Wageningen, 2 November 2009. During the CTA ICT Observatory 2009 we interviewed Mike Davies from Esoko, in Ghana. Esoko is a software platform licensed to facilitate the flow of market information between farmers, governments, researchers and other stakeholders involved in agriculture and rural development. It is used to share information on prices, offers, price of fertilizers etc. It is managed by the web, but delivered via mobile phones. Mark underlines the potential positive effects that Market Information Services such as Esoko can bring about, both in agriculture as well as in for other sectors. He then concludes talking about the difficulties he has encountered in this initiative, such as the lack of content available and the lack of right capacities to build and develop such software.
See more at observatory2009.cta.int/
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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.
The visit of President Obama in Ghana has given an opportunity of the US administration to reach out to people all over the world via mobile technology. This is an exciting attempt at participatory government and inclusion of members of the public in policy-making via mobile technology. Even though the concept has existed among mGovernment practitioners and academics for quite a while now, its successful implementations are few and far between. I hope that the enthusiasm which Mr. Obama is able to harness wherever he appears will give prominance to the idea, and encourage polititians elsewhere to seek its replication.
by Mike Grenville
Fri, 10 Jul 2009
The US Department of State is offering highlights from the speech by President Obama in Ghana on Saturday 11th July by SMS.
Working with Clickatell the US Department of State is reaching out to citizens around the world by SMS during an important speech to be given by President Barack Obama tomorrow, July 11, 2009 from Accra, Ghana.
Anyone around the world can sign up to receive live speech highlights in English or French via SMS. In addition, enrolled participants can send their text message speech comments via their mobile phone back to the US Department of State, where selected responses will be posted online. President Obama will also answer selected questions directly by radio broadcast in Africa.
It will also be possible to send back comments to the Obama Speech SMS highlights – via standard 2-way mobile SMS reply with selected comments posted online: http://www.america.gov/ghana_comments.html
International/Non-US citizens can enroll now online at: http://www.america.gov/sms.html
In Africa sign up can be directly by mobile: To send a text message to President Obama from anywhere in Africa except Burundi, the Central African Republic and Togo, simply text ‘English’ or ‘French’ to +61418601934. If you do not receive a confirmation of your enrollment within 10 minutes, please send again to +45609910343. For Burundi and the Central African Republic, text ‘English’ or ‘French’ to +46737494514. For Togo, text ‘English’ or ‘French’ to +4915705000946 For Kenya use short code 5683; for Ghana use short code 1731; for Nigeria use short code 32969; and for South Africa use short code 31958.
Today’s biggest news appears to be the shift in G8 food security policy reported by the Financial Times. It seems that the “L’Aquilla Food Security Initiative” at the forthcoming G8 summit will take forward an international policy move away from food aid and towards support for agriculture. It is expected that later this week the G8 (with the US and Japan providing the bulk of the funding) will announce more than $12bn for long-term agricultural development, particularly in Africa.
The background to the story includes the impacts on food security of the 2007 food crisis, the 2008 petrol price hikes and the ongoing international financial crisis.
The world’s first reaction to the 2007 food crisis, which saw record prices for crops such as wheat and rice triggering food riots from Haiti to Senegal, was to increase food aid. The UN’s World Food Programme doubled its budget to more than $5bn. The thinking since then has shifted, with Japan and the US leading the way in talking about helping poor countries, particularly in Africa, to feed themselves.
Mr Nwanze, a Nigerian national, says, “The financial crisis is worsening food security in many developing countries,” he says. “Wholesale food prices had been falling but prices remain very high in developing countries.” He commments on the policy shift by saying, “Too much of the first [food aid] could flood African domestic agricultural commodities markets, starving local agriculture. Too little and the farmers who are supposed to produce the local food could perish before their first crop.”
I think that Mr Nwanze’s statement sums up the need for food price monitoring and market information systems in Africa. I hope that the revised international approach to fighting hunger will reduce the emphasis on response (often too little too late) and will focus on monitoring food stocks, aleviation of chronic food insufficiency and prevention of shocks.
I think that affordability and therefore access to food is a bigger problem than its availability. When food security is conceptualised as a long-term, local issue, it is significant to monitor the prices of agriculture inputs (food, fertilizers, seeds etc.) in food producing regions and the prices of agriculture outputs at local, as well as national and international commodity markets. When farmers are provided with information about the prices of the commodities produced by them, they can use that information in making their seeding, planting and harvesting decisions. Conversely, the provision of information at markets and commodity exchanges about the stock availability of farming produce and the direction of its flow, can significantly improve the resilience of the food supply chain and avoid bottlenecks.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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Continuing the theme of alternative payment systems, and particularly the recent posts and discussions of the M-Pesa success story in Kenya, here is an interview panel on the topic, provided by TelecomTV’s programme Main Agenda.
The discussion took place during 16-19 Feb at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The panel features Mr. Gavin Krugel, Director Mobile Money, GSMA Association who articulates the major commitment of mobile network operator groups such as Orange, MTN and Vodafone behind financial service offerings. Network operators value the added value of such services alongside their standard offerings of SMS, voice and data.
He illustrates the scale of the opportunity offered to network operators in mobile money with the fact that 1 billion consumers in developing markets who do not have a bank account but do have a mobile phone. As a further illustration, a leading financial institution in India has 10 000 branches, while a leading network operator in India has 1 million distribution points. Through their network brands, innovation and secure technologies, mobile network operators are uniquely positioned to meet the opportunity and respond to the need for entry level financial services.
Mr. Vitalis Olunga, Head of International Services, Safaricom presents the opportunity of extending the M-Pesa mobile money concept of Safaricom, Kenya to include cross-border roaming services. He addresses the issue of regulation which came up in my posts from last week. Mr. Olunga tells how when M-Pesa was started in Kenya there was no regulation and the policy was developing post-factum. He sees a considerable challenge for the regulators in distinguishing between telecommunication and financial services. Additionally, mobile money increases the levels of competition in two highly regulated sectors in developing countries: the telecommunications and the financial sectors.
Mr. Hans Paulsen, CCO, Uganda Telecom shares his views regarding mobile financial services. He presents the opportnity present in Uganda to increase the current number of bank customers from 200 000 to 8 000 000 mobile phone users. The main application area Mr. Paulsen considers is that of remittences between urban and rural areas. With regards to regulation he stresses that success stories such as M-Pesa raise questions for telecom regulators and the banking sector regulators.
Mr. Patrick Kariningufu, Rwandatel emphasises that M-Pesa “was a great idea 4 years ago” and currently Rwandatel are looking for ways to enable people in the diaspora to transfer payments to African countries. Mr. Luckas Scoczkowski, CEO, Redknee presents their portfolio including re-sell airtime, emergency airtime, international remittances, and crossborder money transfers.
In a recent post I noted the news about Safaricom’s profitability in the last year and exchanged some thoughts about the services, fair pricing and values provided by African mobile operators with Steve Song.
Eariler this week I came across the Round. The world. Connected. project of the Nokia Siemens Networks. In its Episode 2 finds Adrian Simpson visits Ethiopia and Kenya. Among the bonus features are an interview with Mr. Michael Joseph, CEO of Safaricom, interviews with users and providers of the M-Pesa service.
Mr. Michael Joseph introduces the needs and benefits of the M-Pesa service, emphasizing its value outside the main urban areas where banking infrastructure is rarely available. He recounts the origins of the M-Pesa service in 2006 within a microfinancing project and explains its current popularity. By saving users the hazards of carrying and transacting in cash M-Pesa allows its users greater degree of mobility and flexibility. Mr. Michael Joseph stresses that M-Pesa is a banking product. This complicates the service by imposing strict security requirements on the technology, five-year record keeping requirement, and customer rules.
Mr. Michael Joseph emphasises the importance of the distribution and support network for the M-Pesa service. He acknowledges that Safaricom’s ARPU is decreasing and explains Safaricom’s strategy to “lock-in” customers through the provision of a mobile banking service which can be perceived as a daily necessity. Furthermore, Safaricom counts 7500 franchises of M-Pesa stores where users of the service can receive personalised support and loyalty to Safaricom can develop as a result of the social capital exchanged in between the users and the representatives of the distribution network. Adrian Simpson gives faces to the M-Pesa distribution/ support network by interviewing an M-Pesa store owners.
In the video “The benefits of M-Pesa and mobile banking in Africa” Adrian Simpson shows documents used in the registration for use of the service and talks to an M-Pesa dealer who claims thousands of customers visiting his shop. The location seems fairly central and the customers appear “upmarket”. He mentions businesses and university students as his customers.
In “Interview with an M Pesa store owner in Africa” Adrian Simpson talks to Joseph, an M-Pesa agent working in somewhat more moderate surroundings. He emphasises customer service, technology assistance and personal attention as important considerations for keeping his customer base.
Towards the end of the interview with Mr. Michael Joseph the subject of regulation is brought up. Not surprisingly, Mr. Michael Josephs mentions that mobile operators in Africa are seen as “cash cows” and a reduced tax burden would help help their work. Still, I wonder how regulation can be used in order to provide mobile operators with the incentive to support, invest in and develop socially benefitial services. M-Pesa seems to facilitate the monetary transactions of socially excluded people and it appears to alleviate concerns related to security. As such, the service has required considerable investment in technology development and the set-up of a distribution network. With considerable set-up costs, the service has broken even only recently after subscribing 6 000 000 users in December 2008. Admittedly, Safaricom has invested in it with strategic self-interest, looking towards customer loyalty and “lock-in” opportunities. Still, I wonder how governments cound encourage mobile operators to behave in a similar way, rather than to follow more disruptive strategies. If we view mobile services like M-Pesa as social goods, rather than luxuries, how can regulation be used to have more of them?