IBM pushes IT towards the Base of the Pyramid

Pyr.mea.IT – Permeating IT towards the Base of the Pyramid is an exploratory research project which was started by the IBM India Research Laboratory (IRL) in New Dehli in August 2006. Its aim is to create technologies which would provide IT solutions relevant to the needs of people in developing regions of the world.

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The project team including Sheetal K. Agarwal, Arun Kumar, Amit A. Nanavati and Nitendra Rajput have recently demonstrated the use of VoiGen and VoiKiosks. These systems allow the creation and browsing of VoiceSites forming a “spoken web”. The systems developed by Pyr.mea.IT consists of the deployment of software called VoiGen through which IRL is looking to enable rural users to input and create content in the spoken web. Complimentary to VoiGen and the content generation process is a service called VoiKiosk which would allow information users to access the available content. Voice kiosks are envisaged as telecentres enabling the use of the spoken web through the proximal literacy of kiosk operators.

In order to create a voice site, a uaer would need to dail a numeber and follow the instructions provided by VoiGen.  The software asks users to record, in their local language, information such as a welcome greeting and contact details, while creating behind the scenes a VoiceSite. A phone number, analogous to a URL, is then assigned to the user’s content. Anyone who dials that number gets access to the recorded information and is given help navigating to related information. The way a caller navigates the VoiceSite is based on a templates developed by IRL, including voice site templates for advertisements and for auctions. Not unlike classified, the voice sites created through VoiGen are meant to enhance the trade opportunities of Indian small businesses offering and looking to buy anything from vegetables to jewellery, to electronics.

According to the New Scientist, 24 October 2008, “the spoken web is a network of VoiceSites, just as the internet is a network of websites. A VoiceSite can only be accessed by a phone, and only requires the user to be able to speak and listen. Callers can create their own VoiceSites or access those of others. They can also surf the spoken web, jumping from VoiceSite to VoiceSite using speech.”  The spoken web is an attempt to bring the benefits of the internet to rural India where people tend to earn only $4 per day or less.

The Pyr.mea.IT project has been targeted towards the use of voice communication because studies of mobile phone use in India, carried out by IRL have shown the dominance of voice as a communication medium. Not unlike many other places in the developing world, the popularity of text messages and WAP communication channels in India is affected by users’ literacy and technological literacy levels.

Pyr.mea.IT is an exciting project because by making voice the primary mode of communication and information exchange, it takes a step towards adjusting the development of technological solutions to the information needs, and literacy requirements of end users. Still, many challenges remain. Voice services are traditionally challenged by users’ propensity to hang up because of time pressures, because of users’ dissatisfaction with the progress they have been able to make, or because users have reached a node where none of the available navigation choices seems appropriate. Additionally, the navigation process could be challenged by the suitability of the voice recognition technologies currently available to the specifics of Indian rural languages and dialects.

Impact of ICTs on Welfare: Evidence from Uganda

Recently I have come across some resources about the broad-based impact of access to ICTs on the welfare of people in Uganda. The materials below demonstrate not so much the use and development of mobile (or electronic) market services, but they demonstrate the general point about the impact of communication on businesses and individual livelihoods in Uganda. So, do have a look at the video! It shows the users of the telecentres in Nakaseke and Kasambya. Nakaseke is a larger and economically more active community with a busy marketplace, while Kasambya is a rural location. The video shows Margaret Nawoga, a farmer who grows plantain, coffee and vegetables and uses the telecentre for access to cultivation literature. The video also shows the proprietor of a small harware and bicycle repair business who uses the fax, photocopying and telephone facilities in the Nakaseke telecentre in order to arrange the purchase and delivery of spare bicycle parts. The video has been available since Feb 2007 so the information is hardly up-to-date. Do you have information about Uganda along similar lines? Please, do share it. muto-2008

Demonstrating the same general point in a much more rigorous way is an article by Megumi Muto. It analyses the effect of the expansion of mobile phone networks in Uganda on market participation.  The work uses survey data collected in 2003 and 2005 from 856 households in 94 communities. The study compares the effects of the increased access to mobile networks on the marketing of maize and of bananas.  Megumi Muto establishes that the proportion of banana farmers who sell their produce, rather than consume it themselves, raised from 50% in 2003 to 69% in 2005. By contrast, the marketing of maize as opposed to its subsistance use did not change over the same period. The difference in the impact of mobile phone network expansion on the marketing of maize and banana is explained by the perishable nature of the banana products. As mobile phone coverage increased from 2003 to 2005, the sensitivity of the price of bananas to information was reduced, thereby reducing the price differential between farm-gate and market prices for bananas. Below is a map showing the progress of mobile phone coverage in Uganda between 2003 and 2005.

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KACE (Kenya) and the Kerala Fish Trade (India) on TelecomTV

Under the title “Market Intelligence: How Mobiles are Helping Farmers and Fishermen” Telecom TV recently covered the work of the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (KACE) , as well as the use of mobile phones for price discovery by fishermen in Kerala, India. Trades of various other goods and services in India were also covered. Both, the work of KACE and the changes in the information behaviour of fishermen in Kerala are phenomona well familiar to people interested in the application of mobile technology to agricultural trade in developing countries. Still, the video material allows us the opportunity to visualise the daily routines and work conditions of Kenyan market traders and of Kerala fishermen.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Name: TV Ramachandran, Mutahi Kagwe, Godfrey Fwamba
Recorded: 13/03/2009 – Nairobi, Kenya and Kerala, India

jensen-2007The background behind KACE is that it is a commercial enterprise seeking to facilitate the process of price discovery occurring the market exchange of agricultural products. The video footage covers the work of Godrey Fwamba who appears to work as an enumerator and his duties seem to involve daily visits to the Nairobi market. During those visits he collects prices from the local traders, then sends them back to his office via SMS, where they are made available to farmers. The role of enumerators is crucial for the successful implementation of mobile market information services. A dedicated network of extension workers is capable of collecting comprehensive price and avalability information from local markets, thereby enabling ICT solutions to deliver relevant information with potential for changing the behaviour and choices of market suppliers.

The video further shows the work of Pradeep Kumar, skipper of the Sreevaltsom, a trawler fishing in the seas of Kerala, India. Pradeep Kumar is shown using his mobile to check fish prices, thereby ensuring he lands his catch at the most profitable quayside market. The story about the impact of increased mobile network coverage in the coastal waters of Kerala on the market prices for fish in the region is familiar from the work of Robert Jensen. In Issue 3, 2007 of the Quarterly Journal of Economics Robert Jensen published the results from a study carried out between 1997 and 2001 in theh Kerala region. The empirical worked showed that the increased availability of mobile phone communication, encouraged fishermen to make informed decisions about which port to land at and reduced the price dispersion among fish markets in different ports. It is worthwhile to point out that the behavioural changes and the welfare gains in Kerala were not the result of any subsidised mobile market information initiative. By contrast, the changes in Kerala were self-sustaining because they resulted from individual bhavioural adaptations to information availability.

Nokia Introduces Life Tools in India

Using information from Nokia Life Tools pilot shows high appeal for livelihood and life improvement services in India.

In December 2008 Nokia launched in India a pilot range of information services, covering topics in Agriculture, English Language, General Knowledge and Astrology. The services are geared towards mobile phone users in emerging markets, particulatly in rural areas. Nokia has indicated that any successful initiatives in India will be expanded across selected countries in Asia and Africa.

Today Nokia announced the conclusion of the pilot phase of its pioneering Life Tools service in Maharashtra, India, and the results show that subscribers are reaping the benefits. Extensive feedback from actual subscribers revealed that the service had wide appeal, and connected with subscribers at both emotional and functional levels. The positive feedback from beta trial means full commercial launch of the infotainment services is on its way in the first half of 2009.

The service will be enabled out of the box in the Nokia 2320 and Nokia 2323 handsets, which will soon begin shipping. Support for more devices will be added later in the year.

nokia-life_toolsIn terms of content, Nokia Life Tools is a range of agriculture information and education services designed for rural and small town communities in emerging markets. It uses an icon-based user interface that can display information simultaneously in two languages. SMS is used to deliver the content so GPRS coverage and fiddly settings are not required.

The Agriculture service of Life Tools provides an easy interface to Reuters Market Light, an information service which delivers information on weather, market prices and farming advice. Users of the Agriculture Service described that they were better informed about market rates for their produce. Farmers found that getting prices daily on their mobile phones reduced their dependency on agents for basic information. Now with greater awareness on market conditions, there was newfound confidence in their negotiations with the agents. There was also resounding appreciation for the time and money saved from not having to make multiple trips to the market place to get the latest rates.

Trade at Hand for Liberia’s Market Women

ITC Press Release
ITC Press Release

On 26 Feb 2009 the International Trade Centre (ITC) in Geneva announced the delivery of the project “Trade at Hand for Liberia’s Market Women,” funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland.  The project is continuation of ITC’s Trade at Hand programme which has been operational since 2006 and focuses on the use of mobile technology for the delivery of agricultural market information.

“Trade at Hand for Liberia’s Market Women” delivers to its end users a service of the participatory type, requiring from end users the contribution of content. The service collects from agricultural producers in rural areas information regarding the availability, location and price sought for different agricultural products. This information is delivered via GPRS to consumers and traders in predominantly urban areas.  The market information service deployed by ITC in Liberia is characterised by the Mr Raphael Dard, the manager of the project, as a  Liberian national “mobile marketplace”  and a seed of a sub-regional one. Trade at Hand facilitates the search process of both, producers and consumers. Using the service buyers and sellers of agricultural products are able to identify an interested party at the opposite side of the market. As a “business matching information service” the Trade at Hand service deployed in Liberia is an innovative within the Trade at Hand framework. Prior Trade at Hand efforts have included the delivery mechanism, rather than the content generation. These include the delivery of international market price information, and the delivery of market alerts to end users in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Mozambque.

tah_leaflet_1tah_leaflet

The Trade at Hand poject in Liberia was realised in conjunction with ITC’s Liberia Export Development Project (LEDP). LEDP has developed a network of extension workers and enabled the delivery of comprehensive agricultural extension services within the country. Through its extension network LEDP has encouraged the production of export-oriented agricultural products such as spices (e.g. African bird-eye chilli pepper), coffee and cocoa. This network facilitated the initial deployment of the Trade at Hand mobile market information system in LIberia. During the deployment process extension workers took part in the process of training  and subscribing 100 users of the system. These users included market women and rural farmers.

Integrating Radio and Mobile Telephony

In the last week Nokia released the model 5030.  It is a model developed by the Nokia team based in Beijing and targeted explicitly at the mobile phone maket in the developing world. The device combines the well-established information and communication technology of radio with mobile telephony, a technology only recently available for wide use by people in developing countries.  The Nokia 5030 should begin shipping in the second quarter of 2009 with an estimated price of €40 before taxes and subsidies.

The Nokia 5030 is branded as bringing “radio to the people”.  The model exemplifies convergence by combining the functionalities of a mobile phone with those of a portable radio receiver.  It features an internal FM radio antenna and a powerful loudspeaker.

This mobile phone model can be used either as a radio with 24 hours of listening time between charges, or as a phone with 10 hours talk time.  It is available in graphite or red, and needs to be laid on its side in radio mode. The device also packs a flashlight, and speaking clock and an alarm.  More importantly it supports 75 languages, 500 person phone book (and space for up to 250 SMS messages) and the ability to phone share and track pre-pay usage.

The inclusion of an FM Radio or some other audio entertainment platform on a mobile devices certainly isn’t a new idea.  It has been available as an option on many devices for some time now, and these devices are been becoming incrasingly affordable to users in developing countries.  So what (if any) is the significance of the release of the Nokia 5030?

I think that the Nokia 5030 is a device showing signs of technology producers taking into account the user requirements of people in developing countries.  Still, manufacturers such as Nokia need to show much greater underastanding of the limitations to communication in the environment where these people (especially rural dwellers) live.  Although it is a start the Nokia 5030 is a long way away form constituting a comprehensive information and communication device for the developing word.  To say the least, such a device would enable people not only to receive wireless communication but also to transmit it.  In areas with scarce mobile phone cover transmission is the remaining sticking point.  If Nokia see the solution to communication in less developed countries through the integration of mobile and radio I am wondering if there might be a comprehensive solution they can offer.  For a demonstraton of the problem, we need to look no further than the clear dichotomy between the use of mobile telephony and the use of VHF for the delivery of medical services in rural areas.  That dichotomy can be readily traced in many of the “mobile health for development” initiatives.

Alternative Food Systems: Urban Agriculture in an Era of Global Warming and Oil Price Shocks

In the last couple of days the issues related to the implementation of alternative food systems have been largely featured in the UK media. The BBC touched on the topic of alternative food systems through its “Cuba and Urban Gardening” edition of Radio 4 – The Food Programme, and its “Urban  Farming Takes Root in Detroit” article pertaining to urban agriculture (BBC NEWS – World – Americas). The interest in the topic has largely been provoked by the Capital Growth initiative of the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, whereby 2,012 new food growing spaces should be established in London by 2012.

“Cuba and Urban Gardening” shares views and commentary on the experience of Cuba in the 1990s when the country entered a “Special Period in Peace Time”. Sacrifices in living standards, insufficient food supplies and a drive towards self-sufficiency in the food sector dominated the period.  Cuban researchers, policy-makers and producers were encouraged to eschew agressive agricultural techniques on the basis of necessity because agrichemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers were not attainable at the time.  Additionally, there was very limited access to fossil fuels for the transportation of food produce from the countryside, where it is naturally grown, into  urban areas.  As a result, sprung initiatives promoting urban organic agriculture.  These were aimed at meeting the nutritional needs of urban dwellers through the use of urban spaces for the organic production of foodstuffs.  The program was also aimed at improving the recycling and use of urban waste.

“Urban Farming Takes Root in Detroit” introduces the work of Urban Farming, a Detroit-based charity aimed at reducing inner city hunger through the growth of agricultural produce on unused urban land and the distribution of the produced food among hungry people.  The idea is very simple: turn wasteland into free vegetable gardens and feed the poor people who live nearby.  Motown has lost more than a million residents since its heyday in the 1950s and it is common to see downtown residential streets with just a few houses left standing. Taja Sevelle saw the hundreds of hectares of vacant land in the city and came up with the idea of creating an organic self-help movement that would be “affordable (and) practical”.

Even though, on the surface ot it, the experiences of people in Cuba and Detroit might appear a long way away from the design of mobile marketplaces in developing countries, I am inclined to think otherwise.  In the current age of global warming and oil price shocks the localisation of food production appears to be a public policy imperative on a worldwide scale.

The mobile market design problem for developing countries is inextricably entwined with the problem of improving the food supply chain in developing countries and the problem of creating food supply systems, alternative to the currently dominant industrial food supply chain, in developed countries. Traditionally, aggressive agricultural techniques and drives towards agricultural exports have been regarded as a prime road to development and poverty reduction in many LDCs. In the current global environmental situation, the solutions to both of these problems demand re-thinking.

The Cuban experience can be seen as an inspiration for the efforts of people in industrialised countries to find alternative food systems. It is a story of adaptation to the constraints of a “fuel famine”, assurance of food self-sufficiency and nutrition.  The film The Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil illustrates that story.  What about developing countries? How would smallholders there be able to improve their livelihoods if/when advanced industrial countries manage to improve their food self-sufficiency?

FEWS NET issues Food Security Alert for West Africa

In the last week I came across the alarming news that the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) has issued a food security alert with regards to West Africa. The alert came on 17 Feb 2009 and it is due to the above-average market prices of local agricultural produce across West Africa.

west-africa-food-security-alert1According to the FEWS NET information, during the 2008/09 growing season West Africa has been fortunate to ascertain above-average harvests in the region, meeting the local consumption demand. The 2008 rainy season has been marked with agreeable regularity and distribution of rains in the Sahelian countries and West Africa. Thereby, the performance of crop production in the region is expected to be more than satisfactory. Nonetheless, price movements in the region, coupled with the presence of the international food crisis have raised a considerable level of alert. Despite the good harvesting season 2008/09, cereal prices in the region have remained at worrying levels.

After the arrival of the new harvest in September 2008, the price of cereals stabilized or declined, except for the price of rice and wheat. In December 2008, the nominal retail price of millet, the main food staple for the majority of the Sahelian population, was 24-48 percent above the five-year average. Prices for cereals and other foodstuffs have largely been rising since January 2009. Similar trends have been observed in maize and rice markets. Markets in the cereal production zones of Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso have already recorded post-harvest price increases between November 2008 and January 2009, whereas these increases were expected between January and March. Post-harvest price increases in line with this trend could lead to moderate, high, or extreme insecurity for populations in West Africa who are net food consumers. Such price movements can be expected to occur by the start of the June-September lean season.

Commentators have speculated that in order to protect national supplies, some surplus countries such as Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, and Niger could turn to erecting trade barriers to limit the transfer of cereals to net food importers in the region. FEWS NET and its partners will undertake an assessment mission in February 2009 to analyze markets, stocks, cross-border trade, and food security in the region. In March 2009, results of the mission are expected to explain causes for current prices and to offer recommendations for action.

I will continue monitoring the price dymanics for cereals (particularly sorghum and millet in the region). I have previously reported on the use of mobile phone for price collection in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal (Encouraging foreign exchange: A cross-border initiative to share market information in West Africa). Given the raised relevance of the mobile price collection efforts in West Africa I will be following closely the mCollect project pilot and its possible extensions to Benin and Ghana.

Liberian Markets: Part 4

Transportation appears to be a significant obstacle for both buyers and sellers of agricultural produce in Liberia. I have been able to observe producers from the countryside arriving at the wholesale Red Light market in Monrovia as passengers accompanying their loads of produce. At the Red Light producers seek to sell their products to market women, who in turn re-sell the goods to market women acting as retailers. These are the market women selling at markets such as Rally Time, Nancy Doe Jorkpentown, Waterside, Barnardsville and Paynesville.  I was not able to see neither producers, nor market women (wholesalers or retailer) who own their own transportation vehicles. transport

Moving outside ot Monrovia, roads in Liberia serve not only as trade flow arteries, but also as significant market venues. Inhabitants at roadside villages offer for sale charcoal, palm oil, red oil, river fish, bananas, plantain, baskets, wooden furniture (chairs, benches). The flow of traffic thorough roadside villages is seen as constant flow of customers.

ICT Update, Issue 47: Market information systems

ictupdate
The newly published Feb 2009 issue of ICT Update (47) features is dedicated to  the topic of Market Information Systems, recent implementations and trends in their use in developing countries. ICT Update reviews many ICT4D projects targeted at the use of ICTs for the improvement of market access for farmers in developing countries. Some of the initiative featured in the issue include:

  • National Association of Agricultural Producer Organizations of Côte d’Ivoire (ANOPACI)’s market information system called système d’information sur les marchés (SIM -ANOPACI). SIM -ANOPACI works through a network of village information centres (points d’information villageois, or PIVs) to gather, process and disseminate agricultural information. This includes prices, offers to buy or sell, availability of products and comments on market trends for particular products.
  • Zambia National Framers’ Union (ZNFU) uses an SMS announcement service in order to inform rural farmers about market prices for their crops.
  • Malian fruit and vegetable export organization, Fruit et Légumes du Mali (Fruiléma) use of GPS, cameras and computer technology in order to monitor mango harvests and their compliance to international quality standards.
  • Coopworks, information management system for Kenyan milk cooperative. The systems assists cooperatives in their tracking of daily, weekly and monthly deliveries of milk by any farmers. The system can compile reports based on collection routes, farm location and regions.
  • Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (KACE)’s market information and linkage system (MILS). The system provides reliable and timely market information and to link farmers to the markets by finding matches for offers and bids on agricultural goods. The system uses market information points located in rural markets throughout Kenya.
  • The use of FrontlineSMS for the delivery of market information by FIAGRO (Agricultural Technology Innovation Foundation) in El Slavador, as well as by Mercy Corps in Aceh for their service MarketInfo-SMS.

I was also able to write myself about ITC’s Trade at Hand initiatives. My article Encouraging Foreign Exchange is focused particularly on the pilot of the mCollect system in Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Benin and Ghana.

I shall be useing the newly available ICT Update information about market information system in developing countries in order to inprove the list of ICT4D market projects.

Mobile Market Design for Development