Cambodian farmers turn to their phones

At the University of Canberra, Senior Research Fellow Dr Robert Fitzgerald has been evaluating FrontlineSMS as a replacement for a commercial application previously implemented in their Cambodia Crop Production and Marketing Project (CCPMP). Since 2006, Robert and his team have been developing an SMS-based market information service for maize and soybean farmers and traders in western Cambodia.

CCPMP research had already highlighted poor communications between the different levels of the supply chain as a major challenge to the agriculture sector in the region. According to Robert, “We explored various options for the development of an improved marketing communication system and proposed to local stakeholders the development of an Electronic Marketing Communication System (EMCS) based on the use of SMS technology. We undertook a pilot project in which daily grain market information was collected by the Ministry of Commerce and entered into a database that was accessible by mobile phone in Cambodia using SMS”.

The pilot project proved highly successful and its impact stimulated further work in a follow-up project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). It was at this point that Robert and his team began to explore alternative messaging systems.

“One of the most encouraging aspects of our early work was the excitement generated amongst farmers, traders, ministry officials, silo owners and potential development partners. The SMS concept was very appealing but we faced a real challenge – we wanted to use this excitement to move from a trial project to a fully fledged operating model but we needed a software application that would ensure the long term sustainability of community-based communication systems. Because the project is working with two NGOs based in western Cambodia, it was imperative that we implemented a cost-effective solution that could be managed by local staff. As it turned out, FrontlineSMS had it all. Not only is it open source but it is simple to install and maintain, and has more functionality than our previous software, all combined with a much better user-friendly interface”.

Since launch of the latest version earlier this June, Dr. Fitzgerald has been testing FrontlineSMS at the University of Canberra along with a Cambodian Phd student, Nou Keosothea, who will be working with him to conduct in-country trials over the next few weeks.

Our plan is to install two FrontlineSMS systems in the Pailin and Samlaut regions of western Cambodia. Once these are installed we will conduct a series of stakeholder workshops to better understand the communication aspects of the maize and soybean production and marketing supply chain. Price, weather updates, handy hints will all figure on these systems in addition to standard SMS-based communications

Watch this space for further updates as the project moves forward, and details of a number of other agriculture-based FrontlineSMS implementations being planned by NGOs around the world.

11 thoughts on “Cambodian farmers turn to their phones

  1. Jerome Lacap says:

    SMS is an instant solution utilizing the only available network resource in the rural areas. May I ask more about your business model? How do you pay for transmissions? Is there revenue sharing with the network provider? Thanks.

  2. Callum N says:

    mHITs (also a Canberra based company) have also been rolling out similar SMS based micropayment services in and around Sydney and Canberra Cafes. Has the possibility of including a transaction feature been investigated in the trial?

    mHITs website is http://www.mhits.com.au

  3. Rob says:

    Apologies for the tardy reply 🙂
    In response to Jerome Lacap- in the early stages the organisations running the servers will absorb the server-side costs primarily as a service to their clients (in the case of the Silo Association) and stakeholders (in the case of the NGO). Users will pay for their sms costs. Many of our farmers see sms as a cost effective alternative to voice calls and airtime charges.
    In response to Callum N – great minds! We have been regularly talking with Harold Dimpel from mhits about a trial of micro payment system working with the Silo Association and the NGO. We could start by pushing payments to farmers but could follow that with a more elaborate e-wallet system.

  4. Kosol says:

    Unfortuntely I am about a year late into the discussion.

    Rob, this is great work you are doing. Through a joint-partnership with a local phone provider my company will be launching the first “cross-network” SMS commercial information service in Cambodia. Although price comparison and marketing will be the initial push, our service 010 XPRESS ( 010 977 377 ) aims to become a single point of entry for information. I hope to integrate non-commercial and non-profit data to serve the rural communities as well as commercial sectors.

    Looking forward to more updates on your project and SMS micropayments.

    All the best,

  5. Kosol says:

    Hello Rob,

    Hopefully you are still in Cambodia. After further discussion with our telecom partner, and you are interested, I would like to discuss with you about the possibility of including agriculture pricing information as part of our free service.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

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