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.

Sadly this video is no longer available on the FrontlineSMS website

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.

Time to eat our own dog food?

Is the future of social mobile an empowered few, or an empowered many? Mobile tools in the hands of the masses presents great opportunity for NGO-led social change, but is that the future we’re creating?

In The White Man’s Burden – Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, William Easterly’s frustration at large-scale, top-down, bureaucracy-ridden development projects runs to an impressive 384 pages. While Easterly dedicates most of his book to markets, economics and the mechanics of international development itself, he talks little of information and communication technology (ICT). The index carries no reference to ‘computers’, ‘ICT’ or even plain old ‘technology’.

But there is an entry for ‘cell phones’.

"Small is Beautiful"E. F. Schumacher, a fellow economist and the man widely recognized as the father of the appropriate technology movement, spent a little more time in his books studying technology issues. His seminal 1973 book – Small is Beautiful – The Study of Economics as if People Mattered” – reacted to the imposition of alien development concepts on Third World countries, and he warned early of the dangers and difficulties of advocating the same technological practices in entirely different societies and environments. Although his earlier work focused more on agri-technology and large-scale infrastructure projects (dam building was a favorite ‘intervention’ at the time), his theories could easily have been applied to ICTs – as they were in later years.

Things have come a long way since 1973. For a start, many of us now have mobile phones, the most rapidly adopted technology in history. In what amounts to little more than the blink of an eye, mobiles have given us a glimpse of their potential to help us solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. With evidence mounting, I have one question: If mobiles truly are as revolutionary and empowering as they appear to be – particularly in the lives of some of the poorest members of society – then do we have a moral duty, in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community at least, to see that they fulfill that potential?

You see, I’m a little worried. If we draw parallels between the concerns of Easterly and Schumacher and apply them to the application of mobile phones as a tool for social and economic development, there’s a danger that the development community may end up repeating the same mistakes of the past. We have a golden opportunity here that we can’t afford to miss.

But miss it we may. Since 2003 I’ve been working exclusively in the mobile space, and I’ve come to my own conclusions about where we need to be focusing more of our attention if we’re to take advantage of the opportunity ahead of us. Don’t get me wrong – we do need to be looking at the bigger picture – but there’s not room at the top for all of us. I, for one, am more than happy to be working at the bottom. Not only do I find grassroots NGOs particularly lean and efficient (often with the scarcest of funding and resources), but they also tend to get less bogged down with procedure, politics and egos, and are often able to react far more quickly to changing environments than their larger counterparts. Being local, they also tend to have much greater context for their environments, and in activism terms they’re more likely to be able to operate under the radar of dictatorial regimes, meaning they can often engage a local and national populace in ways where larger organizations might struggle.

So, waving my grassroots NGO flag, I see a central problem of focus in the mobile applications space. Let me explain. If we take the “Long Tail ” concept first talked about by Chris Anderson and apply it to the mobile space, we get something like this. I call it “Social Mobile’s Long Tail”.

Social Mobile Long Tail,

What it demonstrates is that our tendency to aim for sexy, large-scale, top-down, capital- and time-intensive mobile solutions simply results in the creation of tools which only the larger, more resource-rich NGOs are able to adopt and afford. Having worked with grassroots NGOs for over 15 years, I strongly believe that we need to seriously refocus some of our attention there to avoid developing our own NGO “digital divide”. To do this we need to think about low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, affordable, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate. This is something I regularly write about, and it’s a challenge I’m more than happy to throw down to the developer community.

Another key problem that we have emerges as a symptom of the first. Because larger international development agencies, by their very nature, tend to pre-occupy themselves with the bigger issues, they often inadvertently neglect the simple, easier-to-fix problems (the “low hanging fruit” as some people like to call it). The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) are good examples of the kinds of targets which are far easier to miss than hit.

In mobile terms, using the technology to enhance basic communications is a classic “low hanging fruit”. After all, that’s what mobile phones do, and communication is fundamental to all NGO activities, particularly those working in the kinds of infrastructure-challenged environments often found in the developing world. Despite this, there are few tools available that take advantage of one of the most prolific mobile communication channels available to grassroots NGOs – the text message (or SMS).

Much of my own work with FrontlineSMS has sought to solve this fundamental problem, and in places such as Malawi – where Josh Nesbit, FrontlineSMS, a laptop and one hundred recycled mobile phones has helped revolutionise healthcare delivery to 250,000 rural Malawians – the benefits are loud and clear. In other countries, where activities of international aid organizations may be challenged or restricted by oppressive, dictatorial regimes, grassroots NGOs often manage to maintain operations and often provide the only voice for the people. In Zimbabwe, have been using FrontlineSMS extensively to engage a population not only starved of jobs, a meaningful currency and a functioning democracy, but also news and information. In Afghanistan, an international NGO is using FrontlineSMS to provide security alerts to their staff and fieldworkers. The software is seen as a crucial tool in helping keep people safe in one of the world’s most volatile environments. With a little will, what can be done in Zimbabwe and Afghanistan can be done anywhere where similar oppression exists.

Destined for the rubbish

In cases such as these – and there are many more – we need to stop simply talking about “what works” and start to get “what works” into the hands of the NGOs that need it the most. That’s a challenge that I’m happy to throw down to the ICT4D community. There’s only a certain amount of talking and critiquing we can, and should, do.

There are, of course, many issues and challenges – some technical, some cultural, others economic and geographical. The good news is that few are insurmountable, and we can remove many of them by simply empowering the very people we’re seeking to help. The emergence of home grown developer communities in an increasing number of African countries, for example, presents the greatest opportunity yet to unlock the social change potential of mobile technology. Small-scale, realistic, achievable, replicable, bottom-up development such as that championed by the likes of Easterly and Schumacher may hardly be revolutionary, but what would be is our acknowledgement of the mistakes of the past, and a co-ordinated effort to help us avoid making them all over again.

I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? If the next thirty years aren’t to read like the last then we need to re-think our approach, and re-think it now.

The microscopic world of mobile chip art

I’d heard about “chip art” before, but not really paid much attention to it. Then, over Christmas I saw a programme on Finnish TV which sparked my interest. I wondered – was there any ‘mobile’ chip art out there?

What is chip art?

For the uninitiated, “chip art” is created when silicon chip designers use redundant space on circuit boards to add a piece of personal artwork. It’s graffiti, but on a microscopic scale, and one which often goes completely undetected. Although chip art originally served a purpose – to help ‘catch out’ board cloners – since 1984 when copyright law changed there has been little reason to incorporate it. Except for fun, of course.

Mobile chip art?

There are hundreds of examples of chip art on computer-destined circuit boards, but far fewer in mobiles. Or are there?


Although not strictly mobile-related, this touch-tone telephone chip art was discovered on an Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) integrated circuit board. Cute, nevertheless, and retro is all the rage, right?


After digging a little deeper, I did manage to find a couple of pieces of chip art actually hidden within mobile phones. This one, above, was concealed inside a Nokia N80 mobile phone, and resembles a rat or mouse (of sorts). According to my (Finnish) wife the words translate as “Eat chicken”. It’s a safe bet that nobody except the person who put it there knows what that means.


This one, fondly known as “The Magical Mystery Pig”, was found on the RF component of another Nokia phone. Again, the significance of this is a complete mystery. The beauty of some of this chip art is not only in the wonderful detail – considering its size – but more fundamentally in why it was put there in the first place.

I wonder how much more mobile chip art is hiding out there?