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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.
Here are the latest developments regarding Reuters Market Light and Nokia Life Tools. According to the press release below Nokia Life Tools is being launched across India.
June 12, 2009
Ecosystem involving key government bodies, operators & industry players to address consumers’ information gaps.
Mumbai, India – After a successful pilot in the state of Maharashtra, Nokia today announced the commercial launch of its pioneering Nokia Life Tools service in India. The service will be rolled out first in Maharashtra in association with the Maharashtra State Agricultural Marketing Board (MSAMB). Designed specifically for the emerging markets, Nokia Life Tools is a range of Agriculture, Education and Entertainment services sharply addressing the information gaps of target consumers.Today, Nokia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the MSAMB. Under this MOU, MSAMB will provide expertise in the areas of commodity prices from their network of 291 local mandis (marketyards). MSAMB will also have the opportunity to deliver relevant news, alerts on schemes and other information directly to grassroots consumers.Speaking at the occasion, Shri. Ashok Chavan, Hon’ble Chief Minister of Maharashtra said, “We are happy that Maharashtra is the first state in India to go live with the Nokia Life Tools services in association with the state marketing board. Empowering our people with the right tools and facilities is a top priority for the State Government. I would like to congratulate Nokia for developing a unique and innovative service that has tremendous potential to improve lives and the livelihood of farmers and sub-urban consumers in Maharashtra.”Shri Harshavardhan Patil, Hon’ble Minister for Co-operation, Marketing, Cultural Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs said, “It has been the Maharashtra state government’s endeavour to provide vital agri information tools for a progressive and an empowered farmer community. Nokia Life Tools is tailormade to positively impact farmers across the state. This MOU further strengthens MSAMB’s mandate to get the information directly to the farmers.”Mr. D Shivakumar, Managing Director, Nokia India said, “Nokia Life Tools was a result of the entire ecosystem coming together and is ideally placed to usher in an information revolution impacting the daily lives of people. We extend our sincere thanks to MSAMB and our key partners for believing in and supporting our vision of ’empowering people and connecting them to the things that matter’. We believe this is the beginning of a historical journey that will take mobility to grassroots and make a positive difference to the lives of people in the areas that are crucial to them.”The complete Nokia Life Tools solution will be available on the newly launched Nokia 2323 classic and Nokia 2330 classic devices, and will be later expanded to other Nokia devices.Nokia Life Tools Partner Ecosystem and ServicesDesigned with deep insights gathered from target users, Nokia has collaborated with multiple partners across the Indian Government and private enterprises to bring together a rich ecosystem to deliver localised & personalised information directly to consumers’ Life Tools-enabled mobile devices.Nokia Life Tools has a range of 3 primary services – Agriculture Services, Education Services and Entertainment ServicesNokia Life Tools Agriculture services:The Nokia Life Tools Agriculture service offers consumers a choice of 2 plans. The basic plan, available across India at Rs 30/month, provides daily weather updates and relevant agriculture-related news, advice and tips. The premium plan, at Rs 60/month, will be available in 10 states, including Maharashtra, and provides the closest market prices for three crops chosen by the subscriber, as well as weather, news, advice and tips.Nokia is collaborating with Reuters Market Light (RML), which was the exclusive provider for agriculture services in the successful pilot. Syngenta, Madison Research, Skymet and many others also form this ecosystem.Nokia Life Tools Education services:The Nokia Life Tools Education service, available throughout India, offers three components: Learn English, with basic, intermediate and advanced levels; Exam preparation, which offers students tips and advice for ICSE, CBSE and State Board-level exams mapped to the relevant curriculum; and General Knowledge, which gives subscribers useful information about the world around them. Each of the Education services will be offered at Rs 30/month. Information and content from multiple local and international companies will be aggregated and delivered to Nokia Life Tools by EnableM.Nokia Life Tools Entertainment services:The Nokia Life Tools Entertainment service at launch will include Astrology, News, Jokes, Cricket and ringtones, offered at existing market prices. The content is aggregated and brought to Life Tools by OnMobile.Nokia Life Tools is hosted by OnMobile in India.Jawahar Kanjilal, Nokia’s Global Head of Emerging Markets Services, said, “As mobile coverage increases to cover the millions of unconnected, Nokia – in India and in other emerging markets around the world – will work together with mobile operators, multiple government and private enterprises, and non-government organizations to empower millions by connecting them to better opportunities that have a positive impact on their daily lives.”Nokia Life Tools was piloted in Maharashtra earlier this year before its commercial roll-out this month. The feedback from actual subscribers during the pilot that was concluded in April 2009 revealed that the service had a wide appeal, and connected with subscribers at both emotional and rational levels. On one hand, the service brought livelihood gains through relevant information such as market rates for farmers’ produce, greater awareness on market conditions, tips on weather, news, crop advisory, Learn English and General Knowledge. On the other hand, it enabled consumers to fill their information gaps by being better informed, save time and money, and improve their confidence and social standing.Nokia Life Tools service will be expanded to select countries across Asia and Africa later in 2009 and beyond.About Nokia Life ToolsNokia Life Tools is a range of innovative Agriculture information and Education services targeted at non-urban consumers. Under the Nokia Life Tool Services, consumers can choose various types of services/information that they wish to receive. Services available are as follows.– Nokia Life Tools Agriculture services aim to plug the information gaps and needs of farmers via their mobile devices, by providing information on seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, market prices, and weather (temperature, rainfall, wind conditions)– Nokia Life Tools Education services aim to provide education and career services, including English language learning, General Knowledge, Exam preparations and results, and career information and tips– Nokia Life Tools Entertainment services also has fun features for subscribers, including Astrology, News on current affairs, sports, politics and other matters, Jokes and downloadable ringtonesNokia Life Tools services use an icon-based, graphically rich user interface that comes complete with tables and which can even display information simultaneously in two languages. Behind this rich interface, SMS is used to deliver the critical information to ensure that this service works wherever a mobile phone works, without the hassles of additional settings or the need for GPRS coverage.
This video was filmed at the Digital World Forum, W3C workshop in Maputo, Mozambique 1-2 April, 2009. Mr. Paavo Krepp, Head of Emerging Market Services, Africa and Middle East of Nokia, South Africa stresses the importance of content for the creation of adequate mobile information services in developing countries. Given the low disposable incomes of users of agricultural information services, Mr. Krepp emphasises the importance of enhancing the relevance of the delivered content by providing dynamic time and location specific information. He also discusses the customisation of mobile services to local perceptions, languages, understandings of iconography, and dynamic mappings of crops.
In the mobile sector, collaboration among content providers with local and domain knowlegde, telecom operators and device manufacturers appears to be key for the successful provision of information services for the agricultural sector, including advisory and marketing services. The recent partnership between Nokia and Reuters Market Light for the Nokia Life Tools pilot in India is a great example of syndication in the delivery of mobile services for users in developing countries. I expect that we should be seeing more partnerships of this type if mobile technology is to deliver on its promise of improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in developing countries. Nowadays, these people are facing numerous challenges ranging from erratic weather, due to climate change, to food security. Working collaboratively towards the provision of adequate technology-based information services for their needs seems the very least we could do.
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.
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.
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.
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Name: TV Ramachandran, Mutahi Kagwe, Godfrey Fwamba
Recorded: 13/03/2009 – Nairobi, Kenya and Kerala, India
The 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.
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.
In 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.
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.”