Agriculture

FrontlineSMS transforms Community Radio in Malawi

FrontlineSMS transforms Community Radio in Malawi

Nkhotakota Community Radio Station, along Lake Malawi, is a Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) recognized broadcaster and has been in operation for eleven years. More than 500,000 people live within our coverage area- transmissions reach Nkhotakota and Ntchisi districts and parts of Nkhatabay, Salima, Dowa, Mzimbaand Kasungu.

Building Sustainability: Lessons from Swazi Cotton

Building Sustainability: Lessons from Swazi Cotton

It’s a simple idea: provide smallholder farmers with information via SMS to improve farming practices and thus increase their yields. In fact it’s a concept that has been replicated by NGOs and MNOs across the developing world, with varying degrees of success. However, the real challenge in launching such a service lies in building a business model that is both commercially viable to the provider whilst remaining accessible to the poorest populations.

Rapid Prototyping and Tech Stewards: reflections on recent field work

Rapid Prototyping and Tech Stewards: reflections on recent field work

At the heart of our project is the community of practice concept, which refers to a group of like minded people connected through a process of social learning. A CoP does not necessarily conform to organizational boundaries but rather to interests and interactions, and during our meetings we discovered some important relationships between organic farming movements in Sri Lanka and other organizations, including the Department of  Export Agriculture.

FrontlineSMS Survey Results: Can we build accessible software? Yes we can, say our users!

FrontlineSMS Survey Results: Can we build accessible software? Yes we can, say our users!

Here at FrontlineSMS, we love data. Like, a lot. If data had its own Facebook page, we’d ‘like’ it and if we took a picture with data out one night, we’d probably make it our profile picture. Data empowers, and we’re all about empowerment o/. In fact, to empower people is the why for the what we do. One thing we’re always wanting to know, of course, is how we are doing. Well we SMSed our friend data to find out – Welcome to the 2013 FrontlineSMS survey results post!

VNI Service Award Finalist Jimmie Ssena uses FrontlineSMS to Empower Rural Farmers in Uganda

VNI Service Award Finalist Jimmie Ssena uses FrontlineSMS to Empower Rural Farmers in Uganda

Congratulations to Jimmie Ssena for being recognized as a finalist of the VNI Service Awards for his work with rural farmers using FrontlineSMS! Since its founding in 1997, the Nakaseke Telecentre has served as a knowledge portal for poor rural farmers in their district, working to use ICTs “for rural development, reduction of poverty and... a better livelihood of the rural poor.”

MfarmerSMS service links farmers to better markets in Nakaseke- Uganda

MfarmerSMS service links farmers to better markets in Nakaseke- Uganda

The MFarmer SMS service, a project of the Nakaseke Community Telecentre in Uganda, helps farmers in rural areas to connect with better markets. It encourages two-way feedback with farmers, buyers and agro-processors, and other service providers. The project is designed to help farmers access agricultural market price information and weather information through their mobile phones.

Low tech adaptations for a community communications system

For the past month, I’ve been in Sudan working to set up the information flows and tech that will support SUDIA’s Community Communications System. From the tech and information management perspective, SUDIA’s System is interesting because it adapts to a low tech environment by integrating SMS and radio, and processing information largely offline. The System collects and disseminates information useful to communities that live along the migratory routes in Blue Nile State. It focuses on information that communities themselves can use to make their livelihoods more sustainable and more peaceful. In other words, the System is not aimed at organizations (Government or non-Government) that can use information to provide services or design interventions. Rather, it is aimed at communities helping themselves, and provides information that is useful to community leaders in organizing local community responses to livelihood challenges.

New radio documentary shows how FrontlineSMS connects farmers in Kenya

em>Clare Salisbury has recently completed her MA in multimedia broadcast journalism at the University College Falmouth, Cornwall, UK, and this summer has been making a radio documentary on the impact which technology is having on administering aid in Africa. Clare is particularly interested in the ways that mobile and internet technology are influencing small scale farmers, food producers and NGOs. She recently met up with some FrontlineSMS users in Kenya, and in this guest post she shares some of her experiences.

“In the summer of 2011, I travelled to Kenya to make a multimedia documentary about the impact of mobile phone technology on farmers and NGOs that support them. Although I was prepared to see mobiles everywhere, driving from the airport into the city, I couldn’t believe the enormous billboards advertising mobile operators which lined the motorway. The next morning, I sat in a shopping mall in Nairobi and watched as people literally battled for space inside the nearest mobile phone store. People were even queuing to get in the door.

This is, of course, just another day in the capital. During my week in Kenya I would see that the real changes are happening in the hands of people based in rural areas. For these people, the possibilities opened up by access to a mobile handset are life changing.

Whilst in Nairobi I met John Cheburet who founded a radio programme in 2008 to complement the work of The Organic Farmer’s magazine and other outreach work. His programme focuses on agricultural techniques in a programme aired on two national radio stations.

John uses FrontlineSMS to manage the growing number of text messages he receives from the farmers who tune in every week. It’s a great tool as far as production goes; especially because he can send reminders to his listeners about upcoming programmes. John also admits that it’s a great way to think up content, for example– if he wants to make a programme on successful chicken farming techniques, he can easily find a farmer who’s working with chickens to interview by flicking through his SMS message inbox.

Click here to listen to John, of  The Organic Farmer, speak about his use of FrontlineSMS.

Moreover, this feedback ensures his programmes are reactive to the opinions of the listeners which enriches his programme. ‘Farmers know things’, he told me, ‘for a radio programme to be interesting, there has to be a two way communication.’

But as I found out later in my trip, this conversation  facilitated by FrontlineSMS is happening in more than just two directions. In Busia, a border town between Uganda and Kenya in the western region of the country, I met Emmanuel: a small scale dairy farmer who trains his peers and neighbors as part of the Send A Cow project.

He was carrying a copy of The Organic Farmer magazine. It turned out he never misses an installment of John’s radio programme on the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). I asked him whether he ever texts into the show. He said he does, and that through the programme, he has made contact with other small scale farmers across the country and exchanged many ideas and techniques.

Emmanuel had clearly been motivated by the success and potential of text messaging. He told me how he encourages all the farmers and he helps to train them to use SMS effectively. This encounter was fascinating and it showed me that whilst the concept of text messaging is a simple two way dialogue, combined with a powerful radio presence, the two way conversation is only the beginning. As John said to me back in Nairobi; when he is producing, he likes to imagine that as well as disseminating information on The Organic Farmer, he is really only contributing to a much bigger knowledge exchange throughout the farming community.

I learned during my trip that mobile phones are changing the future for the small scale farmers in Kenya. And the many potential benefits of mobile technology continue to be explored. Spending a day in Nairobi’s sophisticated iHub innovation space for the tech community offered me an enormously exciting insight into what mobile technology tools could be to come for farmers in Kenya and across Africa, too. As international infrastructure accelerates to accommodate the technology being developed, farmers in Africa are increasingly able to benefit.”

You can find Clare's full radio documentary, as well as more audio and photos from her trip on her website here: http://aidtwenty.wordpress.com/ If you are interested in the powerful combination of mobile and radio technologies  check out our FrontlineSMS:Radio project website here: http://radio.frontlinesms.com/

Tanzanian farmers report improved yields via SMS

“Nearly 90 percent of Tanzania's residents live in rural areas, work primarily in the agricultural sector, and lack access to information, technology and markets,” Technoserve state on their website. Technoserve is an organisation which focuses its work in Tanzania on supporting farmers, cooperatives and suppliers in order to help develop rural industries. Whilst working towards these country-wide goals, keeping track of their impact is essential. Here, FrontlineSMS Community Support Coordinator, Florence Scialom, speaks with James Hangaya, Monitoring and Evaluation Analyst at Technoserve Tanzania, about how he is using FrontlineSMS to help collect the data he needs for monitoring Technoserve's Coffee Initiative project in Tanzania.

** This post has also been shared by Technoserve, and reported on by AllAfrica. **

Training for farmers is a key to Technoserve’s strategy in Tanzania, and forms a large part of their Coffee Initiative project. Training sessions help small-scale coffee farmers produce better quality coffee, thus helping them to secure higher prices in the international marketplace. “Sessions are based on different topics, and include practical lessons on, for example, how much fertilizer should be used to produce the best yield,” explains James. The farmer trainers hold multiple sessions on agricultural best practices, helping farmers to use their equipment and run their farming practice more efficiently.

One of the key steps in monitoring and evaluating the success of training is to measure the changes in farmers’ behaviour. “We train approximately 12,000 farmers every year” James tells me, “and there are nearly 60 farmer trainers across the country at the moment, running courses for groups of 15 to 20 farmers at a time.” There is certainly a lot of data to keep track of, and this is where FrontlineSMS proves very helpful Technoserve's work.

After experiencing the challenges of monitoring and evaluating their training programmes using extensive paper surveys, James and the Technoserve Tanzania team decided that there must be a more efficient way. This is when they came across FrontlineSMS data collection tool, FrontlineForms. Using this tool Technoserve farmer trainers are now able to conduct all post-training evaluation via SMS.

James explains how they manage this process: “Each farmer that attends a training session is allocated an individual ID. When filling out FrontlineForms, the farmer trainers use this ID to identify which individual farmer they are collecting data on. They answer set survey questions about farmer behaviour, using a pre-defined scale of 1-10 to indicate responses. They then send them back to me in the office to analyse the data.” This gives Technoserve Tanzania the data they need, to indicate whether the training has had an impact on the way the farmers manage their crops.

In addition, farmer trainers are provided with scales to measure a sample number of farmer’s harvest weights. These weights are compared with the farmer’s previous yield, and show how much farmers are able to produce before and after Technoserve training courses. Collecting these kind of direct indicators of impact is key to monitoring the success of the Coffee Initiative training sessions, and FrontlineForms is allowing this data collection process to be done much more quickly, and at a lower cost to Technoserve Tanzania.

The transition from paper to SMS has made a great difference to work flows, as James explains; “it saves us so much time and money, because our field staff no longer have to travel from the field to deliver paper survey results to our office, which can be a journey of more than 1,000 kilometres.”

This use of SMS technology makes the data collection process more efficient in error detection, too. As James says, “If I had picked up a potential error or if there was any data missing in a paper report then I would have to send it all the way back to the field to check whether the data needed to be edited; now I am able to this much more quickly and simply, via SMS.” These efficiency savings help to demonstrate the value of using FrontlineForms as a data collection tool.

Technoserve Tanzania plan to continue using FrontlineSMS for monitoring and evaluation, and are looking at ways to optimise and extend the ways they use the software, too. “In future we are looking to use FrontlineSMS to register farmers for training sessions and track their attendance. This will allow us to provide real-time reporting from the field,” explains James.

As Technoserve get accustomed to using SMS in their day to day work flows it is clear they are finding out more and more ways for it to help them make their work quicker, easier, and more efficient. James summed up this fact well by saying, “my boss agreed that we should change to FrontlineSMS for all the things that it can do for our work!”

You can find out more about what FrontlineSMS can be used for here, download the software for free here, and access FrontlineForms here.

TechnoServe makes a commitment to businesses and industries, working in the field with entrepreneurs and other industry stakeholders to build enterprises able to thrive on their own and generate continuing benefits for the rural poor.” You can read more about their work on their website: www.technoserve.org

Climate Information Alerts for Poor Farmers

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This article was originally published on allAfrica.com and is reposted with permission.

There are few greater challenges facing rural farmers in the developing world today than climate change, as the current drought in the Horn of Africa demonstrates so clearly.

In this post, Riedner Mumbi and Polly Ghazi explain how mobile technology is being increasingly used to get crucial information out to poor farmers in Zambia, helping mitigate against climate risks and improving food security.

By Riedner Mumbi and Polly Ghazi

A herder shepherding his animals in Zambia’s Eastern Province winds up a solar-powered radio and crouches down to listen to a local FM station. The news broadcast includes a warning that a severe storm is approaching his village. The herder reacts instantly, finding shelter nearby for his animals, which later emerge from the storm unscathed.

Such a scene may be played out increasingly in the future across Africa, where the livelihoods of rural inhabitants are critically dependent on weather and climate. Most are peasant farmers who depend solely on rain for their crop production. A single extreme event such as a major flood or prolonged drought can not only cause loss of life, but also economic setbacks equivalent to years’ worth of development.

As climate change intensifies, bringing more extreme weather, as well as seasonal and longer-term changes, effective adaptation for rural regions of Africa will depend on timely and accurate advance information. Early warnings will enable farmers to shelter their animals and protect their income and families. In addition, the collection and distribution of local rainfall information can help smallholder farmers to adjust their crop production methods to changing seasonal precipitation patterns.

The Zambian government has been one of the first in Africa to recognize this need. Through its RANET (Radio and Internet for the Communication of Hydro-Meteorological Information) Project, the Zambia Meteorological Department is tapping remote communities across several provinces to collect climate information. In the past four years, some 3,060 farmers have been provided with rain gauges to take rainfall measurements which are then fed back to the meteorological service’s local weather stations through mobile phones. Farmers are also encouraged to report other local weather observations. To motivate farmers taking part, RANET periodically recharges their phones with free airtime, and project managers are now testing the FrontlineSMS software to help minimize the service cost. This would enable rural participants to send SMS – text messages – to the RANET centre free of charge.

The results have been so encouraging that the Zambian Met Office is now considering providing automatic weather stations and rudimentary meteorological training to rural farmer cooperatives across the country.

In order to help remote rural areas receive (as well as collect) timely weather and climate information, the RANET Project sends weather alerts via SMS text and has also been assisting rural areas to establish community FM broadcasting stations. These pick up regional climate information from satellites, translate relevant weather information into local languages and are then used to broadcast timely warnings over extreme weather, such as storms, as well as seasonal climate information.

So far the project has helped launch five stations, with two more in the pipeline, and is cooperating with another nine. Each station can broadcast information to farming communities within a radius of 40-60km. RANET has also installed 49 digital radio satellite receivers to enable the FM stations to access satellite-based weather and climate information.

The project provides communities with solar wind-up radio receivers to access the broadcasts, 3,000 of which have been distributed across rural regions to date. The stations also host programs that help educate citizens on the effects of weather on their crops. Reinforcing these messages, RANET also provides climate information to agricultural extension workers who can interpret it for farmers and help them apply what they learn in their daily farming activities. In Mali, similar weather forecast bulletins, broadcast every 10 days, have helped low income smallholder farmers to increase yields by providing vital information on when and what to plant, depending on the climatic conditions.

While community radio broadcasting struggles to survive commercially, and therefore depends on government and non-governmental organizations to sponsor their programs, this is worthwhile investment. Quite simply, radio broadcasting is the most cost-effective and cheapest way for information dissemination and education, and can play a valuable role in societies facing climatic extremes.

Not content with radio and cell phone networks, RANET, with support from the USAID Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, is also piloting the deployment of an innovative communication device called Chatty Beetle. The device is both a terminal and a system designed to provide emergency weather alerts and instructions to remote locations with limited means of communication with the outside world. It sends messages and short status reports (of 160 characters or less) via a small screen between emergency managers and warning authorities, as well as notifying communities of potential hazards. Since speed is critical when warning vulnerable communities of the onset of disasters such as cyclones or major floods, the Chatty Beetle, which transmits even faster than the Internet, shows much promise.

With more than three quarters of the world’s population now served by mobile networks, and additional efforts underway to reach the rest, the RANET approach to climate and emergency preparedness information has huge potential for scale up.

Current RANET funding and technical partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Meteorological Services, First Voice International (formerly World Space Corporation), Free Play Foundation, UNDP, SNV, GTZ, DFID, World Vision, Africare, the Red Cross, and many others.

The World Resources Report 2010-2011 will be published in August and can be read here.

Riedner Mumbi is a consultant on the RANET system. Polly Ghazi is a writer and editor at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Combating food insecurity in Northern Kenya

a href="http://infoasaid.org/" target="_blank">infoasaid is a consortium of Internews and the BBC World Service Trust. The objective is to improve how aid agencies communicate with disaster-affected communities - the focus is on providing humanitarian information. The emphasis is on the need to deliver information, as aid itself, through the most appropriate channels.  In this guest blog post first published on their website, infoasaid highlight some of the innovating approaches they are piloting to using FrontlineSMS in communicating with communities affected by crisis. ** This use of FrontlineSMS has also been reported on by ActionAid, the BBC World Service Trust and ReliefWeb. In addition, we included it in our National Geographic blog series, Mobile Message. **

Targeted, reliable information can help save lives in crisis-affected communities. As famine is declared in neighbouring Somalia, we’re helping ActionAid to improve vital communication with drought-affected populations in northern Kenya.

Open source mobile solutions such as FrontlineSMS and Freedom Fone are enabling two-way communication with vulnerable communities.

A chronic problem

Isiolo County in north eastern Kenya suffers from chronic drought and food shortages. A population of about 143,000 mostly semi-nomadic pastoralists rely on their herds of camels, cattle, goats and sheep for daily food and much of their cash income.

Many of the communities in this semi-arid area have been continuously dependent on food aid from the World Food Program (WFP) since 2004. ActionAid has been heavily involved in both long term development and drought-response projects in the Isiolo area for more than 15 years.

It knows that better communication can help save lives.

Livestock information bulletin

The BBC WST and partners Internews are collaborating through the “infoasaid” project to help ActionAid provide timely information to pastoralists, to help combat food insecurity.

Weekly information about livestock and food commodity prices in Isiolo market – the main reference market for the region – is sent through SMS messages (using FrontlineSMS software) to field workers in rural communities, who post the information on local noticeboards.

Given high illiteracy rates in the area, the project is also providing a recorded message service using Freedom Fone that allows people to listen to local Swahili updates.

The bulletins help drought-distressed pastoralists to keep tabs on the price of staple foods such as maize, beans and vegetable oil on which they increasingly depend.The bulletins help drought-distressed pastoralists to keep tabs on the price of staple foods such as maize, beans and vegetable oil on which they increasingly depend. The market information also allows them to achieve better prices for the animals they sell to traders – boosting cash household income.

Local news and information given alongside market prices also contain useful tips on issues affecting the well-being of animals. Items will include updates on rainfall, outbreaks of animal disease and de-stocking programmes.

Together, the two channels allow pastoralists living in isolated communities to access reliable and up to date market information. They also allow ActionAid to keep in closer touch with the village relief committees that handle food distribution to individual families.

250 basic mobile phones and solar chargers purchased as part of the project are also being used by village relief committee members who live in or near locations with network coverage.

The cheap and durable solar chargers are vital in areas without electricity. They can also provide a source of revenue (as they charge other mobile phones for a modest fee) that allow relief committees to purchase vital air time for their phones.

Faster data

An additional aim of the Isiolo project is to speed up ActionAid’s collection of data from the field.An additional aim of the Isiolo project is to speed up ActionAid’s collection of data from the field.

FrontlineSMS allows ActionAid to transmit electronic forms to field staff in Isiolo County via mobile phone. These are filled in electronically and dispatched immediately to the regional office through SMS messages.

These FrontlineForms are now being used to transmit time-sensitive reports on issues such as food distribution, food for work activity, malnutrition rates and local food prices. The information arrives rapidly in a standard format which is easy to analyse.

In the long term, this will help ActionAid to ensure its humanitarian aid activities in Isiolo are more effective and more responsive to the needs of the local population.

Communication as aid

In any emergency, be it natural disaster or man-made, long- or short-term, people's lives are turned upside down. Knowing what's happening, where to go for assistance and who to call for help is crucial to their survival and recovery.

The goal of the 'infoasaid' project is to help humanitarian organisations integrate two way communications with affected communities into their emergency programmes. This in turn improves the effectiveness of aid delivery.

As the drought and famine crisis in the Horn of Africa deepens, such communication is more important than ever.

A new 'Communication is Aid' animation, produced by infoasaid, demonstrates the positive impact of two way communication with crisis affected populations.

Read more about the work of infoasaid on their website.

“Farming Out” Agricultural Advice Through Radio and SMS

This post is the latest in the FrontlineSMS Mobile Message series with National Geographic. To read a summary of the Mobile Message series click here. Amy O'Donnell, Project Manager, FrontlineSMS:Radio

The Organic Farmer, a Kenyan magazine about ecologically friendly farming practices, recently launched two radio shows aimed at smallholder farmers. John Cheburet is spearheading the use of FrontlineSMS on the radio shows, and, as Project Manager of FrontlineSMS:Radio, I was keen to speak with him. Radio represents the dominant media source for many people worldwide and it offers a vital tool for outreach, particularly to rural communities. FrontlineSMS:Radio works with community stations to discover how combining mobile phone technology with radio can engage listening audiences.

John Cheburet is a radio producer and a pioneer, offering a farmer information service for small-scale farmers and actively seeking new technologies to improve outreach. He is seen by the farming community as a friendly source of information which is vital for their livelihoods. While The Organic Farmer (TOF) was born as a print medium, John sees radio as a way to increase awareness and reach more farmers.

John’s listeners own an average of 2.5 acres. Many farm for subsistence and sell surplus to cover household needs and also pay school fees for their children. They may not have received training or know about the latest technologies, and they seek access to solutions and advice."

“In Kenya, agriculture is the mainstay of the economy and the population depends on the land both directly and indirectly. The country is a major exporter of tea and coffee, and 70% of the workforce is in agriculture and areas that service this sector.”

Read more

Fishing meets texting in Banda Aceh

We continue our recent agriculture theme in this, the eighteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Teddy Syahputra - a System Consultant at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Banda Aceh - talks about their use of the software, and how it is set to underpin a new nationwide SMS service in the country "The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in Banda Aceh (Indonesia) have been using FrontlineSMS for over two years, and recently it was deployed in a pilot project concentrated on the needs of local fishermen. Following the success of this early pilot, we are now implementing a nationwide project called Fish Marketing Information System (FMIS) to support the development of conducive and fair trade practices for economically competitive fish products from Aceh in the local, national, regional and international markets.

Image courtesy FMIS

The price information is processed by a computer-based system (primarily a website and MySQL database) using FrontlineSMS as the SMS gateway. Fish price information is being disseminated to fisherfolk, fish farmers, traders, processors and government agencies through a combination of SMS, local radio, the project website and local newspapers.

For the data collection we developed our own software - called "Enumerator" - and we provide each of the collectors with a handset with the software pre-installed. The software is easy to use, allowing the operator to insert the species name and the prices in pre-defined fields. "Enumerator" then binds the data into an SMS, which is then sent to FrontlineSMS for processing and passing into the database. Integration and implementation was easy thanks to FrontlineSMS' powerful 'keyword' functionality.

FMIS and FrontlineSMSThe next phase of the project is to implement FrontlineSMS/FMIS throughout other provinces in Indonesia, but this time the Indonesian Government will be handling the SMS gateway in each province, and the local website.

This project has already helped hundreds of people in Indonesia, with many more to follow. FrontlineSMS has been invaluable in helping us achieve this. Not only is the software free, but it is incredibly easy to use - we downloaded it and had it working ourselves in no time. This ease-of-use is also essential if other districts are to be easily able to replicate what we have done here".

Teddy Syahputra National Information System Consultant Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations Banda Aceh, NAD - Indonesia www.fao.org

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

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 Background

"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.

From the FrontlineSMS Community site

Thank you FrontlineSMS!"

Gary Garriott Digital Futures for Development Program Winrock International www.winrock.org

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)

Cambodian farmers turn to their phones

At the University of Canberra, Senior Research Fellow Dr Robert Fitzgerald has been evaluating FrontlineSMS as a replacement for a commercial application previously implemented in their Cambodia Crop Production and Marketing Project (CCPMP). Since 2006, Robert and his team have been developing an SMS-based market information service for maize and soybean farmers and traders in western Cambodia.

CCPMP research had already highlighted poor communications between the different levels of the supply chain as a major challenge to the agriculture sector in the region. According to Robert, "We explored various options for the development of an improved marketing communication system and proposed to local stakeholders the development of an Electronic Marketing Communication System (EMCS) based on the use of SMS technology. We undertook a pilot project in which daily grain market information was collected by the Ministry of Commerce and entered into a database that was accessible by mobile phone in Cambodia using SMS".

The pilot project proved highly successful and its impact stimulated further work in a follow-up project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). It was at this point that Robert and his team began to explore alternative messaging systems.

"One of the most encouraging aspects of our early work was the excitement generated amongst farmers, traders, ministry officials, silo owners and potential development partners. The SMS concept was very appealing but we faced a real challenge - we wanted to use this excitement to move from a trial project to a fully fledged operating model but we needed a software application that would ensure the long term sustainability of community-based communication systems. Because the project is working with two NGOs based in western Cambodia, it was imperative that we implemented a cost-effective solution that could be managed by local staff. As it turned out, FrontlineSMS had it all. Not only is it open source but it is simple to install and maintain, and has more functionality than our previous software, all combined with a much better user-friendly interface".

Since launch of the latest version earlier this June, Dr. Fitzgerald has been testing FrontlineSMS at the University of Canberra along with a Cambodian Phd student, Nou Keosothea, who will be working with him to conduct in-country trials over the next few weeks.

Our plan is to install two FrontlineSMS systems in the Pailin and Samlaut regions of western Cambodia. Once these are installed we will conduct a series of stakeholder workshops to better understand the communication aspects of the maize and soybean production and marketing supply chain. Price, weather updates, handy hints will all figure on these systems in addition to standard SMS-based communications

Watch this space for further updates as the project moves forward, and details of a number of other agriculture-based FrontlineSMS implementations being planned by NGOs around the world.