From conception to replication

Tonight, a hundred and fifty farmers and their families who I have never met will be going to bed better off. Not only is this significant for the farmers, it’s also significant for me. Because without FrontlineSMS, which is being used to provide coffee prices to these smallholder farmers, this would not be happening.

There’s a tendency to think that, as a free entry-level texting solution, FrontlineSMS is only relevant for smaller, grassroots non-profits who are most likely to lack the funds or in-house expertise to develop their own solutions. Over the past couple of years I’ve begun to see otherwise. As a case in point, this coffee project is being run by the UN. Not the suited, New York-based UN you see on TV, but a field-based team of UN staff and volunteers who simply wanted to try something. All they needed was a simple, low-cost tool which allowed them to rapidly prototype their idea.

Today, using FrontlineSMS, their pilot project is distributing prices from five large buyers to about 150 farmers, village leaders and farmers groups by SMS in a classic “market transparency” intervention. And it’s working. Prices are going up for farmers, and the buyers are getting access to more quantity and better quality. Prices are collected via phone once a week and within ten minutes are entered into FrontlineSMS and sent out. The project has been successfully running for several months.

What’s notable is the benefit this project brings to the coffee dealers, the middlemen. Usually tarnished as unscrupulous and exploitative, they also have families and also need to make a living. Rather than cutting them out altogether they have been brought on board, and their reward is better quality coffee and access to larger quantities of beans.

Of course, there are countless “market price” examples out there, but what makes this significant, for me at least, is that they used a tool that any organisation working on economic empowerment or market issues could use. Unlike the Kerala fishing example, where mobile phones helped fishermen in southern India increase their profits in a similar way, this latest UN project is using freely available, NGO-specific, easy to implement named software. Interested NGOs simply have to Google “FrontlineSMS” and – if they choose – learn about it, download it and use it themselves. Barriers need to come down, and they are.

But issues of cost, replicability and knowing what’s possible remain three of the biggest hurdles to mobile adoption among the grassroots conservation and development communities, something I regularly blog about. As yet, this UN project is undocumented (which is why I can’t be more specific), so the knowledge is largely confined locally to where they work. Hopefully this will change. For the hundred and fifty coffee farmers involved in this project the concept has been well and truly proven, but for countless thousands of others, it hasn’t. Our challenge is to make it so.