In this, the tenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Dr. Robert Fitzgerald – Associate Dean of Research at the University of Canberra in Australia – explains their use of the software to provide agricultural data to farmers in Cambodia, and their plans to expand the service over the coming months
“For the last three years I have been working with my colleague, John Spriggs, on agricultural development projects in Cambodia. John is an agricultural economist who has over the last few years been applying participatory action research methods to improving agricultural marketing systems in developing countries (Cambodia and Papua New Guinea). My background is in technology and education with an interest in the application of robust technologies to help users communicate and work together.
Originally, John invited me to join him on his project to explore ways we could use communications technologies to the improve the marketing system for maize and soy bean farmers in western Cambodia. From our early workshops in Battambang, Cambodia, we identified poor communications as one of the key constraints to improving the marketing system. At that time I had been developing an interest in mobile communications, particularly the application of SMS, and was following closely the work of the Pinoy Internet Farmers project.
Following an initial workshop we presented a proposal to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) for a year’s extension to John’s project to develop the Electronic Marketing Communication System (EMCS). During that project we used a propriety system, Infotxt (developed in the Philippines) to run an SMS server from the Price Division of the Ministry of Commerce (MOC) in Phnom Penh. A price officer collected price data each week and used this to update the server.
The trial was very successful and the information on demand system allowed a user to text specific keywords and that would return price information. We conducted a number of training sessions in 2007 and later that year the Cambodian People’s Party endorsed the EMCS as a significant agricultural innovation in Cambodia.
During 2007 we worked closely with Pieter Ypma from CAMIS and for a number of months they used our EMCS system to SMS-enable their web-based price database. In early 2008 our project concluded and we handed the server across to the MOC.
A new project begins
In April 2008 we started a new project which focused on production and marketing problems faced by poor smallholder farmers in northwestern Cambodia. While still a comparatively fertile area, over the last ten years crop yields have been declining and soils are being degraded by excessive cultivation and burning. Much of the crop development has been largely driven by market demand in Thailand, however local farmers are disadvantaged by lack of market information, and inadequate post-harvest technology and transport infrastructure.
The overarching aim of the project is to improve the functioning of the production–marketing system for maize and soybean in north-western Cambodia as a key to increasing cash income, sustainable growth and poverty reduction for smallholder farmers. We have established eight village clusters, four in the district of Samlaut (a protected area containing the last remnants of tropical rainforest in Cambodia) and four in the municipality of Pailin (a previously heavily forested area known for its gem mining).
Farmer workshops have been investigating key socio-economic issues related to adoption of the improved crop technologies and improving land use. Village level workshops have worked on gross margin and partial budgets to examine return on investments for various production technologies and discussed access to marketing information.
Building on the previous project we wanted to extend our SMS work to both the production and marketing system. After a number of months of evaluation we selected FrontlineSMS as the platform for our SMS work (previously covered on kiwanja’s blog here).
In February 2009 we set up two FrontlineSMS servers. The first was with the newly formed Northwest Agricultural Marketing Association (NAMA) in Pailin which had particular focus on the provision of information (rated top priority by members) and the exchange and sharing of silo association price and market information. A second server was installed with the Maddox Jolie Pitt Foundation (MJP) in Battambang with particular emphasis on basic market information and health alerts. Check out the Pitt-Jolie press release here.
In June 2009 we further refined the systems and NAMA is focusing on using FrontlineSMS to broadcast messages to members, to provide maize, soy bean and cassava price information, and to distribute seed and fertiliser (input) costs.
MJP has developed three main knowledge areas/teams for its FrontlineSMS server:
- Health – Health alerts and health-related information, and health communications (e.g. clinic reminders for pregnant women)
- Farmer – Price information, buyer contacts, weather information and farmer communications (e.g. meeting reminders)
- MJP Head Office Field Communication System – A field communication system to provide field worker contact and updates, emergency/disaster protocols via SMS, meeting reminders, etc.
Future SMS applications
While our SMS servers are still in the early days of use we are exploring other SMS-based information systems such as GeoChat from InSTEDD and mhits– an innovative SMS-based micro-payment system developed in Australia by Harold Dimpel.
Volunteer and Intern opportunities
In recent conversations with both MJP and InSTEDD we have been exploring the possibility of establishing intern programs to encourage volunteers work with us. Some good work is already underway by volunteers. Oum Vatharith from Phnom Penh is already working on a Khmer translation of FrontlineSMS and I have talked to him recently about the development of FrontlineSMS user manual in Khmer.
We will be looking for volunteers in the form of software developers and IT savvy community/education development folk who are interested in working with these leading NGOs to help ensure that we realise the potential of technology to make a difference to peoples lives. If you are interested in helping out, please leave a comment!
Associate Dean of Research, Faculty of Education
University of Canberra