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

TSF, FrontlineSMS and humanitarian assistance in Niger

In this – the third in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts – Grégory Rebattu, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF)’s Niger Representative, and Oisín Walton, Head of TSF Communications and International Relations, talk us through their thoughts on the software, and its potential for emergency relief in Niger.

“I work for Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), the leading NGO specialising in the deployment of telecommunications in emergencies, and head-up TSF’s base here in Niger. In emergencies, telecommunication networks are often seriously damaged or destroyed. Some humanitarian crises also strike in areas with no existing communication facilities. Today, TSF plays a key role in strengthening coordination and communication by deploying telecommunications centres within 48 hours of an emergency.  These centres offer broadband Internet access, voice communications, fax lines and all the IT equipment needed for a field office.

Telecoms Sans Frontieres

Our base in Niger is more involved in longer term projects particularly in strengthening food crisis prevention systems. Niger is ranked 174th out of 177 nations on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development list – making it one of the least developed countries on Earth. The living conditions in the Sahel desert are extremely harsh and recurrent drought leads to almost permanent food insecurity. Less than 12% of the territory is cultivable – so the widely reported current food crisis hits Niger particularly hard.

Telecommunication networks are also very much in their infancy, although GSM coverage is now on the rise and bringing infinite new opportunities for the humanitarian and development sectors. In particular, we believe that text messaging – used in conjunction with cutting-edge tools such as FrontlineSMS – are particularly powerful, enabling the collection and dissemination of data quickly and easily with very low running costs. Over the past few weeks we have been working closely with the FrontlineSMS team, putting the software through its paces and assessing its suitability in our work. We have been particularly excited by the new “FrontlineSMS Forms” data collection functionality which we helped test and which is being released next week.

Crucially from our perspective, FrontlineSMS is extremely user-friendly, allowing partner organisations on the ground to rapidly deploy a data collection and dissemination system from scratch. This simplicity is crucial for organizations which may lack technical skills, and users can be up and running in a matter of minutes with the minimum of mouse clicks. The intuitive nature of the software also means that little technical support is required once they’re up and running.

I have already presented the application to a group of NGOs and UN agencies who are very excited. These organizations – who work in a wide range of sectors including health, nutrition and agriculture – immediately saw the immense potential of FrontlineSMS and how it might enhance their capacity to save lives and develop local economy, not to mention their capacity to improve the security of their own staff.

On that note, our first FrontlineSMS initiative is about to launch, and will provide an SMS security alert forwarding service to Niger’s NGO community. This will allow aid workers to instantly warn the community about security issues in real time.

Gregory, TSF Niger

Concretely, we see other immediate applications for FrontlineSMS in Niger. These include the use of the new Forms feature for data collection for the National Health System which collects and monitors the number of cases per pathology in health structures. FrontlineSMS could also be used to collect market prices, and even to disseminate those prices to small farmers.

We are also planning to test its interoperability with satellite phones which will allow us and our partner organizations to extend its usage into areas not covered by mobile networks. We also plan to use it in our responses to sudden-onset emergencies where mobile networks are often disrupted.

Summing up, FrontlineSMS is a fabulous tool and one which presents huge opportunities to non-technical NGO users. Saying that, don’t be fooled by its simplicity – as well as standard incoming and outgoing group messaging, it has plenty of advanced and extremely powerful functionality. From our testing and evaluation, and our discussions with partner organizations, it looks like FrontlineSMS has infinite applications in the humanitarian world, and this is great news for those we are trying to help.

As we often say here, it’s now no longer a question of technology, it’s a question of imagination!”

Grégory Rebattu, Niger Representative
Oisín Walton, Head of Communications & International Relations
Télécoms Sans Frontières
www.tsfi.org