Can mobile banking revolutionize the lives of the poor?
I have great news update! Earlier this week, I was awarded the SAP Africa Innovation Prize 2014 for my submission regarding the capability-sensitive design of a system for monitoring use of tablet devices in South African classrooms. I had the opportunity to present the submission at a workshop at the 13th Participatory Design Conference in Windhoek, earlier this month.
I the short positioning paper submitted to the conference I present the empowerment problem and argue that it is a ‘wicked problem’ for which participatory design approaches are particularly suited. Within the resource-constrained environment of South African public education, I offer capability-sensitive design as a grounded theory-led method for the development of conceptual designs empowering teachers and school managers. The participatory elements of the method are constrained within the data gathering phase, the pluralistic analysis inscribed within the capability approach, and the empathy stage of design thinking. The method is illustrated via the ‘Class Journal’ concept, developed within an engagement towards the ICT4RED project in Eastern Cape between CSIR and SAP Innovation Center- Pretoria.
Akua (anonymized) is a community situated about 18km from the district capital. The community has a population of about 1400 people. The majority of residents are Muslem, making up for about 88% of the entire population; about 11% are Christian and the rest practice traditional religions. The ethnicity is predominantly Dagomba. They make up about 95% of the community. Other tribes are the Mossi and the Fulani who constitute about 5% of the population. Festivals celebrated in Akua include the Eid-Ul Adha, Eid-ul Fitr, the Yam festival, the Fire festival, the Damba festival and the Guinea fowl festival.
Dagbani is the main language spoken and it was the language of our improvised discussion. Unlike, the rest of the focus group fieldwork, the discussion in Akua was improvised; rather than organized in advance with the help of outreach staff from locally active agriculture service providers. Farming is the major source of income in the area, with few people engaging in petty trading. Due to the presence of a local irrigation scheme, rice is the most significant crop, constituting about 50% of the crops grown.
The setting of the discussion was improvised. A local outreach worker joined me and we recruited participants as we walked down the main street of Akua. The meeting started with barely ten people but due to the open boundary of the discussion, the participants increased to well over thirty by the time we finished. In giving a brief history of the community, the farmers said that the community was connected to the national grid in 1995-1996.
In casting their eyes back, farmers acknowledged that agronomic innovations were introduced by a very good and helpful extension officer. Unfortunately, he had to depart and left a big vacuum. Farming activities in 2009 went well because the rain was reliable but this was not the case on 2010. The community had problems with flooding every year during the rainy season. Farmers near a local irrigation facility were able to farm all year round, at a fee of Ghc12 per acre. Marketing was also recognized as a problem. Farmers saw agriculture intensification through tractors and combine harvesters as a way forward for thier rice cultivation. They considered shea butter and tomato processing as promising endeavors in the area. This is how the group expressed their hope for change:
“[…] We are liaising on people like you to come and then hear our grief and then send it to appropriate quarters for redress. […] Considering 20 years ago we were almost in total darkness. But now we are in some kind of innovations. Not yet, but since people like you have started coming here, we hope and pray that everything will change at the shortest possible time.”
People in Akua were fortunate to have benefited from foreign donors who set up and maintained a community radio station. One of the effects of the proximity of the radio transmitter was that the signals in the area of all other radio stations were very weak. As a result, the community radio station had a very strong local presence. Most of their programs were in the local language, making it evry easy to understand. Additionally, foreign donors funded the building of a Youth Center, with photocopying, computing, Internet and sports facilities. Apart from sport events, few adults visited the Youth Center. People recognized the business relevance of photocopying, while the relevance of the Internet remained in the “this and that” area of education and youth development.
Our discussion at the Kwaku (anonymized) community was facilitated by local representatives of an NGO, working towards food security improvements in the Northern Region, through the introduction of soya crops. Farming is the main economic activity in Kwaku. Situated on alluvial soils, the community faces rainy (18-20oC) and the dry (39-40oC) seasons. Vegetation is mostly savannah woodland, with cash crop trees being dawa-dawa, sheanut and mango; and cultivation crops being yam, groundnut, rice.
Records for Kwaku show population of about 3 264 residents, with 48% male and 52% female. The community is characterized by strong traditional governance structures, including the roles of chief warrior, women’s leader, mouthpiece of the chief, chief-in-waiting and youth organizer. Besides chieftancy and the district assembly, formal structures in the community include parent teacher association, traditional birth attendants, youth committee, guinea worm eradication committee, food management committee and women’s groups.
Farmers began the meeting by commenting on new crop varieties and on recent infrastructure developments. The maize variety that was used previously took about 4 to 5 months to mature, but the improved variety which is currently used takes 2 to 3 months to reach maturity. Even though population has been increasing, there is still enough land for farming. In terms of infrastructure, there is no electricity supply but the road to the community was expanded from a narrow foot path to a motorable road in order to aid the transportation of foodstuffs out of the community.
Mobile phones are recent in the community with Vodafone, MTN and Tigo being the available networks in the area. As objects, mobile phones are carriers of identity and inscribed with value. Out of 16 participants in the discussion, 3 used their phones for text messaging and 5 subscribed to the ‘calling tunes’ value added service. The latter are services which allow subscribers to manage callers’ perceptions by presenting to them selected answer tones. The significance of mobile phones as status symbols and the significance of musical entertainment in the rural context, are demonstrated by the following quote:
“Some of [us], [we] call it ‘a bar of soap’ because they are big. Those ones, they don’t have camera and they don’t have music player. That’s what we call a ‘bar of soap’. Those ones, [we] don’t like them. […] This one has a torch light on it. A basic one [is] without a torch light. If any of [us] had one with a music payer, and a camera, and those things, you will see which one because [people] will be following him because of the music. […] “
Most people of Kwaku community charge their phone batteries in the nearby district center at a fee of GhC 0.50. The community was once given a solar charger, which ended up bringing a lot of confusion because there were arguments as to who should charge his or her phone first. Consequently, the solar charger was worn out and it is hardly used. Discussing the amounts they spend on call credit per week, 4 people said they spend up to GhC 2 per week. Two people used an average of GhC 3 a week, whereas another 2 used GhC 4-5 a week. One person was spending average of GhC 6-10 per week. Mobile phones are used mostly to complement other information channels, such as social networks. People phone to reach relatives, to access centralized market information services, and to verify the market prices received through such services with their personal contacts. They confirmed that the market information they received was reliable most of the time, and informed their decisions where to sell their produce. On a few occasions, prices were slightly higher or lower than was anticipated through the price information received.
Eight people in the focus group said they have radio sets. They mentioned Radio Savannah, North Star Radio, Radio Justice, Radio Volta and Radio B.A.R as the ones that are transmitted in the area. Radio, they said is mostly listened individually and not in a group; and it is the preferred source of national and international news.Surprisingly, even though people in the Kwaku had no electricity supplu, 3 of the group participants owned TV sets. They bought the television sets when the electric poles were being erected, and they expected that electricity supply will reach them shortly. In terms of legacy technologies, the community has a gong-gong beater who announces meetings. Occasionally, people call each-other on their cell phones to remind of up-coming meetings. Nonetheless, it is considered profligate.
May 12, 2014 by Acumen in Acumen Blog, Press Releases
Acumen and the Lundin Foundation today announced a $1.5 million aggregate equity and debt investment in Esoko Networks Limited (“Esoko”), a Ghanaian-built technology platform that connects African farmers to markets via mobile phones.
The platform allows various stakeholders, from agri-business, NGOs, development finance institutions, governments and mobile network operators to profile and provide specific content as well as survey farmers to better understand their needs. The product enables farmers to receive market prices, offers, climate adaptation advice and agronomic tips that are expected to lead to improvements in yield and increased incomes. It enables businesses to profile farmers, track field activities and transactions, and market their products and services.
“Promoting commercial linkages and introducing market transparency will transform African agriculture” says Mark Davies, CEO of Esoko, “We’re at the forefront of using technology to facilitate this great transformation in human wealth and productivity.”
This investment is intended to support the company’s expansion into East Africa as well as software and services development.
Godfrey Mwindaare, West Africa Director at Acumen, adds, “There are a tremendous amount of resources already focused on small-holder farmers. We see in Esoko the potential to empower and transform the lives of rural farmers by providing one point of access to critical information and services, thereby closing the information asymmetry gap between commercial, well-endowed farmers and the rural, one-acre farmer.”
Anna Samaké, Portfolio Manager for West and Central Africa for the Lundin Foundation, commented, “One of the Lundin Foundation’s primary objectives in West Africa is to build and support the agri-business sector with an ecosystem of services that will allow sustainable and profitable SMEs to emerge and grow. Many of those services will be available through the Esoko platform.”
“We are thrilled and honored to partner with Acumen and the Lundin Foundation to bring our mobile platform to organizations and farmers across Africa,” said Davies.
Acumen has invested over $24 million in agricultural enterprises and has a deep knowledge of small-holder farmers’ needs and behaviors. Acumen has invested nearly $8 million across West Africa since 2011, focusing on a wide range of sustainable, scalable businesses that use market-based approaches to deliver products and services to millions of rural and urban poor. Acumen’s investments in the region include businesses providing agri-services and market access for small-holder rice farmers, anti-drug counterfeiting, and mobile banking.
An exciting new development is the launch on 1 April in Bamako, Mali of Sènèkèla – a market price and agricultural information mobile service provided by IICD and Orange Mali, with the support of mFarmer (GSMA). The solution comprises an SMS/USSD information service and a call centre, serviced by specialised agricultural experts. My research in Ghana, suggests that West African farmers are reachable more readily via communication modalities, such as voice, which are congruent to their rural oral traditions. Therefore, I expect that complementing the SMS/USSD channels with a call center will raise the usability and attractiveness of Sènèkèla for rural stakeholders. Additionally, access to trained service operators is likely to increase farmers’ levels of trust in the information provided to them via SMS/USSD.
The service was developed through a complex partnership between technology providers (Orange Labs, Orange-Mali, GSMA), development partners (IICD, RONGEAD) and agricultural content providers such as the Malian Institute of Rural Economy (IER). Content quality is a shared concern with IICD taking responsibility for market price data collection; with RONGEAD providing market analyses and tips; and with IER ensuring the quality of the agricultural content delivered via the call centre. During the pilot phase the service was limited to he regions of Sikasso and covered only a few crops. With the recent launch, the partnership is entering a commercial phase with increased coverage and an increased range of agriculture information services.
The service relies on the combined SMS/ USSD and a call centre channels, using an operational model familiar to me from the of Esoko in Ghana. The 24-hour service provides market price information from different markets in the regions of Sikasso and Koulikoro; and information on crops such as corn, shea butter, onion, cashew, shea nuts, potato, sweet potato, rice and millet. Message services are delivered via a USSD menu on Orange Mali’s mobile network. The call centre staffed by agricultural advisers is reachable by the short number 37333 and the short code #222. The content for the service is generated via wide data collection efforts on food prices; as well as, national and international market trends.
Similarly to the discussion at the Adwoa (anonymized) community, the discussion at the Kwadwo (anonymized) community was organized with the help of extension officers from the district office. The setting selected for the meeting was a local church, which induced a more formal atmosphere into the interactions.
The discussion started by considering recent developments and participants recounted that they did not have electricity until 2008. Nonetheless, as the community has had a surfaced road, its population increased considerably. Immigration into the community was largely due to surface mining activities which take place in the area. Farmers estimated that more than 30 tro-tros (i.e. public mini-buses) visit the community each day. Despite the high level of traffic, there was no newspaper delivery, nor sales in the area. The most memorable adverse event in recent years was the famine of 1983, when many cocoa farms were burnt as a result of the hot weather and absence of rain. Nonetheless, the farms were re-established after the famine was over. In recent years, improved efforts by the public extension office helped improve farmers’ yields. among the remaining problems was black pod disease which still affected yields and the affordability of fungicide in order to control the disease.
Out of the 13 farmers at the meeting, 9 had access to radios, and they could list more than 20 radio stations which could be received in the area. Farmers tended to use their radios in order to listen to the news. Five out of 13 people in the focus group said they owned television sets but they also said tv signals are not the best. They had access to 4 TV channels: GTV, Metro TV, TV Africa and TV 3. The community had a school but no library. The community had 1 mosque and “uncountable” number of churches. The locations of 4 churches were marked on the participatory map.
The loudspeaker in the community was known as an ‘information center’, and it served for making announcements about community labour, farmer meetings, funerals and local other information. The fee for announcements (GhC 1) included the announcement being aired twice. Farmers remarked that loudspeakers were often used by salesmen, traveling by car, in order to promote their merchandise (e.g. medicines). The community had no town crier.
Mobile phones were not too common among the farmers in the meeting and only 4 indicated that they own cell phones; out of them had devices with radio functionality. Those who did not own mobile phones made calls from the shared ‘space-to-space’ facilities. These are fixed mobile phone facilities operated by salesmen of mobile credit vouchers. Their location is marked on the map with an umbrella, as they are also known as “umbrella salesmen”.