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.