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Smart phones for poor farmers | 

Grameen Foundation, Heather Thorne

Simon Obwoya, Ugandan knowledge worker

Part of the reason many farming communities in Africa are poor is because they lack ready access to valuable information — about market price fluctuations, improved seed types or planting techniques and opportunities for farmers to collaborate with each other to sell in bulk.

So lots of folks are looking at the revolution in information technology (e.g., cell phones) to solve this problem, and other problems. Using cell phones to augment health services in poor communities is perhaps the biggest boom area right now, often dubbed mHealth.

(NOTE: I will for this report ignore recent goofiness about cell phones and cancer. See my post yesterday and this NPR backgrounder if you’re still interested in that story.)

Most of these cell-phones-for-the-poor projects are based on using cheap, low-end cell phones, for obvious reasons. These people are poor.

So the idea that a farmer in Uganda who makes $1-2 a day could benefit from an Android smart phone just sounded ridiculous – like another one of those pet projects a Western donor forces on some poor community whether it really fits their needs or not.

“We didn’t start out planning to use them,” said Heather Thorne Matthews of Seattle’s Grameen Foundation Technology Center.

Because, yeah, it sounded absurd. But as it turned out, Thorne said, the smart phone proved to be more financially self-sustaining than a dumb phone. Continue reading