Tag Archives: Liberia

Buying and Selling on Mobile Phone: Market Women and Farmers Connect for Less

A story found at the Liberianmasthead. Written by Oona Burke, guest columnist; published on 19 June, 2009.

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.

A market woman and farmer work on Trade at Hand
A market woman and farmer work on Trade at Hand

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.

Two market women show their excitement in practicing using the system at Ma Kebbeh compound,  Red Light Market
Two market women show their excitement in practicing using the system at Ma Kebbeh compound, Red Light Market

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.

Advertisements

Mobile Use Behaviour in Liberia

During my work with ITC on Liberia, I was in touch with field contacts and I had the opportunity to discuss the state of the mobile telephony sector there, the available services and their prices. One of my reliable contacts there shared with me the following information. She said, that the average amount spent on pre-paid mobile phone cards (aka scratch cards) in Liberia is $5 per month. Apparently, most of the $5 of airtime credit  is used up within a few days of scratching the card. How could we possibly account for such behaviour? I’ve been thinking up hypotheses about it:

  1. One obvious suggestion would be that people go into the trouble and expense of getting the scratch card because they have some particular significant information need, or emergency which requires conversations at considerable length. Then the question becomes, how is it that these events re-occcur with considerable regularity, approximately every month?
  2. A variant of the same scenario would be the use of the airtime for a short but expensive conversation. For example, parents in Liberia calling their children overseas.
  3. A completely differnet way of looking at it, would relate to the nature of the social networks people are part of. Say, for example, if someone has enough money to buy credit then he/she is expected to get in touch with many people in order to re-affirm their identity as part of a group.
  4. Yet another scenario would be that once someone had airtime credit on their phone, the airtime credit is considered communal. So the people in their immediate surrounding feel entitled to use the phone.

What do you think? Any suggestions on the matter?

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.

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.

Liberian Markets: Part 3

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

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

Mobile Phones in Liberia Part 1

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

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

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

mobile-telephony

Follow-up on Liberian Markets Parts 1 & 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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