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.