Category Archives: Development Projects

West African Forum on Agriculture and ICT

Below is a recent announcement by Burkina NTIC and IICD of the forthcoming forum ‘The marketing of agricultural products through ICT’ which is to be held in Ouagadougou. After coming across the announcement I was keen to join the Ning social network/ knowledge sharing platform which is available at http://agri-tic.ning.com/. At the forum I was trilled to find the training videos by TV Koodo, introducing the agricultural market information systems launched by Burkina NTIC and IICD.

The videos are in French and admittedly, my French is not good enough to warrant commenting on the content. But even considering only the visuals of the training materials I think that they clearly demonstrate the challenges to the deployment and introduction of ICTs in Africa. Communicating the relevance of the Internet, Web 2.0, mobile applications, etc. to end users such as African farmers and traders can be a considerable callenge. Enabling und users to find value in ICTs and convincing them to invest in pricey devices can be a challenge comparable to the development of technologies and their localisation to the languages, literacy levels and information needs of African users. This challenge is compounded in the case of the introduction of market services by the fact that users’ value from the service is rooted in network effects.

TV Koodo chooses puppet tv presenters as carriers of the instructional message. This choice demonstrates the significance of efforts to make e-/m- learning technologies more accessible and more responsive to the needs and educational backgrounds of African users. The coupling of learning technologies with ICT services geared towards enabling market transactions, could hold the key to the adoption, the popularity and the value derived from market services.

IICD: Social Network Used to Prepare West African Forum on Agriculture and ICT

Burkina NTIC has launched a social network platform to prepare West Africa’s first regional forum on marketing agricultural products through ICT. The event will take place 23-25 November in Ouagadougou, and the platform will help deepen the discussions and share the outcomes with a wider international audience. Burkina NTIC is the national ICT for development network.

Social Network Used to Prepare West African Forum on Agriculture and ICT
The typical method of collecting market price information in Burkina Faso.

Information exchange about farming techniques, markets and market prices is key to improving the agricultural sector. IICD has supported farmer organisations in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali since 1998 to help improve the production, processing and marketing of their produce through the use of ICT. Not without success. Earlier this year the Malian farmer organisation of COPRAKAZAN was awarded by the national government for doubling its profit and declared to be an example to other farmer organisations in the country.

The forum ‘The marketing of agricultural products through ICT’ aims to increase the impact of the lessons learned and build the national network for ICT and development in Burkina Faso. The event is organised by Burkina NTIC, in particular its ICT cluster Agriculture.

The organisers will collect best practice examples of marketing agricultural products through ICT, to understand where the opportunities are and to draw lessons for the future. Best practices will be gathered from Burkina Faso and neighbouring countries.

The forum will bring about 45 participants together from various agricultural institutions in Mali and Burkina Faso, and IICD project partners. Agriterra and the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation SDC will also attend, as well as resource people from the SEND foundation in Ghana, IT company Manobi from Senegal, ANOPACI from Ivory Coast, and the regional trade platform ESOKO (TradeNet).

The Ning social network platform is being used to gather ideas and best practices from experts throughout the region to discuss at the forum. After the forum the platform will be used for further sharing and documenting of experiences and views on the marketing of agricultural products through ICT. A Ning platform is a free social networking tool to help people build their own online social or professional network. The platform is moderated by Burkina NTIC, and membership is open to all: http://agri-tic.ning.com/.

Mobile phones in rural development and agriculture

Here is a video dealing with the use of mobile phones in rural development and agriculture. The video was shot at the MobileActive08 conference in Johannesburg, organised by Katrin Verclas of the MobileActive network.

Ugo Vallauri, David Newman and Jonathan Campaigne discuss small farm productivity issues which are key to economic growth and poverty reduction. They discuss how farmers are not effectively linked to the larger industry and therefore how mobiles phones can be used to help with this area. Farmers use these phones which allow people to enter markets and improve access to partners thereby improving their likelihoods and food security.

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Searching Where Google Can’t

by Ken Banks, IDG News Service

Wednesday, July 08, 2009 9:40 AM PDT

We read a lot about the delivery, and popularity, of SMS services such as market prices, health advice and job alerts in developing countries, information there is clearly a need for. Only last week Grameen’s AppLab initiative, in conjunction with Google and MTN, launched a suite of SMS services in Uganda. These are the services you’ll get to hear most about when you search the Web, trawl the blogosphere and attend various conferences on the subject. It all seems pretty sewn up on the content side — I mean, what else could people earning a few dollars a day at most possibly want?

I remember my days back in Nigeria, where I worked for the best part of 2002 at a primate sanctuary in Calabar. The mobile phone networks weren’t quite operational yet — there was sometimes a signal and sometimes it worked — but the number of Internet cafes was on the rise. I remember going in during the evenings, usually to find people generally entering competitions to win cars or holidays, looking at females (and males) in varying degrees of undress, trying to find a partner on a dating site, or sending and receiving e-mail. Clearly, this wasn’t the only use of the Internet in Calabar, but nevertheless it interested me to see what people did online once you gave them the opportunity to get there. Let’s put it this way, few people were doing their homework, looking up university education options, checking the price of matoke or learning how to stay fit.

A couple of years ago during my time at Stanford University, I met Rose Shuman, a young entrepreneur living in Berkeley, California. With a background working in developing countries and a masters in international development, Rose had developed a clever “intercom” style box which, when placed in a rural location, allowed people access to the information they sought in a slightly unusual, but innovative manner. It was a one-step-removed type of Internet access.

It works like this: A villager presses a call button on a physical intercom device, located in their village, which connects them to a trained operator in a nearby town who’s sitting in front of a computer attached to the Internet. A question is asked. While the questioner holds, the operator looks up the answer on the Internet and reads it back. All questions and answers are logged. For the villager there is no keyboard to deal with. No complex technology. No literacy issues. And during early trials at least, no cost. Put simply, Question Box, as it’s called, provides immediate, relevant information to people using their preferred mode of communication, speaking and listening. I thought it was great and offered to help.

When I first met Rose she was testing her first Question Box, which had been placed in Phoolpur village in Greater Noida, close to New Delhi, in September 2007. These early prototypes used landlines to connect the Box to the operator, and this has proved to be the weakest link in the technology chain. A reliance on landlines also severely restricts the location where a Box can be placed. It was clear she had a fixed-line problem waiting for a mobile solution — expect to see these rolling out soon.

Since I met Rose in 2007, a lot has happened. A number of shrewd appointments have seen African technology gurus such as Jon Gosier, of Appfrica fame, brought on board. This week Jon launched a very interesting Question Box-related Web site, “World Wants to Know“, which displays the questions being asked in real time. As Jon himself put it, it’s allowing “searching where Google can’t.”

Because many users are, to all intents and purposes, off-grid, some of the data Question Box has been collecting is priceless. When you allow rural people in developing countries to ask any question, what do they ask? What’s important to them? Does it follow our health information model, or market prices idea, or an anticipated need for paid employment? Rose, Jon and the team continue to work through the data, but I can tell you that the results are not only cool, they’re fascinating.

Sure, there are a few of the more likely suspects in there — people asking for exam results, health questions, inquiries about land rights and food commodity prices. But there is also a demand for all sorts of other types of data, much of which I’d never have anticipated. Keep an eye on the Question Box Web site for more.

All of this leads us to a wider, more fundamental issue. Often when we plan and build mobile solutions for developing (or emerging) markets, we forget, neglect or are just plain unsure how to ask the users what it is that they want. The irony might be that, here at least, Question Box might end up being the answer we’re looking for.

via Searching Where Google Can’t – Business Center – PC World.

AppLab launched in Uganda by Grameen, Google and MTN

This Monday, 29 June 2009 turned out to be a rather momentous day for anyone interested in ICTs for development in general, and mobile content-driven information services, in particular. The Grameen Foundation announced the launch of its AppLab in Uganda, realised in collaboration with the Internet search and services giant Google and the African mobile operator giant MTN.

The press release gives details of the 5 SMS-based mobile applications launched by the project. The  initiative is introduced in detail at the Official Google Africa blog by Rachel Payne, Country Manager, Uganda. The services fall with 3 silos:

  • Google SMS Tips, featuring: caterpillar
    • Farmer’s Friend, a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts
    • Health Tips which provides sexual and reproductive health information (family planning, maternal & child health, HIV/AIDS, STI/STDs, sexuality)
    • Clinic Finder, which helps locate nearby health clinics, their services and telephone numbers
  • Google SMS Search, an SMS-based mobile serach engine more consistent with Google’s original role.
  • Google SMS  Trader, which matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products. The services are SMS-based and designed to work with basic mobile phones to reach the broadest possible audience.

Needless to say, I have been very excited by the news about these new services. So, I took a couple of days to process and digest it. The news has caused quite a storm in the ICT4D community. The White African comments on the participation in this intiative of prominent stakeholders:

Beyond the applications themselves, what I find most compelling is how the Grameen Foundation collected such a high-powered group of partners. The list reads like a who’s-who of innovative mobile services and development in Africa with Google, MTN Uganda, Technoserve, Kiwanja.net, and BRODSI to name a few. It’s a mixture of for-profit businesses, local NGOs and non-profit tech organizations.

I agree that this is a significant observation. It is well recognised that the implementation of successful mobile services involves the syndication of mobile operators (in this case MTN) and content providers (read Google). But the success of mobile services implemented in Africa, largely depends on their the existence of a support network on the ground. The role the project of the Grameen Foundation, its Technology Centre in Uganda and their network of Village Phone Operators (VPOs) increase the potential for adoption of the new services.

Ken Banks explains how the Google SMS Tips service was tried through an AppLab/MTN “call centre” where  quieries from the users were received and short answers of maximum 160 characters were formulated. He brings up issues related to the process of development of IT services such as information behaviour* in developing countries, proximal literacy, HCI and prototyping. With regards to Google SMS Trader, which as a mobile commerce platform is of my primary interest to me,  Ken Banks that a “whole suite of technologies on which to base solutions, including J2ME, WAP, high-end smart phones, 3G and MMS” were considered during the development process and SMS was eventually chosen. Still, I think that the involvement of Google in services such as Farmer’s Friend and Trader opens up another frontline in the rivalry between Android and Symbian. The services provided by Google SMS Tips in Uganda are consistent with those introduced by Nokia Tools in India. The respective uptake and popularity of these services might hold the key to the eventual spit of the premium mobile contant market in the developing world between Android and Symbian.

* Information behaviour meaning, “the totality of human behaviour in relation to sources and channels of information, including both active and passive information seeking and information use”, definition by Wilson 2000.

Buying and Selling on Mobile Phone: Market Women and Farmers Connect for Less

A story found at the Liberianmasthead. Written by Oona Burke, guest columnist; published on 19 June, 2009.

The Ministry of Commerce and Industry in collaboration with Geneva based NGO, International Trade Center has recently completed the test phase of “Trade At Hand”, a cell phone based system that helps connect market women to more competitive prices for the goods they buy. The cell phone based system works similarly to posting goods for sale in a newspaper advertisement or online (Craigslist, etc). Farmers around Liberia are able to advertise their goods for sale (for example, pepper) and market women on the system are then able to check their phones for all the advertisements of pepper for sale from farmers around the country that day. On the system, market women have access to offers organized by products, and are able to exchange reciprocal offers and match each other’s demands for the sale and purchase of goods.

A market woman and farmer work on Trade at Hand
A market woman and farmer work on Trade at Hand

Thus far the test group includes the training of 50 market women across several Monrovia based markets, and 50 farmers in various counties.  Market women on the project are extremely excited about the system and are anxious to expand the number of products available to buy.

Currently the system includes pepper, okra, bitter ball, cassava, plantain, greens, palm oil /nut, and several others. With some market women on the system reporting that they usually spend as much as $35 a month on scratch cards to communicate with sellers of goods, Trade at Hand, allows market women to also reduce their communication costs by viewing a larger number of offers on their telephones, for a price lower than the cost of one telephone call.

Two market women show their excitement in practicing using the system at Ma Kebbeh compound,  Red Light Market
Two market women show their excitement in practicing using the system at Ma Kebbeh compound, Red Light Market

Trade at Hand enables market women to carry out their business in a way that increases their chances of accessing better quality and better priced produce.  In turn, farmers are also enabled to better off-load their produce, and minimize produce wastage. The system also helps market women develop their price intelligence, because they have access to a variety of prices for the same products.

Once the system is tested with the pilot group of market women and farmers, it is hoped that the system can be made available to a larger number of market women and farmers.

Trade at Hand is similar to Cell Bazaar, a telephone based buying and selling system in Bangladesh, that currently has 20 million users.

Rapid Android for Collecting Market Information?

I came across an interview, prepared by Ms. Katrine Veclas from MobileActive, with Mr. Jonathan Jackson of Dimagi. The interview introduces the Rapid Android technology which offers an innovative way of configuring the back-end of SMS deployments.

Mr. Jonathan Jackson, summarises the currently available deployment options as including deployments via international SMS gateways and localised deployments. Under the first option the deployment path consists of: 1) clients sending SMS to an international phone number 2) messages are transferred to an international SMS gateway 3) message go through the Internet to a Web server 4) client machines are able to access the Web server through the Internet to view the data.

marketAlertsThis deployment option is great for large scale applications. In the area of dissemination and collection of mobile market information, I am aware of ITC’s Trade at Hand using similar deployment paths for the delivery of Market Alerts from trade support institutions to networks of exporters, and for the collection and analysis of local market information under the mCollect project.

ccpmp1The second deployment option mentioned by Mr. Jonathan Jackson includes 1) local server connected to a phone, being able to talk to local clients and 2) client machines hitting the local server directly, or through the Internet. Small deployments are viable under this option. But deployments are subject to the hazards of thier small scale. Even small problems with the systems can become critical because they require specialised engineering skills. Such deployments are at risk of losing users’ interest when qualified support is not available on the ground. A market oriented project which might fall under this category is the Cambodia Crop Production and Marketing Project (CCPMP).

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The Rapid Android technology presented my Mr. Jonathan Jackson allows for the use of Android phones not only as SMS clients, but also as back-end servers. This dual use greatly simplifies the equipment needs and the skill needs for the deployment of SMS solutions. It also allows for immediate analysis of incoming data in real time.

For the sector of mobile market information systems, Rapid Android presents enhanced SMS broadcasting and data collection opportunities. With the future developments of Rapid Android outlined by Mr. Jonathan Jackson under wasy, Rapid Android presents the opportunity to develop more resilient and extensive market infromation collection networks. Even though the benefits of broadcasting up-to-date market informatiton to farmers in remote areas have been widely recognised. I think more efforts are needed to improve the market information generation process and to ensure the quality of the information. So far the accuracy of the collected information is largely due to the skills and experience of market ennumerators based out in the field. The transformation, analysis and response to this information is tends to be removed at central head offices and headquarters. With the availability of technologies similar to Rapid Android, the opportunity of relocating the analysis closer to the source of the data opens up.

Collaboration@Rural in South Africa

Collaboration and Rural (C@R) is an EU project aimed at enabling the participation of European rural dwellers in the knowledge society. The methodology of the project involves the testing new technologies developed by the C@R consotium within 7 Living Labs, including the Sekhukhune Living Lab in South Africa.

Below is a video material presenting the technology developed by SAP to the benefit of SMEs and micro enterprises, within the C@R project. The featured procurement technology is focused on realising benefits through the aggregation of rural demand for manufactured goods andprocessed foodstuffs. The savings are realised due to the lower prices, achieved by a coallition of buyers who manage to order together greater quantities via mobile communication.

The main beneficiaries of the system are Spaza shops which are scattered all over the area and ensure the supply to the rural community of bread and other items such as soap, detergent, clothes etc. Stock replendishment is a challenge to Spaza shop owners because goods need to be sourced from the nearest town, which involves a transportation cost and the opportunity cost of day’s work. Ms. Sesina Mabuza, a Spaza shop owner recounts the financial constraints she faces in re-stocking her shop. Ms. Christina Zikhali, a Spaza shop owner in a very remote village explains the variability of the transportation costs incurred by using shared taxi services.

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Consistent with New Institutional Economics, C@R seeks to reduce transaction costs through vertical integration. The system implemented by SAP facilitates the establishment of virtual buying cooperatives, consisting of a number of Spaza shops and coordinated by local information service providers, known as “nfopreneurs”. The video presents the example of bread supply. Retail shop owners are enabled to order the bread they need via SMS. The messages retailers send to the “infopreneurs” consist of the name of their shop, a PIN number verifying their identity, the amount they are ordering and the code of the product. The SMS messages are aggregated by the “infopreneurs”, they are bundled and transmitted to the suppliers of the product. The system is of benefit to the suppliers by allowing them higher visibility of the market for their product. Mr. Hansie du Plessis, Manager of Tubatse Bakery in Sasko testifies to the benefit to suppliers. The savings realised are used for the delivery of the products to the Spaza shops.

The video suggests that in the future the entire basket of items carried by Spaza shops might be available through the C@R procurement system implemented by SAP in the Sekhukhune Living Lab. I think that this is a truely exciting prospect.