SMS tackles farmer literacy in Niger

In this, the sixteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Joshua Haynes – a Masters student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University – describes their application of the software to help improve the lives of farmers in Niger, West Africa

Projet Alphabétisation de Base par Cellulaire (ABC), conceived of and spearheaded by FrontlineSMS’s newest Advisory Board member Jenny Aker, uses mobile phones as tools to aid in adult literacy acquisition in rural Niger. This project is funded by UC Davis, Oxford University, Tufts University and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and housed at and managed by CRS/Niger.

Adult literacy in rural areas faces an inherent problem. In Niger, for example, there are no novels, newspapers or journals in native languages like Hausa or Zarma. The 20% of Nigériens who are literate are literate in French. The vast majority of rural villagers have struggled to maintain their livelihoods since time immemorial without ever knowing how to read a single word. What’s the point of literacy if there is no need for written materials?

Mamadou Issoufou, like 80% of people who live in rural areas, has access to a couple of different weekly markets where he can buy and sell his millet. One market, Dogon Kirya, is 11 kilometers away and the other, Doubélma, is 15 kilometers away. As Dogon Kirya is closer, he usually travels there, but he knows that sometimes he can get a better price when he goes to Doubélma. If a fellow villager who traveled to Doubélma the previous week indicates that prices were better there than in Dogon Kirya, then Mamadou might decide to go the extra four kilometers, but he’s not sure he’ll get the same prices this week, too. He leaves it up to chance.

On Wednesdays, the Service d’Information sur les Marchés Agricoles (SIMA) sends radio broadcasts on the prices of the most important staples like millet and sorghum for the largest markets in the country. Unfortunately, Mamadou, like most rural farmers, doesn’t have access to the broadcast, and if he did, his two main markets aren’t large enough to be covered by SIMA. Even if they were large enough, Dogon Kirya’s market is held on Tuesdays, so any information from the radio would be six days old.

Farmer, Niger. Photo courtesy Joshua Haynes

If Mamadou had access to some sort of real-time, demand-driven information, he could make better choices on where to buy and sell his goods. The mobile phone is a perfect device for transmitting information, but even though Mamadou may have access to a phone, he can’t read. The point of literacy in rural areas is increase access to information, and this is where FrontlineSMS plays an important role.

This past summer, between my first and second year as a graduate student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, I was fortunate to work with Jenny, the amazing staff at CRS and SIMA, including Djibou Alzouma, Aïchatou Bety, Sadou Djibrilla, Scott Isbrandt and Ousseïni Sountalma, to develop a system called IMAC – Information sur les Marchés Agricoles par Cellulaire. IMAC – pronounce ‘ee-mak’ – allows users to query for farmgate and market prices of agriculture products in a number of markets in four languages. It is built to work as one of the Projet ABC components, but can be used in areas with higher literacy levels.

Mobile training, Niger. Photo courtesy Joshua Haynes

In addition to the querying functionality, we added the ability for SIMA-trained CRS agents to update the crop prices by sending IMAC a specially formatted SMS. The prices are quickly checked for errors in Niamey, the capital, and then are live for all to use. Before, it could take up to three weeks for market prices to get recorded, go through a number of different administrative stages and finally end up in the database in the capital, but now it takes a matter of seconds before the data can be accessed.

Although the data is stored and updated in the database, FrontlineSMS is the primary access point which captures the message, sends it to the database for processing, waits eagerly for the response, and speedily sends the response to the waiting villager. By exploiting FrontlineSMS’ HTMLRequest functionality, we were able to access a backend system and turn FrontlineSMS into a demand-driven automatic information dissemination tool.

I was fortunate to return to Niger in October (2009) to not only see how well the system was still working – a big relief for developers – but to be surprised by the number of new markets and products that had been added to the system. Thanks to FrontlineSMS, CRS and SIMA, these additional markets will allow even more villagers, once at least semi-literate, to obtain information that will better help them make more informed decisions about their economic resources.

Joshua Haynes
Candidate, Masters of International Business, 2010
The Fletcher School
Tufts University

FrontlineSMS welcome video

We’ve been planning for some time to create a cool (possibly animated) introductory film for people interested in the FrontlineSMS basics, but haven’t managed to get round to it yet. So, as a stop-gap, yesterday I put together this quick eight minute welcome video, which covers most of the more frequently asked questions.

This video, and others, can be found on the FrontlineSMS Community. The “Quick Start Guide” mentioned towards the end can be downloaded from here (PDF, 1Mb).


Mount Elgon, Uganda (1998)I’m something of a walker. During my time at Stanford University my battered old trainers got me to and from most places, as they did in San Francisco and as they continue to do today in London, Cambridge and anywhere else life takes me. Walking – accompanied by my trusty iPod – is the only time I really ever get these days to think and contemplate. Classic downtime, I guess.

So it should come as no surprise to hear that three years ago I was planning the mother of all walks – across the African continent. It was a bold (and perhaps crazy) idea, and a ‘Plan B’ at that. ‘Plan A’ was to get a Fellowship at Stanford University and, as much to my surprise as anyone else’s, it came off. Stanford was the start of a real acceleration in kiwanja’s work, and since arriving there one sunny September back in 2006, things haven’t really stopped for me.

But there’s still the little matter of that walk…

Like many people, I’ve long been fascinated in exploration, and the bygone days of early African exploration in particular. John Hanning Speke, Henry Morton Stanley, Mungo Park and, of course, David Livingstone, all embarked on some incredible journeys. For someone with a fascination for exploration and adventure, a love of walking, a strong personal attachment to the African continent and a need to do a lot of thinking, following in the footsteps of someone like David Livingstone probably doesn’t sound too crazy after all.

I hadn’t got too far in my planning before the Stanford offer came through, but I had done enough to realise that the walk was likely to take a very long time and be pretty treacherous. Looking at a map of Livingstone’s mammoth 1851 to 1856 walk from the west to east coast of Africa, following it today would take you through more than the odd trouble spot.

In my very rough mockup (pictured), the journey would start off in Luanda (Angola) and take you east through the DRC, then south into Zambia, down into Zimbabwe (just – that would be where Livingstone “discovered” Victoria Falls), onwards through Malawi into southern Tanzania, and then on through Mozambique to Quelimane, our final destination – and time for a very long, cold beer and a good bath, no doubt. (Quelimane is a little further north than Livingstone’s finishing point, but it’s close enough).

I’m not sure how many miles this walk would total, but it’s looking like somewhere in the region of 4,000 to 5,000. At a walking speed of, say, four miles per hour for ten hours per day, you’re talking about 1,000 days (or three years). Livingstone took five but he – or rather his porters – had to walk around a lot of lakes and hack through a lot of forest. There are likely to be a few more roads around today, and sadly a lot less forest.

I still harbour dreams to do a walk – maybe combined with a kiwanja Foundation fundraiser –  but maybe not this one. For me there’s something very magical about walking, and walking in Africa in particular. After all, feet are the mode of transport we used about two million years ago when the first humans emerged from the continent to colonise Asia. On many of my Africa trips, starting with Zambia in 1993 (where I stayed in Livingstone for a couple of days, funnily enough) I’ve always taken every opportunity to head off on foot, to take in the sights, sounds and smells. You see so much more when you walk, not to mention meet many more people. Many of my Mobile Gallery photos have been taken that way.

My first ever website – dating around 2001 – was called Igisi Hill, one of two small hills in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda where I spent three months working on a conservation project in 1998. For a couple of weeks I’d take a daily walk up that hill to sit and experience the wonderful surroundings. A shimmering Lake Albert in the distance remains a highlight. Igisi Hill is the kind of place I’d like to have my ashes scattered, funnily enough.

Once I’ve taken – and projects like FrontlineSMS – as far as I feel I can, I imagine the day coming when I’ll hand them over and fulfil this dream. I’ve never quite understood my fascination for Africa, but it’s had a strong grip on me for over sixteen years now. Maybe the best way to find out is to take a journey through it.