An exciting new development is the launch on 1 April in Bamako, Mali of Sènèkèla – a market price and agricultural information mobile service provided by IICD and Orange Mali, with the support of mFarmer (GSMA). The solution comprises an SMS/USSD information service and a call centre, serviced by specialised agricultural experts. My research in Ghana, suggests that West African farmers are reachable more readily via communication modalities, such as voice, which are congruent to their rural oral traditions. Therefore, I expect that complementing the SMS/USSD channels with a call center will raise the usability and attractiveness of Sènèkèla for rural stakeholders. Additionally, access to trained service operators is likely to increase farmers’ levels of trust in the information provided to them via SMS/USSD.
The service was developed through a complex partnership between technology providers (Orange Labs, Orange-Mali, GSMA), development partners (IICD, RONGEAD) and agricultural content providers such as the Malian Institute of Rural Economy (IER). Content quality is a shared concern with IICD taking responsibility for market price data collection; with RONGEAD providing market analyses and tips; and with IER ensuring the quality of the agricultural content delivered via the call centre. During the pilot phase the service was limited to he regions of Sikasso and covered only a few crops. With the recent launch, the partnership is entering a commercial phase with increased coverage and an increased range of agriculture information services.
The service relies on the combined SMS/ USSD and a call centre channels, using an operational model familiar to me from the of Esoko in Ghana. The 24-hour service provides market price information from different markets in the regions of Sikasso and Koulikoro; and information on crops such as corn, shea butter, onion, cashew, shea nuts, potato, sweet potato, rice and millet. Message services are delivered via a USSD menu on Orange Mali’s mobile network. The call centre staffed by agricultural advisers is reachable by the short number 37333 and the short code #222. The content for the service is generated via wide data collection efforts on food prices; as well as, national and international market trends.
I am posting my presentation from the Academy of Management Africa (AFAM) 2014 conference, held in January 2014 in Gaborone (Botswana).
The argument I am trying to make is that mobile telephony and radio broadcasting are capable of triggering change within the institutionalized production process of Ghanaian smallholder agriculture. I believe the argument is valid and interesting, and I have put in a lot of work since January in improving it. I think key elements of the argument are understanding the information ecology of rural Ghana, understanding existing information access practices and understanding social learning.
The biggest compliment I got from the reviewers was worded as follows, “This is a rough or preliminary draft of a paper that could be developed into something well worth reading.” God bless!
The paper abstract for AFAM 2014 reads:
Agricultural sector transformation and rural economic development can be recognized as processes of learning, through which improved industrial processes and rural institutions evolve. The focus of our interest are the transformative opportunities offered by IS innovation for the delivery of advisory services in the Ghanaian agriculture sector. In considering IS innovation experiences and opportunities, we focus the fields of horizontal and vertical organizational actors within the Ghanaian agricultural sector. IS innovations are capable of transforming the sector by introducing in these fields new symbolic meanings, new perception of relational systems, new routine operational scripts or new information technology artefacts.
At a press conference today, Zain announced the launch of its award-winning, enhanced payment service ZAP in Ghana. The service is set to compete for the custom of the Ghanaian “unbanked” with MTN’s Mobile Money.
The development of mobile payment mechanisms in the Ghanaian market for value-added mobile services, alongside with the evolution of the local market information platform Esoko, makes mobile commerce in Ghana an increasingly realistic prospect.
The mobile phone has become one of the most important pieces of equipment that has revolutionaised processes in the society, making people transact business and communicate in a friendly and more convenient way.
Not only have authorities predicted the continuous revolution in the sector, but they believe Africa, which was written off as one that could not realise the full benefit of the technology, will now be at the centre of the mobile phone revolution, using the device to facilitate trade and the settlement of values beyond its traditional use as a communication tool to which the device is put in many parts of the world.
Leading the mobile revolution in Africa and the Middle East is Zain Telecommunications which continues to use veritable market survey to design products and services on its platform to the benefit of the ordinary person and businesses.
The telecom service provider has introduced onto the Ghanaian market its award-winning mobile commerce (m-commerce) product, the Zap service, which is set to make business transactions on all platforms easier by enabling users to access funds from their bank accounts and pay utility bills using their mobile phones.
ZAP has been extensively reviewed and approved by industry experts across the world as an efficient way of doing transactions. The product is the reigning winner of the coveted award for Best Mobile Money for the Unbanked Service at the GSMA Global Mobile World Awards 2010.
The Country Manager of Zain, Mr Philip Sowah, explained that the service went beyond money transfer into enabling users of the service to effect payment of any kind be it a bill at a grocery, utility bills, pay-TV bills, school fees, or even to honour pledges and tithes at church.
“This service will enable people to transact business and make payments without resorting to cash,” Mr Sowah explained, adding that although the service would initially be available to Zain customers, it would later rope in other platforms.
Currently, Zain is working in partnership with three banks, namely Ecobank, Standard Chartered Bank and UBA to deploy the service with the hope that after the launch other banks would be roped in.
With its authentic ability to capture people in the informal sector, who would load cash on the service for transactions, the product would help in banking a lot more people in that sector, thus help in mopping up excess money in circulation, a condition necessary for checking inflation. Currently, only 80 per cent of the Ghanaian working population is unbanked. This means a teaming number of people in the informal economy remain unbanked.
“The unbanked will become banked under Zap and enable banks to have access to more customers,” Mr Sowah added, adding that the general economic and business benefits of ZAP were astounding and would further revolutionarise commerce in Ghana.
How it operates
Customers of the network will first have to register with the mobile provider before being able to access their Zap service. The customers can send money from their bank account to ZAP account or go to the nearest Zain dealer or Zap centre to deposit cash onto their Zap service to enable them to send money from ZAP to a bank account, send virtual money to friends and family, receive virtual money or withdraw cash.
Mr Sowah said “money can be redeemed from any ZAP outlet or Zain accredited shops all over the country.”
On another level, merchants and service providers who would be signed on would also have their Zap account which would facilitate a unique settlements system that would facilitate the exchange of goods and services to take place.
For instance, at the Accra Mall, all the big and small vendors would have the service which would allow customers to buy from say game supermarket and pay through the Zap service.
It can also work in informal economies such as at traditional markets in Ghana such as the Makola market in Accra, the Asafo market in Kumasi or the Techiman market in the Brong Ahafo Region.
For money transfer, the upper limit is GH¢600 a day, while transactions with merchants could go beyond that to bigger amounts, in an attempt to check fraudulent deals with the system, such as money laundering.
Besides the multi-faceted services it offers, Zap also promises convenient and a cost efficient way of transferring money; or for the payment of goods and services in the Ghanaian market.
Zain officials said there would be no need for any special subscriber identity module (SIM) card or customers to begin to enjoy the ZAP service. In addition, however, customers who would use ZAP would be allowed to keep their phone numbers confidential with the use of ‘nicknames’ to transfer money.
The service could also be used to top up airtime for the customer or for someone else.
The company stressed that since Zap operated in a ‘virtual’ world of transacting business without carrying cash, theft cases and armed robbery would be drastically reduced, citing building contractors as an example of a category that could “Zap” workers’ wages directly to their handsets without carrying sack loads of money.
The workers could later redeem the cash at the ZAP outlets doted all across the country, Mr Sowah explained.
The ZAP service is currently in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Niger and Sierra Leone.
I have finally come around to revisiting some of the topics that came up during the days of the CTA ICT Observatory, held in Wageningen, the Neatherlands from 2nd to 4th of Nobember, 2009. One topic in particular that reared its head during the first day, concerned the potential of mid-range mobile phone devices to deliver the benefits associated with mobile services.
The topic came up when all participants were asked by the workshop facilitators Pete Cranston and Christian Kreutz to consider the advantages and disadvantages of different technological channels for access to information. Volunteers were asked to collect views regarding the following channels:
Indirect access i.e. information access mediated by another human being.
Direct information sharing i.e. CDs, printouts, file sharing.
Basic phones: devices with two-tone displays and basic functionality. Almost exclusively the functionality is limited to voice and SMS.
Mid-range phones i.e. phones with functionality exceeding the basics. These devices have multi-tone display and a data channel (GPRS) with a high level of usability. Features such as extendable keyboards, cameras
Smart phones i.e. phones complete with an operating system and advanced PC-like functionalities such as email and Internet access.
I collected the views of the participants in the workshop on mid-range phones. And after about half an hour we came up with the poster below.
The pros of mid-range phones include that they allow for the development of more interactive mobile applications and services. The use of phones and services with basic functionality have proven their worth and usefulness, as in the many deployment examples associated with FrontlineSMS. Still, many of the areas where SMS services are used can benefit from more extensive interactions. That’s why we put interactivity as one of the advantages carried by mid-range phones. The implementations I envisage would fall somewhere on the orange fraction of “social mobile’s long tail”, as explained by Ken Banks in a recent post on his blog. Arguably, mid-range phones are currently the devices of choice for end-users in the implementation of mid-complexity systems and customised solutions. Yet again, arguably, they have the potential of being the devices of choice for the implementation of simple, low cost systems in the future.
Another advantage of mid-range phones is that through the data channel they allow information to be exchanged way more cheaply than SMS. Steve Song оf manypossibilities.net has posted much on the lack of fairness in the pricing of mobile communication and recently started the initiative Fair Mobile). Mid-range phones allow a cheaper alternative because in terms of the price of data transfer per character, data services based on GPRS are up to 1000 times cheaper. This argument was put forward as part of the presentation of Stephane Boyera from the W3C at CTA’s ICT Observatory. Moreover, the feasibility of extending the use of devices with mid-range functionality in the provision of mobile services is supported by the increased market availability of such devices at prices near the $50 mark.
In a recent analysis of the potential of hybrid devices, Simon Kearney notes that “while smartphones may dominate the mobile growth story in many developed markets, the picture is very different in the much larger developing and emerging world markets.” In these markets products and services such as Nokia’s Life Tools are, in many ways, exploring leapfrogging possibilities by allowing mobile access to the Internet.
The Nokia Life Tools services, deployed in India and Indonesia are examples of mobile services which can be deployed through mid-range phones. These services are targeted at very low earners in developing countries. They allow users access to weather and agricultural market information. A series of phones designed as end-user devices for Nokia Life Tools, and retailing at prices between 20 and 54 Euros – before taxes and subsidies – are shortly due to begin shipping.
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.
Presentation by Stéphane Boyera World Wide Web Foundationation. Unfortunately, Stéphane was not able to attend the CTA ICT Observatory in Wageningen but Kevin Painting did his presentation. The content is based on the work of the W3C MW4D Interest Group. more
TelecomTV and IBM present an informative overview of the current divide in the mobile market between mature and growing markets.The commentators emphasise two significant trends encountered in the mobile markets of developing countries. Firstly, there is a trend of emergence of innovative home-grown operators in developing countries and emergence of home-grown business models, better suited to the needs of low ARPU customers. Secondly, there is a trend in developing markets for the establishment of mobile (as opposed to Internet) data services for banking, commerce, healthcare and education.The particpants in the video include:- John Chambers, Chairman & CEO, Cisco- Prof. John Nkoma, Director General, Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority- Kent Lupberger, Snr Mgr Portfolio & Technology Global ICT, World Bank- Dr. Tim Kelly, Lead ICT Policy Specialist, Infodev- Prof. Dora Nkem Akunyili, Minister Of ICT, Federal Republic Of Nigeria- Adrian Baschnonga, Senior Analyst, Global Telecoms, Ernst & Young- Mike Hill, VP Enterprise Initiative, IBM
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.
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 blogby Rachel Payne, Country Manager, Uganda. The services fall with 3 silos:
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.
A story found at the Liberian. 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.
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.