Category Archives: Current Issues

Mobile Agricultural Information Services in Mali by Sènèkèla

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.

Sènèkèla

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.

via IICD and Orange Mali Launch Market Price and Agricultural Information Service in Mali

7 Ways We Can Scale ICT4D Pilotitis

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Below I am reporting an ironic contribution by Wayan Vota of ICT Works on the sustainability of “pilotitis”. I agree with all the points mentioned. I might have ordered them differently in terms of priority. One additional reason why ICT4D efforts persistently fail, without delivering learning, is because of insufficient research and understanding of the underlying problems. My pet hate is how opportunities are wasted on addressing problems which are merely symptoms.

7 Ways We Can Scale ICT4D Pilotitis

Published on: Oct 09 2013 by Wayan Vota

One overarching theme from the recent Mobiles! Conference was the need to get past pilotitis – the too many small projects that never scale, dying the day the original funding dries up. Now how we can do that is a matter of some debate, and there are even folks who say we need more pilots.

Regardless if you think we have enough pilots or not, I know exactly how we can scale pilotitis in ICT4D. After extensive cross-sectoral research in everything from FM radio, to laptops, to mobile phones, here are the 7 simple ways I’ve learned to ensure pilotitis spreads well beyond ICT4D into every aspect of development:

1. Have more hackathons and contests

What says transitory impact more than a one-day hackathon that brings together those not immersed in the real needs of a program to build beta versions of one-off applications without buy-in from end users? Having a low/no prize money contest via Facebook “Likes” so more people can make flashy demo software never meant to scale! That’s the best way to make compreneurs instead of entrepreneurs.

2. Only give out small grants

When you really want a lot of pilots that die the day the funding ends, make sure to start with small amounts of one-off funding with no pathway to future financial support. Grants of $50,000 or less are perfect seed capital that will not give a project enough room to grow into something lasting, especially if you demand that the funding lasts 2 years, require that any revenue generated reduces the initial funding, yet don’t ask for business plans, regardless of grant amount.

3. Focus on small organizations, or no organization at all

Why bother with large companies or organization with international reach and a history of stability – that’s just a nice way of saying “overhead”. Better is to focus on individuals, small companies, “local” organizations, or better yet, start-ups that don’t even have a track record of existence, much less success. That way, you know the idea will die when they get bored or the funding ends.

4. Only fund innovation

Being the second person to fund or work on an idea is no fun. Worse is replicating an idea that already works. There is no fame in implementation. So don’t do it. Real pilotitis can only scale when everyone focuses just on the newest new innovation, the bleeding edge of change – unique ideas launched without any history of prior efforts or existing constituencies to quicken adoption. “Transience” is the new “resilience”!

5. Build new software

Why share code? We can spread pilotitis faster when we make sure that every project builds its own bespoke, proprietary software solution – because we need more software options. Oh, and don’t hire reputable software development firms to code innovative solutions, that’s not building capacity. Recruit inexperienced volunteers or hire lone coders who always brag how they won a recent contest but never seem to show up on GitHub.

6. Evaluate via photography

Why stick around for maintenance, support, or the f-word in development to appear? None of that is sexy. Nor is reading long, boring evaluation reports listing all the lessons (re)learned. The best way of all to scale pilotitis is to evaluate success through pretty pictures of children holding gadgets. That way we can reinvent the flat tire, again, and look good doing it.

7. ___

In honor of Michael Trucano’s Worst Practices in ICT4E, I’ll leave #7 blank for you to fill in. I know you have your own ideas on how to scale pilotitis and I’d love to hear them in the comments below or on Twitter.

Together, we can scale ICT4D pilotitis!

Posted by: Wayan Vota on October 9, 2013

via 7 Ways We Can Scale ICT4D Pilotitis | ICT Works – Mozilla Firefox.

Market Information Systems in East Africa

The recent publication of An Assessment of Market Information Systems in East Africa by USAID, provides critical reflections on the Market Information Systems (MIS) experience in East Africa. By interviewing practitioners from MIS operations in East Africa, USAID were able to identify recurrent issues in implementation.

2013 USAIDThe generation of accurate price data for agriculture MIS in Africa, by monitoring transactions micro-data remains some way off into the future. The suggestion to develop MIS trading modules and commodity exchange integration captures the promise of ‘big data’ and remains a way forward. Still, MIS currently have to rely on pricey and inaccurate market survey results for the generation of price content. Enumeration and the implementation of high frequency market price surveys come at a significant cost. Costs are raised further by data processing operations such as data cleaning and aggregation. The generation of MIS content appears not only costly, but also rife with accuracy problems.

Considering the key findings and recommendations of the report, I think most valuable is the advice to MIS operators to promote value-added services such as advertising and the provision of agriculture-related content. Based on my experience in Ghana, I think that advertising for agricultural inputs can be a viable revenue-generation strategy for the delivery of market information services. Other services, such as the provision of agriculture advisory content allowing small-holders to meet the quality requirements of international buyers, also carry promise for the sustainability of MIS. The generation of revenue from end-user payments does not strike me as a feasible strategy and a realistic sustainability model for MIS. The benefits to end users remain unclear and their incentive to invest in receiving price information remains questionable.

 

ICTs in Africa: US or China?

The Chinese presence in Africa has received considerable attention recently. The China-Africa Project have been detailing media accounts about China and Africa. In a study cited by the Economist and the Congressional Research Service, NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service estimated Chinese government aid to African countries in 2007 at $25 billion. A relatively small proportion of Chinese aid can be described as “official government aid”. For the most part, it consists of loans and investments in infrastructure projects, and resource extraction.

The Dilemma at the Heart of America’s Approach to Africa, the Atlantic 15/06/2012

The Chinese presence in Africa, has also given rise of discussions comparing the approach to African development adopted by China to that of the US, and the West more broadly. A recent article in the Atlantic, summarizes the dilemma at the heart of the American approach. With questionable allies in South Sudan, Uganda and Burkina Faso, the role of the US as as an supporter of democratic governance and free institutions is less than obvious. Alternatively, the Chinese have adopted an approach which follows the principle of “doing good, while doing well”. The Chinese discourse is dominated by “win-win” situations and the strong opportunities for economic gains on the African continent. It is largely oblivious of democratic governance and institutional change.

In China, Mobile Trumps PCs In Web Access, Reuters

Within this background, it is informative to situate developments in ICT adoption and use in Africa. Telecoms and IT are sector which can be very closely related to political upheaval and change. US Internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Google have been present within the context of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia.  USAID, alongside with development agencies such as SIDA and CIDA, is a leading development partner in Africa which supports information technology interventions. Even though they are funded from the West, the success of IT interventions in Africa is largely dependent on cost-efficient solutions, offered in Africa by Chinese suppliers. The market for devices is flooded by Chinese phones, with features and functionalities developed in China which match the developing country context much more closely than products targeted at Western consumers. See box 2.7 for the review “Mobile Phones with Features Attract Rural Users in China and Beyond”.

Recent reports show that mobile has surpassed PC as a channel for access to the Web in China. Mobile phone access to the Internet rose by 22.2% and in rural areas 60% of Internet users were doing so via a mobile device. These trends, alongside with the specific technical advantages of Asian and Western ICT suppliers, and the strong political positions of the leaders on either side – China and the US – raise the question of dominance in the emerging ICT sector in Africa. The answer will unfold at the intersection of the rapidly evolving technology landscape and the much more inert paradigm set in politics and development aid.

Mobile-phone culture: The Apparatgeist calls

Dec 30th 2009

From The Economist print edition

How you use your mobile phone has long reflected where you live. But the spirit of the machines may be wiping away cultural differences

Illustration by James Fryer

TECHNOLOGIES tend to be global, both by nature and by name. Say “television”, “computer” or “internet” anywhere and chances are you will be understood. But hand-held phones? For this ubiquitous technology, mankind suffers from a Tower of Babel syndrome. Under millions of Christmas trees North and South Americans have been unwrapping cell phones or celulares. Yet to Britons and Spaniards they are mobiles or móviles. Germans and Finns refer to them as Handys and kännykät, respectively, because they fit in your hand. The Chinese, too, make calls on a sho ji, or “hand machine”. And in Japan the term of art is keitai, which roughly means “something you can carry with you”.

This disjunction is revealing for an object that, in the space of a
decade, has become as essential to human functioning as a pair of
shoes. Mobile phones do not share a single global moniker because the origins of their names are deeply cultural. “Cellular” refers to how modern wireless networks are built, pointing to a technological
worldview in America. “Mobile” emphasises that the device is
untethered, which fits the roaming, once-imperial British style. HANDY highlights the importance of functionality, much appreciated in Germany. But are such differences more than cosmetic? And will they persist or give way to a global mobile culture?

Such questions bear asking. It is easy to forget how rapidly mobile
phones have taken over. A decade ago, there were fewer than 500m mobile subscriptions, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Now there are about 4.6 billion (see chart). Penetration rates have risen steeply everywhere. In rich countries subscriptions outnumber the population. Even in poor countries more than half the inhabitants have gone mobile. Dial a number and the odds are three to one that it will cause a mobile phone, rather than a fixed-line one, to ring somewhere on the planet.

As airtime gets cheaper, the untethered masses tend to use their
mobiles more. In early 2000 an average user spoke for 174 minutes a month, according to the GSM Association (GSMA), an industry group. By early 2009 that had risen to 261 minutes, which suggests that humanity spends over 1 trillion minutes a month on mobiles, or nearly 2m years. Nobody can keep track of the flood of text messages. One estimate suggests that American subscribers alone sent over 1 trillion texts in 2008, almost treble the number sent the previous year.

Now a further mobile-phone revolution is under way, driven by the
iPhone and other “smart” handsets which let users gain access to the
internet and download mobile applications, including games,
social-networking programs, productivity tools and much else besides. Smart-phones accounted for over 13% of the 309m handsets shipped in the third quarter of 2009. Some analysts estimate that by 2015 almost all shipped handsets will be smart. Mobile operators have started building networks which will allow for faster connection speeds for an even wider variety of applications and services.

ALL ALIKE, ALL DIFFERENT
Yet these global trends hide starkly different national and regional
stories. Vittorio Colao, the boss of Vodafone, which operates or
partially owns networks in 31 countries, argues that the farther south you go, the more people use their phones, even past the equator: where life is less organised people need a tool, for example to rejig appointments. “Culture influences the lifestyle, and the lifestyle influences the way we communicate,” he says. “If you don’t leave your phone on in a meeting in Italy, you are likely to miss the next one.”

Other mundane factors also affect how phones are used. For instance, in countries where many people have holiday homes they are more likely to give out a mobile number, which then becomes the default where they can be reached, thus undermining the use of fixed-line phones. Technologies are always “both constructive and constructed by historical, social, and cultural contexts,” writes Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist at the University of California in Irvine, who has co-edited a book on Japan’s mobile-phone subculture.

Indeed, Japan is good example of how such subcultures come about. In the 1990s Americans and Scandinavians were early adopters of mobile phones. But in the next decade Japan was widely seen as the model for the mobile future, given its early embrace of the mobile internet. For some time WIRED, a magazine for technology lovers, ran a column called “Japanese schoolgirl watch”, serving readers with a stream of KEITAI oddities. The implication was that what Japanese schoolgirls did one day, everyone else would do the next.

The country’s mobile boom was arguably encouraged by underlying social conditions. Most teenagers had long used pagers to keep in touch. In 1999 NTT, Japan’s dominant operator, launched i-mode, a platform for mobile-internet services. It allowed cheap e-mails between networks and the Japanese promptly signed up in droves for mobile internet. Ms Ito also points out that Japan is a crowded place with lots of rules. Harried teenagers, in particular, have few chances for private conversations and talking on the phone in public is frowned upon, if not outlawed. Hence the appeal of mobile data services.

The best way to grasp Japan’s mobile culture is to take a crowded
commuter train. There are plenty of signs advising you not to use your phone. Every few minutes announcements are made to the same effect. If you do take a call, you risk more than disapproving gazes. Passengers may appeal to a guard who will quietly but firmly explain: “DAME DESU”–it’s not allowed. Some studies suggest that talking on a mobile phone on a train is seen as worse than in a theatre. Instead, hushed passengers type away on their handsets or read mobile-phone novels (written Japanese allows more information to be displayed on a small screen than languages that use the Roman alphabet).

Might the Japanese stop talking entirely on their mobiles? They seem less and less keen on the phone’s original purpose. In 2002 the average Japanese mobile user spoke on it for 181 minutes each month, about the global norm. By early 2009 that had fallen to 133 minutes, then only half the world average. Nobody knows how many e-mails are sent, but the Japanese are probably even more prolific than text-crazy Indonesians, who average more than 1,000 messages per month on some operators. No wonder that Tokyo’s teenagers have been called the “thumb generation”.

HANDY IF YOU’RE THRIFTY
Others are quiet, too. On average Germans–who are fond of saying that “talk is silver, silence is golden”–spend only 89 minutes each month calling others for HANDY-based conversation. This may be a result of national telephone companies on both sides of the Berlin Wall having exhorted subscribers for years to “keep it short” because of underinvestment in the East and rapid economic growth that overtaxed the network in the West. Germans are also thrifty, suggests Anastassia Lauterbach of Deutsche Telekom. For longer calls, she says, consumers resort to much cheaper landlines.

In contrast, Americans won’t shut up. Their average monthly talk-time is a whopping 788 minutes, though some of this is a statistical illusion because subscribers also pay for incoming calls. Yet talk is cheap: there is no roaming charge within the United States. Americans are often in their cars, an ideal spot for phone calls, especially in the many states where driving and talking without headsets is still legal.

The chattiest of all are Puerto Ricans, who have by far the highest
monthly average in the world of 1,875 minutes, probably because
operators on the American island offer all-you-can-talk plans for only $40, which include calls to the mainland. This allows Puerto Ricans to chat endlessly with their friends in New York, but may also have arbitrageurs routing cheap international phone calls through the island.

Just how people behave when talking on a mobile phone is a question of culture, at least at first, according to Amapro Lasen, a sociologist at Universidad Complutense in Madrid. In the early 2000s she studied phone users in the Spanish capital, in Paris and in London. Mobiles were a common sight, but Parisians and Madrileniens felt freer to talk in the street, even in the middle of the pavement. Londoners, by contrast, tended to gather in certain zones, for instance at the entrances of tube stations–the sort of place Ms Lasen calls an “improvised open-air wireless phone booth”.

In Paris people openly complained when bothered by others talking
loudly about intimate matters, but complaints were rare in London. In both places, people tended to separate phone and face-to-face
conversations, for instance by retreating to a quiet corner. But
subscribers in Madrid often mixed them and even allowed others to take part in their phone conversations. The Spanish almost always take a call and most turn off voicemail.

For Ms Lasen, who has lived in all three cities, such variations
reflect how people traditionally use urban space. In London, she says, the streets are mainly for walking, “like the bed where the river
flows”. Paris, however, is a place to stroll, the home of the FLaNEUR.
In Madrid people inhabit the streets to talk together. As for their
aversion to voicemail, the Spanish consider it rude to leave a call
unanswered, even if it is inconvenient. This may be the result of a
strong sense of social obligation towards friends and family.

Elsewhere, too, culture and history may help determine whether people talk in public or take a call. The Chinese often let themselves be interrupted, fearing that otherwise they could miss a business
opportunity. Uzbeks use their mobiles only rarely in public, because the police might be listening. And Germans can get quite aggressive if people disobey the rules, even unwritten ones. In 1999 a German man died in a fight triggered by his ill-mannered HANDY use.

Economics and other hard factors also shape habits. Olaf Swantee, the head of Orange’s mobile business, notes that pricey handsets are less popular in Belgium than in Britain because Belgian operators have long been barred from subsidising phones, a strategy widely used on the other side of the Channel. Italy, however, exhibits both low subsidies and many high-end handsets. Subscribers there do not want to spend much on airtime, but are keen to buy a flashy phone.

China is distinct because of economics and relatively lax regulation.
Many consumers use SHANZHAI (“bandit”) phones, produced by hundreds of small handset-makers based on chips and software from Mediatek, a Taiwanese firm. Knock-offs are common, with labels such as “Nckia” and “Sumsung”. Other innovative manufacturers have developed specialised phones, for instance handsets that can respond to two phone numbers, or models with giant speakers for farmers on noisy tractors.

Elsewhere the physical environment determines which kinds of handsets prevail, says Younghee Jung, a design expert at Nokia, the world’s largest maker of handsets. In hot India, for instance, men rarely wear jackets, but their shirts have pockets to hold phones–which therefore cannot be large. Indian women keep phones in colourful pouches, less as a fashion statement than as a way to protect the devices and preserve their resale value. It also makes for a noteworthy contrast with Japan, says Ms Jung. If women there keep phones in a pouch and decorate them with stickers and straps, that has nothing to do with economics, but reflects the urge to personalise the handset. Phones are highly subsidised in Japan and the resale value is essentially nil, so it is not unusual to see lost units lying in the gutter.

In some countries it is a common habit to carry around more than one phone. Japanese workers often have two: a private one and a work one (which they often turn off so bosses cannot get them at any hour). “I have one phone for work, one for family, one for pleasure and one for the car,” says a Middle Eastern salesman quoted in a study for Motorola, a handset-maker. Having several phones is often meant to signal importance. Latin American managers, for instance, like to show how well connected they are: some even have a dedicated one for the boss.

As this example suggests, softer factors may influence the choice and design of hardware, even for networks. If coverage in America tends to be patchy, it is not least because consumers seem willing to endure a lot and changing operators is a hassle. Elsewhere the reverse is true. Italians demand good reception on the ski slopes, the Greeks on their many islands and Finns in road tunnels, however remote. If coverage is poor, subscribers will switch.

Paradoxically, however, it is in Italy and Greece that people are
especially worried about the supposed health risks of electromagnetic fields. A 2007 survey commissioned by the European Commission found that 86% of Greeks and 69% of Italians were “very” or “fairly” concerned about them, compared with 51% in Britain, 35% in Germany and only 27% in Sweden. It may be that people fret when they lack reliable information–or that in some countries local politicians stir up fears.

Whatever the reasons, the public reaction explains why phone masts in Italy are often disguised, for instance as the arches of a hamburger restaurant, as a palm tree or even as the cross on a famous cathedral. In Moldova, by contrast, such masts are monuments to prosperity. “Every time we put up a mast, they had a party. It connected them,” says Orange’s Mr Swantee.

Yet digital technologies change quickly, and so do attitudes towards
them. Will such differences between cultures persist and grow larger, or will they diminish over time? Companies would like to know, because it costs more to provide different handsets and services in different parts of the world than it would do to offer the same things everywhere.

ENTER THE APPARATGEIST
A few years ago such questions provoked academic controversy. Not everybody agrees with Ms Ito’s argument that technology is always socially constructed. James Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers University in New Jersey, argues that there is an APPARATGEIST (German for “spirit of the machine”). For personal communication technologies, he argues, people react in pretty much the same way, a few national variations notwithstanding. “Regardless of culture,” he suggests, “when people interact with personal communication technologies, they tend to standardise infrastructure and gravitate towards consistent tastes and universal features.”

Recent developments seem to support him. When Ms Lasen went back to London, Paris and Madrid a few years later, phone behaviour had, by and large, become the same in the different cities (although Spaniards still rejected voicemail). Yet it is not just the APPARATGEIST that explains this, argues Ms Lasen. In all three cities, she says, people lead increasingly complex lives and need their mobiles to manage them. Ms Ito agrees. American teenagers now also text madly, in part because their lives are becoming almost as regulated as those of the Japanese.

This convergence is likely to continue, not least because it is in the
interest of the industry’s heavyweights. Handsets increasingly come
with all kinds of sensors. Nokia’s Ms Jung, for instance, is working on
a project to develop an “Esperanto of gestures” to control such
environmentally aware devices. Her team is trying to find an
internationally acceptable gesture to quieten a ringing phone. This is tricky: giving the device the evil eye or shushing it, for instance,
will not work. Treating objects as living things might work in East
Asia, where almost everything has a soul, but not in the Middle East,
where religious tenets make this unacceptable.

In the long run most national differences will disappear, predicts
Scott Campbell of the University of Michigan, author of several papers on mobile-phone usage. But he expects some persistence of variations that go back to economics. In poorer countries subscribers will handle their mobile phones differently simply because they lack money. Nearly all airtime in Africa is pre-paid. Practices such as “beeping” are likely to continue for quite a while: when callers lack credit, they hang up after just one ring, a signal that they want to be called back.

A few differences may remain within borders, suggests Kathryn
Archibald, who works at Nokia and tries to understand consumers in different parts of the world. Only a few countries, mainly in Africa
and Asia, still need special cultural attention when designing a phone (which is why some models in India double as torches). “We see more differences within countries than between them,” she says.

Nokia breaks down phone users into various categories, rather than by geography. “Simplicity seekers” barely know how to turn on their phones and use them only in case of trouble. At the other end of the spectrum, “technology leaders” always want the latest devices and feel crippled without their phones. “Life jugglers” need their handsets to co-ordinate the many parts of their lives. Ms Archibald says Nokia’s aim is to offer the right handset to each such group.

But when it comes to content–the services offered via the phones and the applications installed on them–Nokia pays considerable attention to local culture. In India and other developing countries the firm has launched a set of services called “Life Tools”, which ranges from agricultural information for farmers to educational services such as language tuition. In many rich countries, by contrast, handsets come bundled with a subscription to download music. “We need to operate globally, but be relevant locally,” concludes Ms Archibald.

All this raises a question: as differences fade, are people becoming
slaves to the APPARATGEIST? “Because of our evolutionary heritage, we want to be in perpetual contact with others,” argues Mr Katz. Just as technology allows people to overeat, it now lets them overcommunicate. If this is a problem now, imagine what would happen if telepathy become possible. The thought is not entirely far-fetched: researchers at Intel, a chipmaker, are devising ways to use brain waves to control computers. A phone that can be implanted in your head may be just a few years away–at which point the Germans will no longer be able to call it a HANDY.

via Mobile-phone culture: The Apparatgeist calls | The Economist.

The Bottom Line Episode 2: Growth vs Mature Markets for ICT

TelecomTV and IBM present an informative overview of the current divide in the mobile market between mature and growing markets.The commentators emphasise two significant trends encountered in the mobile markets of developing countries. Firstly, there is a trend of emergence of innovative home-grown operators in developing countries and emergence of home-grown business models, better suited to the needs of low ARPU customers. Secondly, there is a trend in developing markets for the establishment of mobile (as opposed to Internet) data services for banking, commerce, healthcare and education.The particpants in the video include:- John Chambers, Chairman & CEO, Cisco- Prof. John Nkoma, Director General, Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority- Kent Lupberger, Snr Mgr Portfolio & Technology Global ICT, World Bank- Dr. Tim Kelly, Lead ICT Policy Specialist, Infodev- Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili, Minister Of ICT, Federal Republic Of Nigeria- Adrian Baschnonga, Senior Analyst, Global Telecoms, Ernst & Young- Mike Hill, VP Enterprise Initiative, IBM

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The Economic Times: IBM’s ‘spoken web’ to ramp up Amul’s milk business

6 Oct 2009, 1304 hrs IST, Pankaj Mishra, ET Bureau Print

GUJARAT: Arvindbhai Bavajibhai Patel, a 47-year old milk farmer living in a village near Anand in Gujarat, could become an early user of perhapsone of the most important technology innovations developed in IBM’s research labs. ‘Spoken Web’, a new technology solution being evaluated by Amul, will allow users to browse the Internet and access information by merely speaking in a local language, without having to use any computer keyboard, or type any text. For Amul, which started with the objective of removing middlemen and allowing farmers to get the best price for their milk, the next mission is to empower milk farmers with information, which is relevant and served in a language they understand. Amul is hoping technology will help it solve some of the newer challenges emanating from much largerbusiness around $1.5 billion in revenues and more complex supply chain.

“I am not sure if I can speak and interact with a computer ever, but if it becomes possible to access information needed just through speech–it will be a great help for me and many others who cannot read and write,” Patel said. Officials at Amul are currently evaluating IBM’s ‘spoken web’ solution among other specific products for serving the farmers better by providing them with information about animal husbandry, cattle management and best practices in milk productivity improvements.

Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) serves around 2.79 million members, across 13,328 village societies, handling almost 11.22 million litres of milk every day. Earlier this year, increasing business complexity and need for becoming a more agile enterprise prompted Amul to sign a 10-year IT outsourcing contract with IBM, estimated to be worth around Rs 100 crore.

As Amul prepares to use IT for automating and integrating its complex business processes, newer technologies such as ‘spoken web’ will help India’s biggest dairy producer solve some of its unique problems and serve over 2.7 million milk farmers better.

Over next few months, Amul plans to deploy a common enterprise resource planning (ERP) software from SAP and also develop specific software solutions for helping the end customers and users access information about milk pricing, quality and cattle management. An ERP software will help establish a strong platform by automating and integrating different business processes across 13 milk unions, and serve real time data to the management and farmers.

“This will change the way we do business, as information will become knowledge, enabling us to do things in a better fashion,” said BM Vyas, managing director of GCMMF. Commenting on Rs 110 crore investments on new IT initiatives, he added that the efficiency should be able to pay for itself.

While an ERP software will help AMUL simplify its back end business processes, some innovative software applications such as ‘spoken web’ willmake transacting easier for farmers such as Bavajibhai Patel.

“We are always looking at the entire supply chain-from cow to consumer. There are several pilots going on focused on enhancing user experience and information access for end customers,” said Niraj P Garg, IT manager at GCMMF. IBM, which was selected by the union after some aggressive bidding by other tech vendors, has already started working on the blueprint.

“AMUL has very unique needs, and we have some innovative solutions from our labs apart from best practices from other dairy engagements to help them serve their customers better,” said Sandip Patel, managing partner of Global Business Services, IBM India. Globally, IBM serves dairy companies including Nestle and Kraft Foods of Australia.

“In the first phase over next 14-15 months, we will deploy ERP at the federation and atleast five unions,” Garg added. GCMMF plans to bring all of its 13 milk unions under a single ERP solution from SAP. Despite initial positive response from other milk unions, Amul faces challenges in terms of educating different users and making them embrace the new IT agenda. RS Sodhi, chief general manager at the federation has already formed a steering committee for overseeing the cooperative’s IT progress.

“Timely implementation of the solution, standardisation of different processes and older legacy systems are some of our biggest challenges,” said Sodhi. “The biggest benefit will be much higher speed of operations-for instance real time inventory data instead of a week-long update process,” he added.

IBM’s Patel added that AMUL officials have shown interest in some of the solutions developed by IBM labs in the areas of genetics and ‘spoken web’. “In a recent survey AMUL found that almost 30-40% of cows were not producing enough milk-now we have been working on solutions in our labs that can help manage, for instance, milk fat and enhance productivity,” Mr Patel added.

Meanwhile, for thousands of Amul members, what matters the most is the federation’s undiluted committment for their cause, and new technology initiatives at some level do seem to reflect that. “Over past few years we have seen Amul introduce newer systems including the automated milk fat-reader, which brought great transparency,” said Bavajibhai Patel. “We welcome more computers and other systems as long as they make our lives simpler.”