Category Archives: Observations

Location Information at CellBazaar, Bangladesh

I have been taking a good look at the website of Grameenphone’s CellBazaar in Bangladesh. The CellBazaar initiative is certainly worth some consideration because it is one of the better established mobile marketplaces.

CellBazaar offers multiple channels for checking the listings and for submission. The mobile channels include SMS and WAP. Concurrently, all the sell osms-buy1ffesms-sellrs submitted within the last 30 days are available for viewing online.

I have been particularly interested in the CellBazaar tutorials for the viewing of the available offers via mobile technology and for the submission of offers. The tutorials feature the procedures for announcing a sell lead and for checking the sell leads. The procedures (SMS Buy, SMS Sell) involve the sending of 4 text messages in order to sell, and of 5 messages in order to buy. In response, the user of the system receives lists of the available metacathegory, cathegory, sub-cathegory and price range options. The user makes a choice by texting to CellBazaar the number of the selected option.

wap-buywap-sellThe buying and selling procedures are less clumsy when the users have WAP trechnology at their disposal. The buying and the selling procedures are explained respectively at WAP Buy and WAP Sell.

Considering the SMS and WAP procedures one fact sticks out. In neither selling procedures (SMS or WAP) is the user required to specify his/her location. In the WAP Buy procedure once a buyer chooses the sub-cathegory of goods he/she is interested in, he/she needs to specify a location and a price range. In the SMS Buy procedure the is required to specify a price range. This all leaves the question open as to how CellBazaar is able to know the location of its users. Is anyone aware of what location technology they are using? If CellBazaar do indeed infer the location of their users without asking them to confirm it, that seems to me a rather poor practice. If it is otherwise, I would very much appreciate hearing about it.

Liberian Markets: Part 3

Services are offered at Liberian markets independently, or as adding value to other products.Independent services include services provided by the Liberian Marketing Assoiciation such as schools at the premises and child care. They also include catering services, provided by individual cooks offering food to people visiting the markets as part of their daily routines.

servicesSome market traders are involved in the provision of added value services complementing their main marketable products. Generally, the services appear to be attached to low value products such as cassava dust balls, starch, ground greens, etc. Greens, for example are a fascinating case. They are very perishable, low level products. But the individuals involved in their provision seem to possess considerable entrepreneurship, initiative and resilience. Even though they have modest means, they are able to procure the greens without need for access to credit. In the procurement process they visit multiple farms, monitor the readiness of the greens for harvest, and often exchange current information about the quality of greens available at different farms via mobile phones. As greens are perishable and usually are ready for harvesting every 6 months, the monitoring process is rather demanding. Once they procure the greens, the traders add to the value by grinding the cassava leaf and by cutting the fever leaf. Thus they are able to offer their customers greens in a state suitable for immediate cooking.

Mobile Phones in Liberia Part 1

Mobile telephony is widely used in Liberia! Just like in many other places your mobile phone number is the information about you people are interested in knowing immediately after hearing your name.

Mobile telephony has become a major part of the daily life of people in cities, as well as of those of rural dwellers. While the constant occurrence of unforeseen circumstances can be seen as the main reason for the use of mobile phones in cities, in rural areas mobile phones are used mainly because of their communication capabilities. People in the countryside are using mobile phones in order to overcome their geographical removal from close relatives, services (medical, emergency), or events. They use mobile phone to get away from spatial isolation.

I suppose there might be other media used in Liberia for communication in the rural areas. Radio would be a prime candidate. It is a media that can be a very successfully build the social fabric across distances. What is the level of radio provision in rural Liberia? Does anyone know? Because of the devastation in the country during the civil war conflict, fixed line telephony is not a viable substitute to mobile telephony in Liberia. Even though in Monrovia I was able to see a few fixed line telephones, quite unlike mobile phones I was not able to see them in use.

mobile-telephony

Follow-up on Liberian Markets Parts 1 & 2

After my recent posts with regards to quantity measures, scales, weights, packaging etc. I have been alterted to the article by Kiringai Kamau in the recent issue of Information Technology in Developing Countries, Volume 18, No. 3, October 2008. Kiringai Kamau describes the impact of an electronic measurement system at a milk procurement station in Githunguri, Kenya. The author also mentions many concerns, vested interests and conflicts which influence the actions of both farmers (sellers) and procurers (buyers) in the absence of an indisputable measurement system.

“As you may agree, farmers’ earnings are not always proportionate to what is paid to them by the processors to whom they sell their produce. The processor is normally paid more and can at his whim inflate prices to suit his financial appetite, thereby creating inflation that affects those outside the processing arena. To make matters even worse, the poor farmer normally delivers more produce but the records are falsified by middlemen or intermediaries who collect the produce from farmers, and then deliver or sell whatever they have collected from the farmer to the processors. Unfortunately, the farmer is hostage to this system and has nowhere to take his produce besides to the same unscrupulous clerk or middleman who steals from him with impunity.

When the clerks from procuring intermediaries weigh the produce, they traditionally record a farmer’s delivery on a manual delivery ticket. If we take the case of milk which is our latest sector as a company to focus automation on, an illiterate farmer will lose milk:

  • At the weighing point where the scale may be deliberately mis-calibrated, and is always rounded downwards, and
  • At the produce delivery transcription level.

This inefficiency and resultant loss of effective weights against which payment is made, is repeated at every transcription point where there are clerks, before the actual final record against which payment is made has been captured. When the organization procuring the produce is a farmer cooperative as happens in the cases we have been dealing with, the managers may know that there is a problem of this nature but they too are held hostage by the clerks and their system of operating.

The challenge lies in the fact that most farmers are illiterate and may not be able to tell when clerks cheat on the reading of the scale or if they transcribe the wrong reading from the scale for their records. Indeed, even when they can read or write, the clerk can choose to take the wrong weight against which the literate farmer may have no recourse. Unfortunately, whatever the error, farmers have nowhere to turn to and are forced to develop some blind faith in the representative of the organization that procures their agricultural produce out of which they get their payment. Otherwise they will not be able to sell to anyone at all! Smallholder farmers may not complain, and when they do, they will not let the fraudulent clerk know in order to avert being blacklisted.

Even when the clerk is honest, the common analog scale normally used by the procuring institutions is calibrated to the nearest 0.5 of a kilogram. This means that in the case where the analog scale is used, clerks still have room to either round the readings downwards or upwards depending on their own whim. At times, records are lost by the farmers so that whatever is finally paid to them may not necessarily be what is due to them but rather what the clerks in the purchasing organization may decide is the correct rounded approximation.

Everything therefore relies on a procurement-payment system that is controlled by people other than the resource owner – the farmer. The extra weighed produce deliveries (derived from the aggregation of rounded readings or deliberate transcription errors) is then transferred through records so that payments are made to a rogue collaborating farmer who in the end oils the chain of thieving clerks, based on whatever may be their agreed formula. Though the farmers and managers in the procuring organization know that this scenario holds, they normally have no way of catching the thieves. Promoting more productivity at the farm level does not help in empowering poor rural communities, where wealth is most needed. And no matter what effort is made, poor rural farmers continue being poor. The process based technology that we evolved addresses this.

Our technology innovation, which is a digital handheld scale, weighs to the closest 0.01 of a kilogram of agricultural produce. Using electronic storage that downloads the data to a centralized database, and linking the scale memory to an electronic load cell, the scale is able to:

  • Weigh accurately to the nearest 0.01 of a Kilogram
  • Store farmer records in a Read Only Memory
  • Get powered through stored-electrical-power to make the scale memory/storage operate away from grid power
  • Through the power of a customized firmware designed to mimic the operations of the activities being addressed, automatically capture farmer records and their weighments
  • Capture and transfer farmer records on a farmer smartcard that can be used in input stores and retail outlets with credit arrangements with the produce buying institution/cooperative

Interfacing this scale with a computer enables the data from the scale to be transferred to an application that then updates records pertaining to payrolls for farmers and the procuring company’s internal staff. Farmer records are captured into the scale at the beginning of a field activity so that only real and authentic farmers can weigh their produce using the custom digital scale. This then removes the need for manual records and the control that has hitherto been in the hands of clerks that sell excess milk or tea in their own names or jointly with others.

This is then followed by data encryption so that data is not intelligible to the office clerks within the procuring institution. This forestalls any potential for data manipulation through manual effort. Electronic data capture then ensures that the processing of the farmers’ produce deliveries is done and records updated on a daily basis. A portable thermal printer that is strapped on the weighing clerk’s belt allows records that a farmer who needs a printed delivery ticket (a receipt of his milk delivery) to be printed. Data so collected and downloaded into a centralized server makes it available for remote querying by other parties such as the farm owner or management so long as such parties have the necessary authentication. Where the futures price is known, a farmer can take credit based on his produce delivery or obtain credit from a collaborating store using the farmer smartcard.

The above model has been under implementation for the last eight years in one of the dairy smallholder cooperatives, Githunguri Dairy, which started in year 2000 when they could only pay their farmers Ksh. 5,000,000 a month. Today they pay their farmers in excess of Ksh. 120,000,000 a month with an average monthly income of Ksh. 8,500 a farmer, an income that is close the basic salary of a teacher. The impact of this effort has been that the chairman of this cooperative was rewarded in the last general election with a vote to represent the constituency where the cooperative is based. The campaign story was the exemplary leadership that he has demonstrated through his strengthening of income generation ability that the smallholder farming community enjoys. They laud the transparent handling of milk records and payment which we know is associated more with the technology than the man. But indeed it is his far sighted thinking and the desire for an impact that he allowed technology to be tried in a rural area.”

Liberian Markets: Part 2

Another observation about Liberian markets concerns the way goods are exhibited. Generally, goods are arranged in terms of piles. Piles can be bigger, or smaller depending on the monetary value asked for them. For example, bird eye chilli pepper can be sold in regular piles, or in smaller piles sufficiently big for the cooking of a single serving of soup. Similarly, imported or manufactured food products such as spices and and condiments are repackaged into different sized sachets. For example, tomato puree comes into LBD 2 and LBD 5 sachets. Can anyone help me with some more examples? Butter? Peanut butter? Red pepper? Black pepper? Salt? Sugar?

packaging

The variety and the nature of the packaging used at Liberian markets is generally in accord with the informality characteristic of Liberian markets. Nonetheless, it reveals the lack of standardisation at the marketplaces. I suppose this might pose challenges to the use of information system (by remotely located buyers and sellers) with regards to subsequent exchange.  What do you think?

Liberian Markets: Part 1

Recently I had the oppotrunity to go to Liberia and talk to market traders there about the trading and the information access problems they are faced with. I went to daily markets in Buchanan and Morovia — the Red Light, Nancy Doe, Waterside, Ralley Time.  Liberian markets are very informal! They seem to be propelled by people’s ingenuity, flexibility, resourcefulness and resilience.

Even widely accepted meaurement scales do not apply there. By this I am not referring to the diferential use of empirial or metric measures. The accepted measurements scales among Liberian traders are units of packaging. These include bags, cartons and buckets at the wholesale level. And cups, LBD 5 sachets and LBD 2 sachets at the retail level. Different vegetables and grains are transported in reused bags from other products. Depending on the commodity those might be 10kg or 50 kg bags. But people generally agree on the conversion of units. For example, the people I spoke to agree that 6 cups of bird eye chilli pepper are equivalent to 1 bag. And that 100-120 cups of rice are equivalent to 1 bag of rice. The cups I saw were mostly reused open cans from other products such as for example an open can of 425g which was previously a can of mackarel being used for the measurement of chilli pepper cups. Can anyone help me with other similar excamples? Is approximately 425g the agreed size? I noticed also that traders might use slightly different sizes of cups and make the appropriate price adjustments relative to the size. Traders told me things like “This cup is LBD 50 and this (another cup which to my eyes looked hardly any different in size) is LBD 60.”

quantities

Essentially, all the measurements in Liberia seemed to be eyeballed. That’s why I took so many photos! For me, Liberian markets pose a fascinating and rather perplexing case of measuring without any reference to quantifiable measurements or scales. I expect that there are many similar cases around the world. Are you aware of the problems this might cause when buyers and sellers are trying to comunicate with regards to an exchange? I would love your comments on the matter!