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
http://fletcher.tufts.edu

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
www.kickstart.org

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)
www.redepapa.org

Mobile meets plough in Cambodia

In this, the tenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Dr. Robert Fitzgerald – Associate Dean of Research at the University of Canberra in Australia – explains their use of the software to provide agricultural data to farmers in Cambodia, and their plans to expand the service over the coming months

Background

“For the last three years I have been working with my colleague, John Spriggs, on agricultural development projects in Cambodia. John is an agricultural economist who has over the last few years been applying participatory action research methods to improving agricultural marketing systems in developing countries (Cambodia and Papua New Guinea). My background is in technology and education with an interest in the application of robust technologies to help users communicate and work together.

Originally, John invited me to join him on his project to explore ways we could use communications technologies to the improve the marketing system for maize and soy bean farmers in western Cambodia. From our early workshops in Battambang, Cambodia, we identified poor communications as one of the key constraints to improving the marketing system. At that time I had been developing an interest in mobile communications, particularly the application of SMS, and was following closely the work of the Pinoy Internet Farmers project.

Early workshop in 2006 with traders and farmers, Battambang, Cambodia (photo: Rob Fitzgerald)

Following an initial workshop we presented a proposal to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) for a year’s extension to John’s project to develop the Electronic Marketing Communication System (EMCS). During that project we used a propriety system, Infotxt (developed in the Philippines) to run an SMS server from the Price Division of the Ministry of Commerce (MOC) in Phnom Penh. A price officer collected price data each week and used this to update the server.

The trial was very successful and the information on demand system allowed a user to text specific keywords and that would return price information. We conducted a number of training sessions in 2007 and later that year the Cambodian People’s Party endorsed the EMCS as a significant agricultural innovation in Cambodia.

During 2007 we worked closely with Pieter Ypma from CAMIS and for a number of months they used our EMCS system to SMS-enable their web-based price database. In early 2008 our project concluded and we handed the server across to the MOC.

A new project begins

In April 2008 we started a new project which focused on production and marketing problems faced by poor smallholder farmers in northwestern Cambodia. While still a comparatively fertile area, over the last ten years crop yields have been declining and soils are being degraded by excessive cultivation and burning. Much of the crop development has been largely driven by market demand in Thailand, however local farmers are disadvantaged by lack of market information, and inadequate post-harvest technology and transport infrastructure.

The overarching aim of the project is to improve the functioning of the production–marketing system for maize and soybean in north-western Cambodia as a key to increasing cash income, sustainable growth and poverty reduction for smallholder farmers. We have established eight village clusters, four in the district of Samlaut (a protected area containing the last remnants of tropical rainforest in Cambodia) and four in the municipality of Pailin (a previously heavily forested area known for its gem mining).

Local farmers at recent field day in Pailin (Photo: Rob Fitzgerald)

Farmer workshops have been investigating key socio-economic issues related to adoption of the improved crop technologies and improving land use. Village level workshops have worked on gross margin and partial budgets to examine return on investments for various production technologies and discussed access to marketing information.

FrontlineSMS

Building on the previous project we wanted to extend our SMS work to both the production and marketing system. After a number of months of evaluation we selected FrontlineSMS as the platform for our SMS work (previously covered on kiwanja’s blog here).

In February 2009 we set up two FrontlineSMS servers. The first was with the newly formed Northwest Agricultural Marketing Association (NAMA) in Pailin which had particular focus on the provision of information (rated top priority by members) and the exchange and sharing of silo association price and market information. A second server was installed with the Maddox Jolie Pitt Foundation (MJP) in Battambang with particular emphasis on basic market information and health alerts. Check out the Pitt-Jolie press release here.

In June 2009 we further refined the systems and NAMA is focusing on using FrontlineSMS to broadcast messages to members, to provide maize, soy bean and cassava price information, and to distribute seed and fertiliser (input) costs.

NAMA FrontlineSMS server: Robert Fitzgerald with Moul Sam who runs the server (Photo: Rob Fitzgerald)

MJP has developed three main knowledge areas/teams for its FrontlineSMS server:

  • Health – Health alerts and health-related information, and health communications (e.g. clinic reminders for pregnant women)
  • Farmer – Price information, buyer contacts, weather information and farmer communications (e.g. meeting reminders)
  • MJP Head Office Field Communication System – A field communication system to provide field worker contact and updates, emergency/disaster protocols via SMS, meeting reminders, etc.

Future SMS applications

While our SMS servers are still in the early days of use we are exploring other SMS-based information systems such as GeoChat from InSTEDD and mhits– an innovative SMS-based micro-payment system developed in Australia by Harold Dimpel.

Volunteer and Intern opportunities

In recent conversations with both MJP and InSTEDD we have been exploring the possibility of establishing intern programs to encourage volunteers work with us. Some good work is already underway by volunteers. Oum Vatharith from Phnom Penh is already working on a Khmer translation of FrontlineSMS and I have talked to him recently about the development of FrontlineSMS user manual in Khmer.

We will be looking for volunteers in the form of software developers and IT savvy community/education development folk who are interested in working with these leading NGOs to help ensure that we realise the potential of technology to make a difference to peoples lives. If you are interested in helping out, please leave a comment!

Thank you.”

Rob Fitzgerald
Associate Dean of Research, Faculty of Education
University of Canberra
www.mathetic.info