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Posts from — October 2009

An SMS “kickstart” for Kenyan farmers

In this, the fifteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Rita Kiloo – Customer Care Executive at KickStart in Kenya – describes how their use of the software enables them to extend and improve their outreach efforts among rural farmers in the country

“KickStart’s mission is to help millions of people out of poverty. We do this by promoting sustainable economic growth and employment creation in Kenya and other countries, and by developing and promoting technologies that can be used by dynamic entrepreneurs to establish and run profitable small scale enterprises.

In 1998 we developed a line of manually operated MoneyMaker Irrigation Pumps that allow farmers to easily pull water from a river, pond or shallow well (as deep as 25 feet), pressurize it through a hose pipe (even up a hill) and irrigate up to two acres of land. Our pumps are easy to transport and install and retail between $35 and $95. They are easy to operate and, because they are pressurized, they allow farmers to direct water where it is needed. It is a very efficient use of water, and unlike flood irrigation, does not lead to the build up of salts in the soil.

Photo courtesy KickStart, Kenya

With irrigation, farmers can grow crops year-round. They can grow higher value crops like fruits and vegetables, get higher yields (the Food and Agriculture Organization reports that irrigation increases crop yield by 100-400%) and most importantly, they can produce crops in the dry seasons when food supplies dwindle and the market prices are high. Because of the long dry seasons and growing population, there is potential for many thousands of farmers to start irrigating without flooding the market. There are local, urban and even export markets for the new crops.

A few months ago we decided to start using text messaging as part of our outreach efforts to farmers, and had heard good things about FrontlineSMS. Basically, we now receive lists of mobile numbers of prospective clients from our sales teams – these are clients who have visited our dealer shops countrywide, and who have shown an interest in our irrigation pumps. They usually leave their contact details with the sales people at the shop.

At the end of every month I receive a copy of the contact lists from at least 70 sales people, which may total about 5,000 contacts. I randomly pick around 500 to 1,000 mobile numbers and put these into an Excel spreadsheet. Once this is done, the numbers are uploaded into FrontlineSMS and we send out a uniform SMS to prospective buyers of the pumps. Here is a sample of the kinds of messages we send out:

Kumbuka kununua pampu ya kunyunyiza mimea ya MoneyMaker. Kwa maelezo zaidi, piga simu kwa 0725-xxxxxx

(“Remember to buy the MoneyMaker pump for irrigating your crops. For more details, kindly call 0725-xxxxxx”)

The texts are scheduled for every week of the month, and are categorized into territories, allowing us to keep track of the areas where the interest is coming from. There are a number of advantages in using FrontlineSMS, one of the main ones being that I am able to reach more farmers through SMS than I would be able to by calling them one-by-one. We are also able to keep in more regular contact with interested farmers, and remind them about the pumps. Not all of them buy pumps straight away”.

Rita Kiloo
Customer Care Executive
KickStart Kenya Program

October 27, 2009   41 Comments

Dilemmas of innovation and invisibility

Northern Zambia, August 1993. We set off from Chilubula – where we were helping build a school – for another village a couple of hours away. They didn’t have a school. They didn’t seem to have much, in fact. As our pick-up approached, children ran out to greet us, throwing themselves onto their knees. Many of them saw us as saviours, visitors from afar who had the power to build them schools, drill them wells and change their lives in unimaginable ways.

While some people enjoyed the attention, for me it was an uncomfortable experience. It may be hard to not be the “white man in Africa” when you’re white and in Africa, but that doesn’t mean you have to behave like one. Humility is lacking in so many walks of life, yet a lack of it seemed even more misguided in the environment in which we’d found ourselves.

Since then, on my many trips – they’ve ranged from as brief as a week to as long as a year – I always grapple with visibility, the feeling that whatever we do it should never be about us. How do we facilitate the change we want to see without being so totally central to it? I remember Jerry, a colleague at a primate sanctuary in Nigeria where I worked in 2002, towing me along to meetings with government officials because “white faces opened doors”. I always went along, but insisted he did all the talking. They were his plans, his ideas, and it would have been wrong for me to take any of the credit for them.

Jerry organised an incredible environment day in Calabar that year. He’s managed to do the same every year since. The doors thankfully stayed open. Job done, perhaps.


The dilemma of visibility has been with me from the very beginning – 1993 – and I still grapple with it today. I don’t have the answer, but I do know that putting end-users first at every opportunity is the right thing for me to do. Create tools that enable other people to head off in any direction they choose increases the distance between me and their solution. That’s what they want – independence, empowerment on their terms, credit for their actions – and doing it this way gives a little of the invisibility we seek, too.

Not having intimate knowledge of every single thing FrontlineSMS users are doing with the software may be a challenge when it comes to funding and reporting, but it has everything to do with trust, respect and genuine empowerment. It’s not until you try to do something like this that you realise how difficult it is to achieve. I don’t think enough people really know how to “let go”. Too much innovation and too much noise still centres around the technology and not in the approach. Maybe it’s time we saw a little “innovation in the way we innovate”.

Development is littered with contradictions, and my work is no exception. These things still trouble me, but at least I believe we’re on the right path – not just technically, but more importantly, spiritually.

October 24, 2009   33 Comments

CNN on anthropology and innovation


“As trained observers of how people in a society live, ethnographers can help companies figure out what people need and then work with designers to meet those needs with new (or more often tweaked) products and services. In a world in which ever more people are using technology products on a daily basis, such skills are increasingly in demand. For ethnographers, anthropologists, and other social scientists, the upshot can be intriguing work around the globe”

Read more about the role of field-based research and anthropology in the identification and design of mobile tools, products and services in this latest CNN article. There’s more in our PC World column, published last July. And an interesting new course in Digital Anthropology at University College London in the UK.

Interesting times. Get out in the field, or study anthropology. That seems to be the message.

October 22, 2009   22 Comments

Ushering in the Advisors #1: Erik, Jan

At one time or another, all projects need a little help and direction. FrontlineSMS is no exception, and we’re fortunate to have been able to draw on the skills, experience and support of many close friends and allies over the past couple of years or so. During the FrontlineSMS building process we’ve been totally focused on the users – unashamedly so – and only now are we beginning to catch up organisationally.

This week sees the formation of a Board of Advisors for FrontlineSMS. With a field- and user-based theme, we’re honoured to welcome Erik Hersman and Jan Chipchase as our first round of appointees.

ErikErik is the co-founder of Ushahidi (which means “testimony” in Swahili), a web application created to map the reported incidents of violence happening during the post-election crisis in Kenya. Raised in Sudan and Kenya, Erik brings unique energy and insight to the world of technology and innovation – bridging the gap between Africa and Silicon Valley. An avid blogger Erik writes two different technology blogs including AfriGadget and WhiteAfrican. One dedicated to low-tech African ingenuity, and the other to high-tech mobile and web changes happening throughout Africa.

The user-needs-driven focus of the Ushahidi/FrontlineSMS relationship has become a model in collaboration for us, and Erik’s experience, passion and focus mirrors our own multidisciplinary approach to identifying and solving problems. His experience and understanding of the African technology landscape will be invaluable as we move our efforts forward. Erik has been a great mentor over the years, and he remains a good friend.

JanJan specialises in understanding the intersection of people, culture and technology. For eight years he worked out of the Nokia Research Center, Tokyo where, as Principal Scientist he conducted user experience and exploratory design research, taking teams into the field across the four corners of the globe. He is currently based out of Nokia’s Los Angeles design studio, conducting research to guide and support corporate strategy. Jan’s thinking is featured on his blog at www.janchipchase.com.

Jan, who we’ve known for a while, has built a considerable following for his work with Nokia, and continues to be a leader in his field. His focus on people, culture and technology is a perfect fit for us in many ways, reinforcing our own commitment to understanding and responding to user needs as a major driver in the development of social mobile tools. Jan’s experience will be particularly valuable as we begin the process of understanding the challenges and impact of FrontlineSMS on the ground.

We’re incredibly excited to be able to draw on the considerable experience of our new Advisory Board members, each of whom will help steer and direct our technical, marketing and organisational development. With software downloads rapidly approaching the 4,000 mark, the imminent launch of a FrontlineSMS Developer Community, and the emergence of new spin-off organisations such as FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit, there’s without doubt plenty to be getting on with.

The Board of Advisors will all be profiled on the FrontlineSMS website once all appointments have been made. Two more will be unveiled next week. In the meantime…

… welcome Erik and Jan! \o/

October 19, 2009   34 Comments

Step inside the laptop bank

In the world of social innovation, many of the smartest ideas focus on “market inefficiencies” and, in particular, ways of reducing them. As increasing numbers of mobile operators implement airtime transfer systems and mobile money functionality on their networks – particularly in developing countries – opportunities also increase for locally-run microfinance institutions and their customers at the bottom of the pyramid.

In the spirit of social innovation, Ben Lyon recognised the opportunity early. The result? FrontlineSMS:Credit – a first in laptop banking – announced last week at Africa Gathering in London.

FrontlineSMS:Credit landscape

The concept is simple:

FrontlineSMS:Credit aims to make every formal financial service available to the entrepreneurial poor in 160 characters or less. By meshing the functionality of FrontlineSMS with local mobile payment systems, implementing institutions will be able to provide a full range of customizable services, from savings and credit to insurance and payroll

The FrontlineSMS:Credit system is in essence a convergence of SMS-aggregating software and mobile commerce systems, which together provide an efficient and accessible platform for microfinance institutions (MFIs) to deliver and track loans via Short Message Service (SMS). Since FrontlineSMS:Credit utilises the widely available GSM wireless telephone network, implementing MFIs need neither an Internet connection nor a permanent office to conduct business. Not only that, MFIs will be able to make use of alternative power sources such as solar panels, allowing them to operate ‘off the grid’. This could provide a comparative advantage for those working in rural and underserved areas.

FrontlineSMS:Credit Uses

Based on the successful FrontlineSMS:Medic model, FrontlineSMS:Credit is a new venture, and Ben is currently building his team. He has a range of vacancies for anyone interested in helping develop the concept. A number of large microfinance-based institutions, and major international development agencies, have already expressed strong interest in being part of his “democratising finance” movement. Further details of the project, and current vacancies, are available on the project website at http://credit.frontlinesms.com

Congratulations Ben!

(You can read an earlier article on CreditSMS (now FrontlineSMS:Credit) on  PC World here)

October 15, 2009   293 Comments

W+K & \o/

One of the things which inspires me most about FrontlineSMS is how it inspires and motivates other people. I’ve met students, developers, out-and-out techies, non-profits, academics, members of the media, graphics designers – even members of the public – all of whom seem to resonate with the history, objectives and DNA of what we’re trying to do. If showing people what’s possible is the only legacy we leave, I’m more than happy. But I sense it will be a little more than that.

Last Friday I visited the London offices of Wieden+Kennedy – the incredibly talented people behind the \o/ FrontlineSMS logo. I was expecting a sit-down meeting, a brief chat, a coffee and overview of where FrontlineSMS – and other kiwanja projects – were all heading. What I didn’t expect was this.

W+K Platform 1

Four young supercharged members of W+K’s Platform initiative had spent the previous two-and-a-half days turning a decent-sized meeting room into a living and breathing FrontlineSMS/mobile/Africa/kiwanja nerve centre. The walls were plastered with stickies and posters and images of ideas and clever concepts, all themed around “Where could we take FrontlineSMS?”.

W+K Platform 2

After two of the most stimulating hours imaginable, I left a little shaken – in a good way. Feeling the excitement and passion of four incredible young individuals – Will, Yuki and Teemu (pictured, below, and Neslihan who joined us remotely) – who had put so much of their hearts and minds into this, I was reminded what an incredible initiative FrontlineSMS has become, and how blessed we are to continue to attract so many passionate and talented people to the cause.

The Team!

The timing of last week’s session was also perfect. In three days time we start work on an exciting new project – in partnership with Accenture and the GSM Association – and promotion, branding and marketing was the missing piece. Enter Will, Yuki, Teemu and Neslihan (and Lucy and Sam, who run the Platform initiative). Adding W+K to our impressive line-up of partners not only strengthens our capacity yet further, but reinforces our belief in the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to solving some of the trickier challenges of the social mobile world.

Will, Yuki, Teemu, Neslihan, Lucy, Sam - welcome aboard! \o/

October 12, 2009   160 Comments

Keeping up the heat on climate change

As part of this years International Day of Climate Action on October 24th, 350.org – with support from Tactical Technology Collective – are planning a new and innovative text messaging campaign designed to mobilise citizens around the world

“Project MOBiLIZE” will use decentralised, country-specific FrontlineSMS servers to deliver targeted messaging blasts to 350.org supporters in over twenty countries. The project will also collect SMS reports after the October 24th main event and deliver them to world leaders via Twitter, web and projection at the UN Climate Talks due to take place in Copenhagen in December.

"Project MOBiLIZE"

This is how it works. To start things off, the 350.org central server sends out an SMS to each of the country nodes, taking into account timing, language and message. Cost is minimal – just 20 international messages, one per node. Once the message is received, the country nodes automatically blast it out to lists of in-country mobile numbers, sourced from 350.org and local partner organisations. Costs are approximately 5 cents per SMS. Cascading SMS this way reduces costs considerably, and allows better local control.

Country nodes can also collect new mobile numbers through the FrontlineSMS servers, using SMS keywords and by publicising country-specific phone numbers on the web and at events.

This is the first time FrontlineSMS has been used to ‘cascade’ messages to and from the local level through a chain of servers. It could also be a first for any grassroots global SMS campaign, and if it works could present an exciting new model for others to follow. Not only is the system cheaper to run but it presents the potential for considerably wider reach, and thanks to some neat work by Bobby - the brains behind it - the pre-configured software can be quickly adopted in any country.

If you are interested in taking part in this ground-breaking campaign, either as an in-country node or in any other capacity, post a comment here, check out Bobby’s post on the FrontlineSMS Community pages


The 350.org website has a post about the project
Tactical Tech also have a post here


New numbers are being added all the time. Here are the various local access points as at 12th October:

USA – 30644
Australia – 0411694094
Maldives – 9900350
Macedonia – 077594209
Philippines – 09088770350
Hong Kong – 85262757489
Panama – Coming Soon!
New Zealand – 0226070672
Israel Coming – Soon!
Malaysia – 0163050973
Cambodia – 081666120
Sweden – 0733185314
Germany – Coming Soon!
India – Coming Soon!
Lebanon – Coming Soon!

October 6, 2009   30 Comments