Grameen Technology Center

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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

Muhammad Yunus, Craig McCaw, mobile phones and poor people | 

Tom Paulson

Founders of Seattle's Grameen Technololgy Center share a laugh. From left, Alex Counts, Peter Bladin, Susan McCaw, Craig McCaw

A decade ago, few thought poor people had much use for cell phones and, likewise, few in the cell phone industry had much use for poor people.

The folks who launched Seattle’s Grameen Foundation Technology Center, which yesterday celebrated its 10th year anniversary (and new digs in Belltown), disagreed with both of those assumptions.

More importantly, they proved both assumptions stunningly wrong. Africa, for example, is today home to the fastest growth in mobile phone use. In Seattle alone, there seems to be a new company springing up every month looking to grow the cell phone business in the developing world.

“When we started on this, others in the industry thought Africa was irrelevant,” said Craig McCaw, the wireless magnate who built an empire in the early days of the cell phone industry and who contributed the seed money (a mere $2 million) to launch the Grameen technology center.

“We’re in a unique position right now,” said Peter Bladin, outgoing director of the Grameen tech center, which is a branch of the Grameen Foundation — one of the world’s leading microfinance institutions founded on the poverty-fighting principles of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning pioneer of microfinance Muhammad Yunus.

Progress amid controversy

The field of microfinance, and Yunus himself, has been embroiled in a number of controversies lately — partly as a result of having exploded in popularity as a financial scheme and suffering all the attendant problems of rapid growth (opportunism, mission creep, debates over impact or outright scams).

While many seem to be arguing the merits of microfinance these days, few seem to be arguing anymore that cell phones don’t have a place in poor countries. What the Seattle-based Grameen tech center aims to do is make sure the rapid expansion of mobile telephony also serves the needs of poor people.

Yunus, it turns out, was also an early advocate of using cell phones to fight poverty in Bangladesh, which eventually led to Bangladesh’s largest telecommunications service Grameenphone. With McCaw’s financial assistance, the Grameen tech center was created to expand on Yunus’ vision by funding research projects devoted to making the best of the emerging technologies.

“We wanted to create a center of excellence here,” said Alex Counts, president of the Grameen Foundation, headquartered in Washington D.C.

McCaws made it possible

Counts credited the McCaws with making that possible, briefly noting the turmoil in microfinance but quickly moving on to celebrate all of the many advances being made today in exploiting the ubiquitous cell phone to help poor people improve their lives and livelihood.

“What we are doing is closing the information poverty gap,” said Bladin.

Some of the Grameen Foundation Technology Center’s projects: Giving a smallholder farmer the information he or she needs to improve agricultural productivity or get the best prices for a crop; providing traveling health workers with on-the-go access to critical information they need to care for people; developing software that allows people without access to banks to make payments or transfers on a cell phone.

I’ll explore one of these projects in more detail tomorrow, a project in Uganda known as the community knowledge worker program.

The goal of all of these initiatives, said Bladin, is not merely to make use of the cell phone as just another tool that poor people can also use. The goal of the Grameen Foundation, he said, is to bend technology to serve a much bigger aim: Defeating poverty.

“Too many of these (technology) projects are one-offs,” said Bladin, with the untested assumption that somehow technology alone will help bring people out of poverty — or maybe just another commercial scheme, gilded as a “social” venture, which is only aimed at selling a product or a service.

“Our goal is to figure out how to leave most of the money in the village,” Bladin said.

Geek heretic: Technology cannot end poverty | 

Kentaro Toyama

Kentaro Toyama is clearly a heretic. A geek heretic.

And, based on his career path, I would guess brilliant.

A computer scientist currently at the University of California, Berkeley, Toyama co-founded Microsoft Research India in 2005 and remained there as assistant managing director until 2009.

If you’re not familiar with what they do at Microsoft Research, think artificial intelligence, computer vision, terabyte juggling, high-octane mathematics and the craziest things you can try to do with bits, bytes or any kind of information technology.

While in India, Toyama launched Microsoft Research’s Technology for Emerging Markets group. (The website shows a toddler who appears to be sending a text message by cell phone.)

So you’d expect Toyama to be another one of those folks claiming that if we can just “bridge the digital divide” in poor countries, many chronic problems will be more easily solved. You’d expect him to be happy to see headlines like this New York Times article Can The Cellphone End Poverty?

Nope. ”That’s the reason I quit Microsoft,” said Toyama.

Continue reading