Poverty: The elephant in the room

A recent tweet by good friend Juliana Rotich on street/graffiti artist Banksy reminded me of another image he put together a couple of years ago. On display in Los Angeles for a limited time as part of an exhibition on global poverty and injustice, this was an incredible piece of “live art” which made it stand out from many of the other ‘works of art’ he has become famous for.

Elephant, by Banksy

Banksy created the image to drive home how widely world poverty is ignored, and I used it during my first talk at Stanford University in late 2006 to describe my first visit to the African continent in 1993. It was during this trip – to help build a school in northern Zambia – that I first noticed the elephant.

When was the first time you saw it?

The Million Dollar Homepage

Some of the best ideas are so incredibly simple that, after-the-event, we’re all left wondering why we never came up with them. When I first heard of The Million Dollar Homepage back in October 2005, that’s precisely how I felt (like millions of others, no doubt).

Alex Tew was a student trying to figure out how to pay his way through university. Short of money and short of socks, he scrawled “How can I become a millionaire?” on a notepad and, twenty minutes later, The Million Dollar Homepage was born. The concept was simple – create a website and charge people a dollar-a-pixel to place an image on a grid a thousand pixels wide by a thousand high. ‘Selling’ all million pixels – if he could pull it off – would net him a cool one million dollars.

Launched towards the end of August 2005 the idea was so novel, quirky and brilliant, the least I felt I could do was part with a little of my own hard-earned cash and buy up a few in a show of support. At that time the site was far from full, and it was still unclear whether or not all the space was going to sell. Today, the completed image is something of an internet icon.

The Million Dollar Homepage

Around the same time Alex was raking in the dollars, I was putting together the final touches of a little project of my own. Somewhere in those million pixels you’ll find a couple of hundred dedicated to FrontlineSMS (no prizes, but see if you can spot them). Like Alex, I had no idea back then whether my idea was going to get any serious traction.

Looking back, neither of us needed worry.

Searching where Google can’t

“We read a lot about the delivery, and popularity, of SMS services such as market prices, health advice and job alerts in developing countries, information there is clearly a need for. Only last week Grameen’s AppLab initiative, in conjunction with Google and MTN, launched a suite of SMS services in Uganda. These are the services you’ll get to hear most about when you search the Web, trawl the blogosphere and attend various conferences on the subject. It all seems pretty sewn up on the content side – I mean, what else could people earning a few dollars a day (at most) possibly want?”.

Question Box. Photo courtesy Rose Shuman

kiwanja’s latest PC World article takes a look at an exciting and innovative project which started out in India but is now spreading to Africa – Question Box – which takes the internet to places where Google is yet to reach.

On a mission to aid farmers in Latin America

This is the eleventh in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Jorge Alonso – a veterinarian turned ICT4D practitioner – discusses his thoughts on the application of the software in agriculture in Latin America

Jorge Alonso“I am a veterinarian by qualification but, as often happens in life, ended up working with information and communication technologies… applied to agriculture. And I have no regrets. For some time I have been interested in the application of technology in agriculture, and these days I am particularly excited by the potential of mobile technologies in helping small producers improve the marketing of their products.

Over the past ten years I have managed a regional potato network (in Spanish). As its content manager my duties included searching for useful information to distribute among subscribers, and it was here that I first came across FrontlineSMS. My first, initial thought was how it could be used to spread potato prices among my group.

Since last year I have been thinking more about how FrontlineSMS could help small-holder farmers in San Juan, my province here in Argentina. I participated in two e-forums organized by FAO on Mobile Telephony in Rural Areas (which were held in both Spanish and English) and I paid particular interest to the experiences of participants using text messaging in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was a hugely beneficial exercise, and I think I found what I was looking for.

Diagram: Jorge Alonso

Based on the findings of my research I designed a process through which small producers could exchange information by SMS with organisations, with the end result being improvement in the marketing of their produce. What do organisations need to do this? A computer, a cell phone (or modem) and a copy of FrontlineSMS. Most organizations have a computer and cell phone. According to recent statistics, in Argentina there are 102.2 mobiles phones per 100 habitants. What’s more, 91% of mobile users in the lower income bracket have used SMS services. Using readily available and familiar technologies, my idea could be adopted by many institutions including associations, co-operatives, NGOs, independent and community radio stations, as well as rural and indigenous organisations.

I recently wrote a comprehensive article in Spanish which talks about mobile telephony, the global food crisis, what makes mobile phone technology so special, experiences in Africa, Asia and America, and finally my proposal in more detail. Please check it out. Comments and suggestions are welcome. Thank you”.

Jorge Luis Alonso G.
Content Manager
Red Electrónica de la Papa (Redepapa)