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Smart phones for poor farmers

Simon Obwoya, Ugandan knowledge worker

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.

The Grameen tech center, the tech-nerd branch of Washington D.C.-based leading microfinancier Grameen Foundation, was one of the first organizations out there to advocate for and explore the use of cell phones as a means to fight poverty in the developing world.

The Seattle non-profit recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, noting how few people a decade ago thought cell phones would ever be of much use in Africa — let alone become a tool for fighting poverty.

“Our goal is basically to close the information poverty gap,” said Tim Wood, Thorne’s colleague at Grameen and manager of several projects aimed at providing health workers with cellphone-based software and apps to aid them in providing care.

Mobile explosion, apps for the poor

You’ve probably seen a story about this kind of a project already — about sending text messages to pregnant women to provide them with reproductive health info, or maybe one of those stories about people using cell phones as a personal ATM or cash transfer device.

Cell phone use in Africa and throughout the developing world is exploding. Many poor people without indoor plumbing or reliable access to electricity have mobile phones. And there are all sorts of innovative applications aimed at making the cell phone a tool of empowerment in low-income setings — an idea that really took off first in Kenya and is now spreading to the rich world.

And as I noted, in poor communities this has been all about making use of cheap “dumb” phones. Not smart phones.

But Thorne, director of information and communication innovation at Grameen’s AppLab, said the poorest farmers they were trying to help in Uganda were reluctant to even spend what little money they had on the dumb phones. When you are barely making ends meet, she said, even a cheap phone is a luxury.

“We found farmers just wouldn’t pay for this service,” she said.

Yet these farmers were suffering losses and hardships often due to lack of timely information, Thorne said, about the weather, the best seeds to use during a drought, improved planting techniques, market price fluctuations, dealing with crop diseases, opportunities for profitable collaborations and so on.

Smart phones as traveling knowledge centers

The Grameen team (that sounds like a TV series!) eventually hit upon an alternative to their original goal of putting cell phones in the hands of farmers — empower the agricultural extension worker.

“Agricultural extension is how information gets to farmers,” Thorne said. “The problem, though, is that it’s still pretty expensive (to travel) and so many farmers are just never reached.”

So what they did is extend the reach of ag extension by appointing a farmer in a local community to serve as a “Community Knowledge Worker” using the smart phone as a resources. Grameen secured a $4.7 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) initiative.

The Uganda CKW initiative was intended to show proof-of-concept – of building an economically self-sustaining network of rural information providers who use cell phones to get valuable information to poor, smallholder farmers.

Initially intending to use dumb phones, they soon discovered that smart phones were the key to making this strategy pay for itself.

“We realized that the CKW could also collect data that others would be willing to pay for,” Thorne said. Seed providers, fertilizer companies or firms that buy crops also want to know what farmers want, what’s selling and what isn’t, Thorne said, so the idea was to make the ag extension worker basically a conduit for two-way information flow.

Collecting, managing and sending such data can be done to some extent with a dumb phone, she said, but smart phones turn out to provide other benefits to the CKW in traveling to many poor, rural communities. Smart phones have a GPS function to allow mapping and validating survey data, Thorne said.

And the photo/video functionality can prove quite valuable as well.

“Often, people are illiterate or there can be (different, tribal) language issues,” Thorne said. Showing a video or a photo on a smart phone can greatly simplify things when dealing with literacy issues, tribal language barriers or difficult-to-explain technical issues.

By basically serving as a traveling information provider and collectors, the ag extension agent increases his or her own value to farmers, agricultural suppliers and the government. The added income they make allows them to pay down the cost of the smart phone.

“They have to put down $5 for the phone and earn about $20 a month,” Thorne said. It usually takes them about two years to pay off the phone, she said, but it is enhancing their income along the way.

So far, Thorne said, they’ve got about 370 Community Knowledge Workers reaching 20,000 Ugandan farmers — with a 100 more in training this week.

They are continuing to evaluate the impact of the program, she said, but assuming it proves out its value they hope to expand it to serve maybe 200,000 farmers in Uganda. They are also planning to expand use of the program into other countries like Ghana, Tanzania, Indonesia and Columbia.

Here’s a blog post from Heather, at Grameen’s AppLab web site, describing her work in greater detail.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.