Our approach is quality. What we've found is it's better to take the time and do each one as high-quality as possible because they get better distribution if they're better quality." However, once created, the animations can be placed in dozens (or more) of languages very rapidly, while maintaining a high level of quality of the message.

Each new grant Bello-Bravo receives enables her to add to their growing pool of animations. "The deal is that if somebody funds us, we will create something of common interest, and they and anyone else can use the materials however they want for educational purposes," explained Bello-Bravo. "It comes down to a very philosophical perspective: In keeping with the land-grant focus of MSU, the more knowledge that we deploy globally, the more value we have. So, the ultimate goal is to have a platform that can be used by many people for very scalable strategies, with very low transaction costs at our end. This is a system that can dramatically grow in terms of impact without increasing costs going along with that growth." Each new animation also becomes a research tool that is integrated into Bello-Bravo's research program.

Informed and Affirmed by Research

Bello-Bravo's research is focused on all aspects of creation, delivery, and end-user impact, always with an eye toward how to optimize the system. Bello-Bravo explains: "The first question is, can you make content that is going to be useful across numerous cultural groups? The research said, Yes. So then, do people learn as well as they would from a traditional extension approach? Again, the answer was, Yes. And then, the latest question was, do people adopt it? And the answer was, Yes. So, there are whole sets of research questions which look at: How do you make the system more effective and how can we engage a great diversity of global partners to have impact?"

To this end, Bello-Bravo worked with the Center for Disease Control on Ebola educational content in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organization during the Zika outbreak in 2015-16 epidemic, and now with USAID in the Pan-African crisis around the fall armyworm, a pest currently destroying maize crops across the continent. Bello-Bravo has published on and continues to work on case studies around inter-institutional collaborations using SAWBO content and deployment tools.

Animation demonstrating jerrycan use for bean storage.

However, Bello-Bravo's research also extends to the impact on the end user–low literate learners in rural developing nation contexts. According to Bello-Bravo's December, 2019, article2, the SAWBO system is proving to be very effective. Between 2013-2017, Bello-Bravo headed up a research study (funded by USAID) to understand a knowledge gap in the value chain of a commodity in northern Mozambique. The commodity was beans—both for eating and for planting, and the knowledge gap centered on how to store them, post-harvest, in such a way as to keep insects from destroying them.

The SAWBO team created an educational animation to train local, smallholder farmers on how to properly store the beans securely and hermetically using plastic jerrycans (see image). Two years after the training was completed, Bello-Bravo returned to Mozambique to assess the impact. Her team found that not only had farmers retained the information—97 percent retention rate—but they were continuing to use the information and had even shared it with many others. In fact, according to the article, based on an assessment with Bello-Bravo's collaborators from Iowa State University and the national Mozambique agricultural research program, the adoption rate—two years later—was 89.4 percent!

"I think it's important, because that was a very positive outcome, to have so many people adopting the technique that you are proposing," said Bello-Bravo. "You want to know that you are having impact, that you are doing the right thing. To me this is what being part of a Land Grant Institution is about – doing research around the creation and dissemination of knowledge that improves the lives of others."

To read more about the SAWBO team, their partners, and their research, please visit: The MSU SAWBO team members are: Dr. Julia Bello-Bravo, Dr. Weilin Sun, Severina Adames, Ben Blalock, Annie Lin, and Dr. Barry Pittendrigh.


  1. Retrieved from: Back to article - First Reference Back to article - Second Reference
  2. Bello-Bravo, J., Abbott, E., Mocumbe, S., Mazur, R., Maria, R., & Pittendrigh, B. R. (2019). An 89% solution adoption rate at a two-year follow-up: Evaluating the effectiveness of an animated agricultural video approach. Information Technology for Development. doi:10.1080/02681102.2019.1697632 Back to article
  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO) and MSU University Communications

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