Farmer to farmer. Phone to phone.

In this – the fifth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts – Gary Garriott, Innovation Program Officer in the “Digital Futures for Development Program” at Winrock International, talks about their implementation of FrontlineSMS as part of a wider agriculture-based initiative in El Salvador


Winrock International is a social enterprise which describes itself as a “mission-driven, nonprofit business”. Winrock works with people in the United States and around the world to increase economic opportunity, sustain natural resources and protect the environment.

Winrock InternationalDerived from the international philanthropic tradition of the Rockefeller family, Winrock International (named for Winthrop Rockefeller, governor of Arkansas) and its predecessor organizations have acquired more than 50 years of development experience. Winrock has distinguished itself over this period by promoting capacity development for local entrepreneurship and community-based businesses in the areas of smallholder agriculture, environmental management, clean/renewable energy, and information and communications technologies.

Through its ‘Farmer to Farmer’ program, Winrock has been active in El Salvador in recent years providing volunteer technical assistance to smallholder farmers, especially to increase productivity and profitability in the horticulture and dairy subsectors. Sustainable approaches to achieve this objective are to strengthen agricultural sector institutions and improve sustainable use of natural resources. Both strategies tend to strengthen national trade institutions.

In this context Winrock works closely with FIAGRO, the Agricultural Technology Innovation Foundation – a local Salvadoran nonprofit – whose mission is to promote innovative technology for improving the competitive advantage of the agricultural sector. Through its Farmer to Farmer staff and Digital Futures for Development Program, Winrock provided an internal grant to FIAGRO to promote the use of cellular phones as a device to encourage buyers and sellers of agricultural products to exchange information and strengthen market linkages.

Mobile/SMS training with partners and staff (photo courtesy Winrock International)

Mission link and rationale

Forty-six percent of of El Salvador’s population live in rural areas and earn incomes from agriculture-related activities. Even though the Internet has become an important worldwide diffusion media promoting the democratization of information and knowledge, farmers in El Salvador continue to be isolated from the new Information and Communications Technologies (ICT’s) that could help them access local markets and develop business opportunities. A valuable alternative to computer-based information for farmers is the use of more affordable mobile phones, which are very popular even in rural areas. National statistics reveal that there are 55 mobile lines for every 100 inhabitants, representing an opportunity to use mobile lines as a real-time agribusiness information tool to promote products and services, and to establish real-time market links between producers and buyers and/or final consumers.

The Project

The aim of the project is to help Salvadoran agricultural and agro-industrial producers sell their products in local markets for better prices and to obtain better profit margins, thus mitigating the effect of intermediaries or middlemen. A primary target is better marketing of vegetables and garden crops.

Similarly, many of the SMEs that process grains and other agricultural feedstocks also depend on intermediaries and traders who tend to speculate and inflate prices during times of shortage, generating negative impacts on the profitability of these small companies.

The system envisioned by this project will allow producers and buyers to post buy/sell offers through SMS messaging directly to mobile phones or through a call center managed by the project where operators will log information obtained from semi-literate or illiterate farmers. Then summaries of these “classifieds ads” will be sent through SMS and e-mail to service subscribers. Additionally, communities of buyers/sellers with Internet access will be able to see these offers on a project web site as well as through RSS feeds via other web sites. Thus producers and buyers will be able to interchange information and directly develop commercial activities without total reliance on intermediaries.

While this system uses multiple channels to create an information exchange network, it focuses on the cell phones since mobile technology is nearly ubiquitous as the most pervasive channel with the most penetration in rural areas.

The FrontlineSMS application

FrontlineSMS testing (Photo courtesy Winrock International)

Originally, the project envisioned working directly with a Salvadoran mobile operator that had offered to provide software interfaces as well as billing capabilities. While these discussions continue and will hopefully be successful, FrontlineSMS provides a more than adequate platform to move this project into operational mode and will likely provide service well beyond the pilot stage.

FrontlineSMS has, in short, saved the project from becoming trapped in a slow-moving bureaucratic process and allows projects results to be obtained during the time-critical pilot implementation in order to justify Winrock’s internal investment as well as the institutional commitment made by FIAGRO.

The pilot implementation manages and posts buy/sell offers from buyers and sellers. If sellers (usually smallholder farmers) are not comfortable using SMS, they can call a small call center managed by FIAGRO and an operator requests all the information needed to produce a ‘classified ad’ ready for posting through multiple channels. A daily summary is sent via SMS to the users of the pilot system as a digest of all the offers published during the previous 24 hours, divided into various categories. FrontlineSMS in combination Clickatell is used to send and receive SMS messages among large numbers of users. Through the call center, the user can also call to get specific information about products geographically close to a particular market or urban center and in the same way can request information about buyers for specific products.

Through FrontlineSMS, the functionality to directly publish offers through SMS over the Internet is being added too, where the users write a keyword, either to Buy or Sell, followed by the product information such as name, amount, sell or buy price, and product location. All this information will be added to the pilot system and available when the users contact the call center.

The pilot will accommodate approximately 600 users with technological resources currently available; however, to scale to a larger user group and expand it to a regional or even national level, further investment is required for additional technological and human resources, such as software development, computer and communications equipments and collaborators that support project operation through national mobile operators. The system will be sustained based on per call charges made to the call center as well as charges for SMS reception. Users will be charged only for the information they receive or request and with the frequency desired; the user can cancel the subscription at any time.

We believe this to be the first FrontlineSMS trading application in the agricultural space in El Salvador and possibly the first anywhere in Central America. Further information is available on the short video below.

From the FrontlineSMS Community site

Thank you FrontlineSMS!”

Gary Garriott
Digital Futures for Development Program
Winrock International

Other staff involved in the project include:

Ricardo Hernández Auerbach, Regional Director, Farmer to Farmer Program, Winrock International
Juan Carlos Hidalgo,
Executive Director, FIAGRO (Fundación para la Innovación Tecnológica Agropecuaria)
Raúl Corleto, ICT Coordinator,  FIAGRO (Fundación para la Innovación Tecnológica Agropecuaria)

@twitter meets @frontlinesms

@jack – inventor, Founder and Chairman of Twitter – meets up with @kiwanja – developer of FrontlineSMS – at the “Symposium on Technologies for Social Action” (e-STAS) conference in Malaga last week, where they both spoke about elements of citizen empowerment.

Twitter and FrontlineSMS

In their quest for globally-available, affordable (free!) text messaging, the Twitter folk are not alone, but unlike their non-profit counterparts Twitter are beginning to win the battle of nerves with the operators (expect to see free messaging slowly come back over the coming year). NGOs the world over can only dream of having this kind of clout, although it was interesting comparing the Twitter experience with that faced by FrontlineSMS users and the wider NGO community.

It’ll be interesting to see where the Twitter Foundation might go with this, if and when we ever see one.

Time to eat our own dog food?

Is the future of social mobile an empowered few, or an empowered many? Mobile tools in the hands of the masses presents great opportunity for NGO-led social change, but is that the future we’re creating?

In The White Man’s Burden – Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, William Easterly’s frustration at large-scale, top-down, bureaucracy-ridden development projects runs to an impressive 384 pages. While Easterly dedicates most of his book to markets, economics and the mechanics of international development itself, he talks little of information and communication technology (ICT). The index carries no reference to ‘computers’, ‘ICT’ or even plain old ‘technology’.

But there is an entry for ‘cell phones’.

"Small is Beautiful"E. F. Schumacher, a fellow economist and the man widely recognized as the father of the appropriate technology movement, spent a little more time in his books studying technology issues. His seminal 1973 book – Small is Beautiful – The Study of Economics as if People Mattered” – reacted to the imposition of alien development concepts on Third World countries, and he warned early of the dangers and difficulties of advocating the same technological practices in entirely different societies and environments. Although his earlier work focused more on agri-technology and large-scale infrastructure projects (dam building was a favorite ‘intervention’ at the time), his theories could easily have been applied to ICTs – as they were in later years.

Things have come a long way since 1973. For a start, many of us now have mobile phones, the most rapidly adopted technology in history. In what amounts to little more than the blink of an eye, mobiles have given us a glimpse of their potential to help us solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. With evidence mounting, I have one question: If mobiles truly are as revolutionary and empowering as they appear to be – particularly in the lives of some of the poorest members of society – then do we have a moral duty, in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community at least, to see that they fulfill that potential?

You see, I’m a little worried. If we draw parallels between the concerns of Easterly and Schumacher and apply them to the application of mobile phones as a tool for social and economic development, there’s a danger that the development community may end up repeating the same mistakes of the past. We have a golden opportunity here that we can’t afford to miss.

But miss it we may. Since 2003 I’ve been working exclusively in the mobile space, and I’ve come to my own conclusions about where we need to be focusing more of our attention if we’re to take advantage of the opportunity ahead of us. Don’t get me wrong – we do need to be looking at the bigger picture – but there’s not room at the top for all of us. I, for one, am more than happy to be working at the bottom. Not only do I find grassroots NGOs particularly lean and efficient (often with the scarcest of funding and resources), but they also tend to get less bogged down with procedure, politics and egos, and are often able to react far more quickly to changing environments than their larger counterparts. Being local, they also tend to have much greater context for their environments, and in activism terms they’re more likely to be able to operate under the radar of dictatorial regimes, meaning they can often engage a local and national populace in ways where larger organizations might struggle.

So, waving my grassroots NGO flag, I see a central problem of focus in the mobile applications space. Let me explain. If we take the “Long Tail ” concept first talked about by Chris Anderson and apply it to the mobile space, we get something like this. I call it “Social Mobile’s Long Tail”.

Social Mobile Long Tail,

What it demonstrates is that our tendency to aim for sexy, large-scale, top-down, capital- and time-intensive mobile solutions simply results in the creation of tools which only the larger, more resource-rich NGOs are able to adopt and afford. Having worked with grassroots NGOs for over 15 years, I strongly believe that we need to seriously refocus some of our attention there to avoid developing our own NGO “digital divide”. To do this we need to think about low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, affordable, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate. This is something I regularly write about, and it’s a challenge I’m more than happy to throw down to the developer community.

Another key problem that we have emerges as a symptom of the first. Because larger international development agencies, by their very nature, tend to pre-occupy themselves with the bigger issues, they often inadvertently neglect the simple, easier-to-fix problems (the “low hanging fruit” as some people like to call it). The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) are good examples of the kinds of targets which are far easier to miss than hit.

In mobile terms, using the technology to enhance basic communications is a classic “low hanging fruit”. After all, that’s what mobile phones do, and communication is fundamental to all NGO activities, particularly those working in the kinds of infrastructure-challenged environments often found in the developing world. Despite this, there are few tools available that take advantage of one of the most prolific mobile communication channels available to grassroots NGOs – the text message (or SMS).

Much of my own work with FrontlineSMS has sought to solve this fundamental problem, and in places such as Malawi – where Josh Nesbit, FrontlineSMS, a laptop and one hundred recycled mobile phones has helped revolutionise healthcare delivery to 250,000 rural Malawians – the benefits are loud and clear. In other countries, where activities of international aid organizations may be challenged or restricted by oppressive, dictatorial regimes, grassroots NGOs often manage to maintain operations and often provide the only voice for the people. In Zimbabwe, have been using FrontlineSMS extensively to engage a population not only starved of jobs, a meaningful currency and a functioning democracy, but also news and information. In Afghanistan, an international NGO is using FrontlineSMS to provide security alerts to their staff and fieldworkers. The software is seen as a crucial tool in helping keep people safe in one of the world’s most volatile environments. With a little will, what can be done in Zimbabwe and Afghanistan can be done anywhere where similar oppression exists.

Destined for the rubbish

In cases such as these – and there are many more – we need to stop simply talking about “what works” and start to get “what works” into the hands of the NGOs that need it the most. That’s a challenge that I’m happy to throw down to the ICT4D community. There’s only a certain amount of talking and critiquing we can, and should, do.

There are, of course, many issues and challenges – some technical, some cultural, others economic and geographical. The good news is that few are insurmountable, and we can remove many of them by simply empowering the very people we’re seeking to help. The emergence of home grown developer communities in an increasing number of African countries, for example, presents the greatest opportunity yet to unlock the social change potential of mobile technology. Small-scale, realistic, achievable, replicable, bottom-up development such as that championed by the likes of Easterly and Schumacher may hardly be revolutionary, but what would be is our acknowledgement of the mistakes of the past, and a co-ordinated effort to help us avoid making them all over again.

I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? If the next thirty years aren’t to read like the last then we need to re-think our approach, and re-think it now.

The microscopic world of mobile chip art

I’d heard about “chip art” before, but not really paid much attention to it. Then, over Christmas I saw a programme on Finnish TV which sparked my interest. I wondered – was there any ‘mobile’ chip art out there?

What is chip art?

For the uninitiated, “chip art” is created when silicon chip designers use redundant space on circuit boards to add a piece of personal artwork. It’s graffiti, but on a microscopic scale, and one which often goes completely undetected. Although chip art originally served a purpose – to help ‘catch out’ board cloners – since 1984 when copyright law changed there has been little reason to incorporate it. Except for fun, of course.

Mobile chip art?

There are hundreds of examples of chip art on computer-destined circuit boards, but far fewer in mobiles. Or are there?


Although not strictly mobile-related, this touch-tone telephone chip art was discovered on an Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) integrated circuit board. Cute, nevertheless, and retro is all the rage, right?


After digging a little deeper, I did manage to find a couple of pieces of chip art actually hidden within mobile phones. This one, above, was concealed inside a Nokia N80 mobile phone, and resembles a rat or mouse (of sorts). According to my (Finnish) wife the words translate as “Eat chicken”. It’s a safe bet that nobody except the person who put it there knows what that means.


This one, fondly known as “The Magical Mystery Pig”, was found on the RF component of another Nokia phone. Again, the significance of this is a complete mystery. The beauty of some of this chip art is not only in the wonderful detail – considering its size – but more fundamentally in why it was put there in the first place.

I wonder how much more mobile chip art is hiding out there?

Radios. Batteries. Solar. Implications

Things rarely stand still in the mobile world, but a number of fairly significant announcements have been made in the past few days alone, many of which have significant short- and long-term implications for mobile users in developing countries. Here’s the top three which caught my eye.

#1 Radio

The powerful combination of rural radio and mobile phones – text messaging in particular – continues to attract considerable attention in the ICT4D world, and rightly so. Radio still has the widest reach of any communications medium, and mobile phones present new opportunities to enrich the user experience. It comes as no surprise to see Nokia leading the way once again, yesterday announcing the launch of the new Nokia 5030 handset.

Nokia 5030 kit

According to Nokia’s official Press Release:

The Nokia 5030 is the company’s first phone with an internal FM radio antenna, which eliminates the need for a headset or external speakers. The one touch FM radio and channel selection keys on the side of the device ensure the product lives up to its XpressRadio name. Placed sideways on the table, the Nokia 5030 doubles as a portable FM radio and is ideal for emerging markets, where people rely on a radio as their main source of entertainment and news. The Nokia 5030 has up to a day of listening time and 10 hours of talk time, which comes to life with the powerful loudspeaker. The Nokia 5030 is expected to begin shipping in the second quarter of 2009 with an estimated retail price of less than 40 Euros [about $50]

[For further radio-related information check out White African’s recent post on radio in Liberia, Bill Siemering’s Developing Radio Partners, Farm Radio International and my recent PC World article – “Mobile Phones Join the Rural Radio Mix“]

#2 Batteries

Also yesterday, the BBC reported news of a “new manufacturing method for lithium-ion batteries could lead to smaller, lighter batteries that can be charged in just seconds”.

BBC headline

The implications for fast-charge batteries in parts of the developing world where regular, reliable mains electricity is a challenge are obvious, not to mention the financial savings to the user (and the potential environmental gains). What’s more, connect these to solar or wind chargers and a process which may have previously taken an hour or more might well be reduced to just minutes. Because the changes needed to the manufacturing process to make these ‘super batteries’ are minimal, there are hopes that they could be brought to market as soon as 2011.

#3 Solar

Solar panel - Credit: Peng Wang, Chinese Academy of Sciences And today, MIT’s Technology Review reported on a new kind of dye-sensitised solar cell – one that is more efficient, cheaper and durable than existing cells. According to Chinese Academy of Sciences professor Peng Wang, “at the moment, the use of toxic and volatile solvents in high-efficiency cells is a big hurdle for the large-scale application of dye-sensitized solar cells”. The use of a different type of electrolyte has allowed Wang and his team to produce a more robust solar cell which can prevent evaporation and leaking at high temperatures. And because the liquid can also be used with plastic, it excitingly opens up the possibility of flexible solar panels.

Three separate announcements, each with their own implications for the developing world. Maybe it won’t be long before we see mobiles powered by new kinds of super-batteries charged by more efficient, cheaper and accessible solar cells.

It doesn’t seem far off, not from where I’m standing, at least, and not if the announcements of the past couple of days are anything to go by.

Neighbourhood Watch FrontlineSMS-style

Not only established non-profit organisations can benefit from “long tail” mobile solutions. In this, the fourth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Georgia Popplewell – who manages a community-lead neighbourhood watch scheme in Trinidad and Tobago – talks about the innovative use they found for the software

“Blue Range is an upper middle-class suburb of 280 households located at the northern end of the Diego Martin valley in Trinidad and Tobago. Like many communities in the country, Blue Range has begun to feel the effects of the country’s rising crime rate (543 murders were recorded in 2008), mainly in the form of burglaries.

Security post

The community has a private security patrol and a number of streets are sealed off with barriers at night. Blue Range also maintains a Google Group mailing list which residents and the neighbourhood association use to share information.

Just after midnight on December 4th, 2008, a resident sent a message to the mailing list stating that around 7:45pm he’d seen two men behaving suspiciously in the neighbourhood. Around 8:15pm on the same night, two men broke into the home of another resident. The resident put up a fight and managed to drive the men away, but ended up quite badly injured as a result. That resident and others in the area reported that they had in fact heard dogs barking around that time. It seemed obvious that if the first resident had put his neighbours on the alert at the time he had seen the two men, the incident could have been avoided.

With that in mind, I started looking for ways that security-related information could be shared more quickly and easily among the area’s residents. In my work on the citizen media project Global Voices, I’d come across FrontlineSMS, and decided to try it.

After testing it for several days with a group of my neighbours, I presented FrontlineSMS at a community meeting on December 7th, 2008.  The service now has over 250 subscribers.

Message alert

Blue Range’s FrontlineSMS set-up, currently run from my home on a Macintosh computer, a Motorola PEBL phone and a Clickatell messaging account, is largely automated. Subscribers can add themselves to the service by texting in “addme [name]” (numbers are verified before they’re added to the messaging group). Subscribers can broadcast messages to the entire group of users by adding a specially designated prefix to their text, messages which are then distributed using the message “forwarding” functionality in FrontlineSMS. All security messages sent via the automatic broadcast are also archived on the neighbourhood mailing list using the email forwarding functionality in the software, where residents can discuss them and offer supplementary information.

The FrontlineSMS service has been highly effective in building a greater sense of security and community in Blue Range, and in helping residents feel like they are being kept in the loop with regard to incidents in the area. Recently, for instance, when a security chopper was hovering over the area for about 20 minutes, a message relayed via FrontlineSMS assured residents that the chopper was there not to look for perpetrators but to support a medical evacuation.

In a more recent incident in the area, a burglary on January 12th in which one resident was bound and gagged by the perpetrator – and his wife made to walk through the house and hand over their valuables – has nevertheless revealed gaps in the service and demonstrated that certain parts of the neighbourhood lack the critical mass of subscribers required for it to be really effective.

With each incident, however, more residents are beginning to realise the value of subscribing to the service”.

Georgia Popplewell
Managing Director
Global Voices

Our breathing earth.

Breathing Earth

Breathing Earth is described as a “real-time simulation which displays CO2 emissions from every country in the world, as well as their birth and death rates”. The data used comes from reputable sources, although the site admits that a simulation on this scale can never be 100% accurate. Worryingly, they note that the CO2 emission levels shown are much more likely to be too low than too high.Yikes.

This is a fascinating site, and one which throws up numbers on a scale large enough to scare the best of us. Since I started writing this brief blog post, for example, the world population has risen by over 2,000 and total CO2 emissions have exceeded an incredible 760,000 tons. The United States alone was responsible for approximately 175,000 of that.

If you ever need reminding of the relentless march of global population growth, and the increasing impact that our growing numbers are having on the planet, there can’t be many sites better than this.

Missing the point?

Missing the point?[Appropriate] technology. It’s not the fact that it runs on low-end devices, or the latest Android phone, or is platform independent, or seamlessly connects with the “cloud” or the rest of the solution ecosystem, or that it has the smartest user interface ever designed, or that it meets recognised data compatibility standards. It’s whether or not it’s usable by – and relevant to – people.

That’s what counts, and that’s the part we should be getting excited about. After all, technology alone is not the answer. People are the answer.

Chipping away at the SMS literacy barrier

With all the excitement surrounding Monday’s launch of FrontlineForms, we almost forgot the other improvements we’ve made to the FrontlineSMS software. As well as support for IntelliSMS – another Clickatell-style online aggregator – we finally got round to adding Unicode support which, to the non-technical, means you can now send and receive messages in foreign scripts, i.e. non-Latin or non-Roman character sets. Projects in India and the Middle East have been asking for this, and it’s exciting to see it finally delivered (thanks Alex!).

FrontlineSMS Arabic

Although there are still very real literacy issues for SMS-based social mobile projects, at least allowing messages to be sent and received in the local language – assuming handset support is available – removes at least one more barrier. We’re excited to see how much this ends up being used, and what further opportunities it opens up for FrontlineSMS users around the world.