Tag Archives: technology

Linking farmers to markets one SMS at a time

For smallholder farmers across Malawi, crop production is merely half of the battle. The real challenge comes postharvest, when the race begins to access markets and secure a profit before a yield spoils. With no information, determining potential points of sale, buyers and the going rate is a game of chance.

In the past, such uncertainty left smallholders in a vulnerable position. Isolated, and often desperate to make a sale, rural farmers would unknowingly agree to sell goods at rates far below the market price. Furthermore, large portions of harvests would go to waste as smallholders struggled to locate viable markets for their goods.

Malawi’s agricultural productivity has been hampered by this clear lack of transparency. The inability of farmers and traders to access information has led to inefficient supply chains and overall market inaccessibility. Beyond the obvious issue of food security, a vibrant agriculture industry is essential to furthering economic growth, expanding trade partnerships and creating income-generating opportunities in developing countries like Malawi.

Aiming to improve the productivity of Malawi’s agribusiness sector, the Market Linkages Initiative (MLI) was launched in 2009. Sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Famine Prevention Fund, MLI sought to revolutionize Malawi’s agriculture sector by establishing a broad communications network to integrate isolated, rural farmers into Malawi’s regional and national markets – thereby, strengthening food security. In light of the rapid uptake in mobile phone usage across Malawi, communication via SMS text messaging was determined to be the most efficient and cost-effective way to enable access to information.

Today, MLI’s electronic market information system platform informs approximately 4,000 Malawian smallholders of price variances and trends on a weekly basis via SMS text messaging. The platform, Esoko, sends farmers and traders price updates for particular goods – maize, groundnuts, grain, etc. – in their respective marketplace directly to their mobile device. Currently, MLI offers updates from 13 key markets spanning Malawi’s northern, central and southern regions.

When Malawian farmers travel to the marketplace today, they have “a clear location and clear price because of SMS technology,” explained MLI Bridging Activity Chief of Party Rob Turner. “The important thing is that for the first time they have information to base their decision on,” he added.

Knowledge is power and according to Turner, access to information is empowering farmers to make informed decisions on when, where, and how to sell their goods. With real-time information at their fingertips, Malawian smallholders have succeeded in bargaining with traders for better deals, increasing their profits and identifying opportunities for expansion into new markets.

While “the Ministry of Agriculture also provides price information,” USAID Senior Agricultural Technical Analyst Vincent Langdon-Morris noted, “it is often criticized for being obsolete and out of date.” Furthermore, this official government data is not distributed via SMS, or used for commercial purposes. Instead, this information is released to the media who report prices for select commodities via radio broadcast.

However, USAID Communications Specialist Oris Chimenya said that if a smallholder happened to miss a particular market price announcement, there is not a secondary avenue where that information can be retrieved. “There is no website, there is no written material, and there is no other linkage between the farmers and the Ministry of Agriculture,” Chimenya explained.

“There has been discussion, because of literacy issues, that it would be more effective to use radio or send voicemail to farmers,” Turner said. Upon further investigation, however, it was discovered that smallholders generally prefer to receive information via SMS. Essentially, the ability to save and refer back to information, as well as note trends over time, add to the inherent value of SMS technology. Overall, SMS remains the best method for cost effectively reinforcing a message in a timely manner.

According to Turner, “SMS is tailor made for a place like Malawi.” As “the value of SMS goes up the poorer the country,” Malawi’s underdeveloped infrastructure and communications networks create a better climate for SMS projects than countries like Kenya – where 3G networks rule. Interestingly, Turner also noted that rural Malawians have proven to be “willing to spend a very significant amount of their income in order to have a phone because it is so valuable to them.” As for the future of SMS technology in Malawi, Turner believes that this mentality is proof that “there is a lot of room for growth.”

Ghana going online: Internet as a human right?

A scene from an internet cafe in Ghana, where some are pushing for internet access to be recognized as a universal human right. Photo by Robin Pierro.

Conversations about human rights violations often summon clichéd images of impoverished, emaciated villagers or fly-ridden, pot-bellied children. For many, the term “human rights” means having access to basic needs such as water, food, shelter and health care.

Rarely do we think of access to internet as a human right. But today in Ghana, there are moves to designate web access as a universal right.

And it’s not just in Ghana that this argument is being mounted. The United Nations has proposed that internet access should be a universal right. And Finland, France, Greece and Estonia have already caught on, ruling that the web should be accessible to all.

However, some question the need for such a right in a developing country like Ghana. Should making internet access a right really be a priority when access to basic education and healthcare are still not available to all?

Emmanuel Lafti, a 24-year-old fisherman from Adidome in eastern Ghana explains that for people like him, internet has no use because he has more pressing concerns.

“Why would I spend money on that? I need to work and feed my family,” he says.

But in Ghana, as elsewhere, internet access has the ability to eliminate and prevent rights abuses; it’s a source of awareness and empowerment for people who might not otherwise have access to information about fundamental human rights.

“People need to have the capacity to use technology in order to get information and develop,” says Kafui Prebbie, CEO of 1Village, an ICT company in Ghana that provides internet to rural communities at subsidized rates. At one point, his company even provided free wireless internet in Winneba, a community west of Accra.

“The internet is a tool that has given people a better idea of what opportunities exist outside their own communities,” Prebbie adds.

If fishermen like Lafti could look up different fishing strategies online or ways to prevent the degradation of their fishing crops, for example, it could improve their current methods. Or, fishers could create online forums to discuss issues affecting their industry, such as offshore oil drilling.

Like Prebbie, others think internet should be available to even the poorest citizens. Scott Allen, a Canadian who founded Ghana’s second largest internet café, Sharpnet, wishes internet was more widely available.

“Yes, the government should focus on providing electricity, yes they should focus on water shortages, but Ghana needs to compete with the rest of the world,” he says.

“Internet access is not the government’s number one priority, but it affects so many sectors of society that they can’t ignore it,” says Allen. For him, it’s not about prioritizing one right over another.

A lack of infrastructure and high fees are preventing smaller communities from getting connected, says Prebbie. 1Village is trying to counter that with lower rates, which has opened doors for many people. For example, those who could not afford to leave Ghana for post-secondary education are now taking online courses at universities around the world.

“There are so many people here who don’t even realize what they can do with the internet,” says Allen. “There needs to be more education in schools, not only on how to use it, but on what it can provide.”

Africa’s mobile revolution

Mobile phone stands pepper cities and towns throughout Africa, where over 50 per cent of the population is expected to own a cellphone by 2012

I’m wedged between a rather sweaty man and the greasy window of a bus heading from Tamale to Nalerigu in northern Ghana. I’m going to research a story and traveling in Ghana’s Northern region is more arduous than I thought. The rural areas of Ghana are remarkable. You can gorge on visual candy. We inch closer to the Burkina border. A mosque whizzes by, followed by a cluster of mud huts.  A girl carrying a pail of water on her head crosses the path of a woman with a baby strapped to her back. This too is familiar, but the cellphone the woman pulled out her small plastic sack is definitely not.

Even here, in remote villages, I’ve seen several people toting mobile phones. Mobile moguls MTN and Vodafone are mark their territory with brightly-painted shop stalls. Something is happening here. Mobile technology isn’t just an urban luxury or some Western fad. Africa isn’t generally associated with technological advancement, but Africans are defying stereotypes. They’re embracing mobiles and closing the gap between all Africans with new lines of communication.

On my recent visit to Togo, I saw the same trend. In the capital, Lome, there was no shortage of vendors hawking currency and mobile credit on every corner. It was the same story back in Tamale, once I made the long journey back to Ghana’s northern transport hub. After getting a good night’s sleep, I ventured out onto the streets around the central market the next morning. It was there that I met 29-year-old Ahmed Souleymane working at a Vodafone kiosk. It was one of several on the same street.

I asked Souleymane for a 5 cedi credit voucher ($3.76 CAD) and a question about Tamale’s technological turn. “Do you have a lot of customers here?”

“Oh yes,” answered Souleymane. “We have plenty customers.”

Now that mobile phones can be manufactured rather inexpensively, they’ve become much more accessible to the average African. In 2008, the total African mobile subscriber base was roughly 280.7 million people, or 30 per cent of the entire population. In 2012, the total subscriber base is expected to reach 561 million, which is about 53.5 per cent of the entire continent, according to African Telecoms News.

It’s a far cry from my last visit to Africa in 2000, when I sat on a cold bench in a dimly-lit call centre in Burkina Faso. It had the personality of a bunker, but it also had one of the few operational land lines in the village where I was living.

Now with telecom heavyweights Tigo, Zain and the soon to be launched Glo Mobile creating more competition in Ghana’s mobile market, it’s not uncommon to see people using their mobile to check Facebook, their bank account or the price of plantains in a nearby town.

Mobile phones are also playing an important role in citizen journalism. Since 2007, The Voices of Africa Media Foundation has trained over 30 mobile reporters in Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania to use their mobile phones to report on issues in their communities. The mobile movement shows no sign of slowing down, I thought, as I watched another patron picked up some credit at Souleymane’s booth.

“Why do you think mobile phones are so popular now?” I asked.

“If we travel and want to meet someone in Gambaga, or Kumasi or Accra, said Souleymane, we don’t need to write them a letter anymore. It’s better to call them,” he continues, with a boyish grin. “It’s easy.”