Monday, 29 June 2009

Sending out a SMS

Mukaga - zero - zero - emu means 6-0-0-1 in the Luganda language.

In Uganda, using 4 digits and a mobile phone may become one of the most important gateways to accessing information and services and serve as a model for the rest of the continent.

Any guesses which search engine conglomerate is behind this?

That's right. Google together with the Grameen Foundation and local mobile phone provider MTN Uganda launched a new service today called Google SMS.

The idea is straightforward. If you need information on say health or agriculture, send your query by text message to Google SMS and you should get a reply text message with an answer.

I've been using the weather forecast service since my arrival here in Uganda which was one of the pilot applications. But the services are much broader:

- Farmer’s Friend is an application that provides tips on agriculture, especially when it comes to dealing with pests and diseases, and of course the weather, both daily and seasonal.

- Health Tips and the Clinic Finder offers the names and numbers of the closest healths clinics.

- Google Trader is a SMS-based "marketplace" application that connects buyers and sellers. One of the biggest problems of small subsistence farmers is accessing markets to sell the small surpluses they might have. With this new service, Google and its many partners hope to help farmers in poor and remote rural areas, as writes

Up until today, the new service has been kept under wraps.

The launch was a festive event and it was interesting to meet the so-called Village Phone Operators and Community Knowledge Workers who had travelled from all corners of Uganda to be in Mukono for the launch. These people are the frontline of the service.

It was a big PR event. All the partners involved were wearing custom tailored shirts bearing the Google colours and the mood was festive after many months they say of hard work pilot-testing the applications. There were colourful local dances, songs and sketches explaining the various services in Luganda. Of course, the Jingle "MTN - everywhere you go" was played at regular intervals reminding the audience which mobile network to use.

Sending a text message to MTN's current SMS services costs 220 Ugandan shillings - that's about US 10 cents. MTN is the largest mobile phone operator in Uganda so GoogleSMS is likely to be a good revenue raiser.

Hopping into a cab on my way back to town, I thought I'd put the GoogleSMS "Information in the palm of your hand" to the test.

I sent an SMS to 6001 asking: What do I do when I have the flu? I got the answer: Human swine flu is caused by the Influenza virus A (H1N1) and spreads from one person to another. It is so called because the signs are similar to swine flu in pigs. A person can have and spread the virus without being sick. Signs include chills, sore throat, muscle pains, coughing, weakness. You cannot get swine flu from eating well-cooked pork or pork products. To protect yourself, as with any other flu, wash your hands regularly especially before eating or touching your nose or mouth. Go to the nearest health centre if you suspect you have the flu.

Well, no solution really on how to treat normal flu, but I had the option to hit reply with "Clinic and parish" which I did and got the name and number for the nearest clinic in Kampala. Now, that's a really useful service.

I also asked: How do I treat Banana Bacterial Wilt? Here I got a very exhaustive answer. But I won't bore you with this, because I've already told you everything about banana diseases in my last blog post.

Using Google Trader (6007) was less successful. I typed in Buy Bananas Mbale, but the service couldn't find any matches to this query. So I tried Buy Bananas Kampala, thinking this must be pretty straight forward.

I got one number to call for bananas in Kampala, the number was not available and two other numbers for Matooke. One line was busy, the other one was not selling Matooke.

The SMS said that there were 965 items matching my query, but I was not so keen on buying bananas anymore... That said, GoogleSMS Search (6006) on general queries is also up and running and I managed to get all the latest updates on Michael Jackson.

Over the past two weeks I've been travelling in remote areas of Uganda where internet access has been scarce. But I've almost always had a mobile phone signal. Remote communities particularly in the north are struggling with very high rates of HIV/AIDS because so many women have been raped by rebels during the civil war. Going to the closest health clinic often means selling valuable assets or taking out a loan.

Mountain View might be a long way from Pader in Northern Uganda, but this new Google SMS might start to bridge the digital divide in countries like Uganda and help people in a very practical way.

Update: I've had a lot of feedback via Twitter on this post. Thanks to everyone who has retweeted!

And here's the interview I did on Google's SMS service for Uganda in German for Deutsche Welle's Fokus Afrika.

Monday, 22 June 2009

From SMS weather forcast to geo-mapping banana diseases

I know that mobile phones are rapidly expanding across the globe and reaching even the poorest and most remote people in Africa. But I wouldn't have thought that this trip to Uganda would give me a whole new perspective on these handy little devices. I also realized how little I actually know about my mobile phone.

In Uganda 7 million people, that is roughly 20% of the population, has access to a mobile phone. And experts expect the local market to grow to 14 Millionen in the next three years.

If you drive around Uganda, most of the outdoor advertising or sponsorships are for mobile phone companies. Namely, MTN, ZAIN and Orange. The mobile telco industry is growing faster than any other business and it's the best way to reach people.

Eric Cantor is working on developing mobile phone applications to boost development. He and his colleagues from the Grameen Foundation and MTN, Uganda's leading mobile phone network, have been doing a lot of experimenting in the field in the past few months. Importantly, they've been talking to farmers with small plots of land and asking them what sort of information they would need to improve their lives.

The Grameen Foundation together with MTN have already successfully introduced the Village Phone Initiative back in 2004.

But now they were wondering: how can mobile phones improve people's lives? Apart from helping people to make calls, is there a way to improve health, agriculture and education for example? How do you use this medium of the mobile phone to create a two-way connection; to give people the information they want and need and at the same time collect information that the government, the donors and companies require to be more efficient?

The Grameen Foundation has built a network of so-called Community Knowledge Workers or CKWs. A number of local Ugandan organizations are also involved and the Gates Foundation is helping to fund the project.

These CKWs are already leaders in their communities. Now they've been trained to become “information hubs” for smallholder farmers in Uganda. Using smart mobile phones such as the Nokia N95 and Nokia 1680, the CKWs act as intermediaries by giving out and collecting information from their communities.

The are plenty of practical mobile phone applications the farmers can use. For example, they can receive an SMS weather forecast for specific districts or search for seed providers and fertilizers.

One of the really interesting applications is being able to contact a call-center to ask questions on behalf of local farmers in their district. Not only is it a source of information it's a way of giving them access to the internet.

If the operators, who're searching the internet on approved sites don't have the answer, the question is passed on to an expert. So far the questions have been very diverse and include everything from history, politics, health and of course agriculture. Football questions are very popular, and they've had some odd questions too, like "do the pyramids move?" or " was Idi Amin a good president?"

The pilot project has currently 40 CKWs, 20 in the eastern Mbale district and 20 in the western Busheni district. Enough though, to keep the four ladies at the call-center busy all day. When I visited them last Wednesday, the phone rang fairly regularly and most questions related to agriculture and disease prevention.

What impressed me most though, was our visit to Mbale. It's a big banana producing area, though really I should say so is the whole country. Uganda is the biggest producer and consumer of bananas in all of Africa. Nearly every Ugandan depends on the banana in some way or another, so it's not only crucial for food security, but also income generation. The problem is in the past 15 years banana production has been down 50% due to various diseases. Banana plantations are losing billions of dollars every year.

Now, AppLab, the technology development unit and joint venture of MTN Uganda and the Grameen Foundation, has come up with an application that tracks banana diseases.

It's basically a survey of 50 questions, including name, gender of the farmer, contact information, how big their farm is, what they grow, what type of banana diseases they have on their farm and if they know how to treat them. The information is collected on the mobile phone - including GPS positioning and pictures of the sick banana trees - and then sent by mobile internet to a team of scientists in Kampala. Based on that data, digital maps will be established and the scientists will go back to the field on a weekly basis to follow up some of the findings.

Fen Beed, a leading Plant Pathologist from the IITA in East Africa, says they're looking at 3 diseases:

1. Banana Bacterial Wilt (BBW) which hit Uganda about five years ago and decimated production all over the country

2. Panama disease or Fusarium, the symptoms can be confused with BBW, so it's impossible to target BBW without also having a programme for Fusarium, because the two need to be disassociated

3. Banana Bunchy Top Disease, which currently exists in other African countries, notably Rwanda and DRC, and it's most likely to enter Uganda via those borders, either through biological transfer and insects that transmit the disease, but there is also a risk that people could move planting material from one area to another.

"So what we're trying to do", says Fen, "is sensitise people to be aware what the disease looks like if it does come in. What we want to achieve, is to have preemptive control of this disease and not a big epidemic and ask for donor funds to try help solve an already damaging situation, we want to stop the situation from developping where this disease is introduced and not noticed".

It was great to see scientists, IT development specialists, agriculture extension workers, Grameen Foundation project managers and of course the Community Knowledge Workers representing their farming communities working in the field together.

The CKW farmers I spoke to all seemed enthusiastic about the technology.

Mary, an older lady in her 60ies who's been discriminated all her life for not having children, said, it has already had a tremendous impact. "I'm now connected to so many people and different sources, and we're sharpening our brains," she told me with a huge smile.

"Now the farmers are taking me as their gold, because I have brought good technology."

George is equally enthusiastic: "The phone is helping us."

He adds that he had no idea Banana Bacterial Wilt was such a dangerous disease.

"We want to isolate BBW as it affects our income, so we want everybody to know that it's a big problem to us, and we'll fight it together," he said.

Of course it's still early days for the project. The CKWs have just finished their training and their real work is now starting. Will the farmers be receptive to the banana disease surveys? Will the information transmitted to the scientists be reliable and relevant? How can you expand such a project when hardly anyone in the countryside can afford a smart phone?

I really should come back for a follow up. But I must say, I was very impressed and after all a pilot phase is not only about identifying what works, but also what doesn't and why, so it can be taken to the next level.

Morning: Sunny. Afternoon: Sunny intervals. 30 C high, 20 low. Next three days: sunny. I'm now receiving regular SMS weather updates, though I doubt I'll experiment with banana trees anytime soon.

P.S. Here's a German version of my story: "Per SMS zum Erntehelfer"

Sunday, 21 June 2009

I promised to introduce my coproducer...

Name: Faridah Bongoley

Age: 28

Religion: Muslim

Why did she become a journalist? Because her sister inspired her.

Hobbies: reading novels, swimming and going to the gym

Favourite place in Kampala: Central Broadcasting Corporation

Most exciting journalism assignment: Visit of Muammar al-Gaddafi in Kampala to hand over mosque to Uganda's Muslim community

Dreams for the future? Being independent

What's odd? Doesn't like to go out.

Any heroes? Her mom!

Uganda's Barack Obama is no longer single

I know. I've been in Uganda for almost a week now and still no blog post - a part from a few twitter updates.

It's been a really hectic week. On Wednesday I finally met my co-producer Faridah from CBS, Uganda's Central Broadcasting Service. We're going to be working together on rural development issues for the next three weeks. I'll introduce her to you very soon.

So far we've been out to Mbale in eastern Uganda to examine bananas and a new ICT for development project harnessing mobile phones.

Bananas are prone to disease and local farmers are being trained to collect data literally in the field and send it experts for analysis.

It was fascinating to see farmers, leading plant pathology scientists, computer wizzes and agriculture experts interact and conduct a training in the middle of a banana plantation.

Who thought you could be geeky over bananas? It's incredible how much you can do with a mobile phone. I'm still logging tape, but I'll tell you more about it shortly.

Last night I attended my first Ugandan wedding. I really had no idea about the dress code and hadn't planned to attend a wedding, so I opted for my nicest skirt. Black and white always works, doesn't it? I was told it starts between 4 and 4.30pm. I went at 5pm but was still way too early.

The MC kept on saying "it starts in three minutes"... three minutes, enough time to meet new people, because apart from the groom Morrisson - whom I had interviewed three days earlier - I didn't know anyone. Arthur and Bob were very sweet and briefed me about the Dos and Don'ts of a Ugandan wedding. For example, there's no seating protocol, but you have to make sure to sit on the right side. Morrison's guests had to sit on the left, while friends and family of the bride to be Rita all had to sit on the right. Apparently you're not supposed to shake hands with the members of the other family - I'm not sure if I got that one right though.

The Nile Room of the Hotel Africana was lavishly decorated for around 400 guests. The MC, a close friend of Morrison, had everything under control, and was even showing off some great singing talents. He introduced the chairman and the entire wedding organizing committee. Gee, I wish we had had that at our wedding.

The heads of the families spoke, siblings and friends - alternatively praising the hard working, warm hearted bride and Morrison the honest and good looking "Barack Obama of Uganda". It was a hodge podge of languages: English, Runyankore, Swahili, I think also Luganda, but don't quote me on that. A guest at my table lent over to say that you could even detect some cheeky little rivalries between family clans of the East and West of Uganda.

Despite missing some of the subtle jibes, I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, the great food and thought the bride and groom looked a picture.

Among other wedding gifts, Morrison and Rita were offered several cows, a fridge and a plot of land in Kampala. What more do you wish to start married life?!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Tribute to Lindy Hop legend Frankie Manning

Frankie was a legend among Swing dancers. I first heard about him in Seattle in 1997 where a bunch of students at the University of Washington introduced me to Swing and Lindy Hop.

For those of you not up to scratch on the dance floor, Lindy Hop is an African American dance that evolved in New York during the late 1920s, 30s and 40s. It's a sort of fusion of jazz, tap and the Charleston - and is danced with a partner.

Frankie Manning started dancing back in 1927 and had a huge influence on Lindy Hop. I distinctly remember watching excerpts from the Hollywood musical “Hellzapoppin’"(1941), thinking: WOW, this is mad...

Frankie was nicknamed “Musclehead” for his powerful and quick acrobatic style, hurling his swing partners through the air.

I was hooked, Swing and Lindy Hop quickly became a passion and when I lived in New York 1998-2000 I danced as often as I could to live bands playing at Swing 46, the Cotton Club, Irving Plazza, the Supper Club, Windows of the World on top of the World Trade Center and during summer weekends in Central Park... I loved this dance which is all about big band and swing music, improvisation and of course the style of the 30s and 40s. Plus it's a dance which bridges generations and it's great to see people of all ages dancing together.

“A-one, a-two, you know what to do...”

Long before meeting Frankie, I'd heard many people referring to him as the Nelson Mandela of Lindy Hop. He's traveled the world even til very recently in his early 90s teaching Swing. Every year he would spend several weeks at the Herräng Dance Camp in Sweden dancing and teaching this dance he loved so much.

Today, I just read an article of the New York Times and sadly learned that Frankie died a little over a month ago in New York at the age of 94.

A great man, whom I had the chance to meet and interview at the Herräng Dance Camp two years ago.

Here's the Lonely Planet Travelcast I've produced. It's a small tribute to a great Swing legend and his legacy.

Every summer, thousands of dancers from over 40 different countries converge on a small Swedish village for round-the-clock swing dancing. The Herräng Dance Camp started in 1982 and has become the largest of its kind.

The village shop is stocked up with mineral water, peanut butter and bananas, ready for the influx of hungry visitors. In the local school, bunk beds have been put up in the classrooms to serve as accommodation for tired dancers. The sports ground has become a campsite and four marquees have been set up, ready for dance classes.

The Herräng Dance Camp is about to get into swing.

The village of Herräng has just 600 inhabitants and lies some 100 kilometers north of Stockholm. 25 years ago, its isolated position attracted a group of Swedish swing dancers, who invited an American instructor from New York to teach them some new moves.

Since then, the event has grown into the leading and most comprehensive dance camp in the world focusing on the African-American swing dance tradition.

The living icon of Lindy Hop

The Herräng Dance Camp wouldn't be complete without instructor Frankie Manning. The 93-year-old is a legend at the camp and an inspiration for his many fans.

Manning teaches Lindy Hop, an African-American dance that evolved in New York in the late 1920s, 30s and 40s. It is a fusion of jazz, tap and the Charleston. Danced with a partner, the original Lindy Hop was a parody of stiff white couples at society tea dances.

However, by the 1950s, the Lindy Hop was superseded by the jitterbug and rock 'n' roll. It has seen a revival in the last couple of decades, though, partly thanks to the Swedish dance camp.

Lennart Westerlund is one of the camp's founders and still in charge today -- even if he no longer has much time for dancing. He says Manning's presence is very important for the entire camp.

"He is like an unbeatable ambassador for the dance," Westerlund says. "He's a living icon because he has done so much for the dance and inspired so many people."

"I just love dancing."

Of course, the Lindy Hop scene would exist without Manning, Westerlund says.

"But I don't think it would have the size, enthusiasm and energy that it has," he says.

Manning is the last link to a time, which all the dancers at Herräng view with hazy-eyed awe. In the 1930s and 40s, he appeared with Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald: names, which conjure up an image of a lost era.

Manning himself does not have a secret formula for the reason he is still dancing at his age.

"I just love dancing and I love watching people dance," Manning says.

It was a film choreographed by Manning, which inspired Westerlund to found the Herräng Dance Camp back in 1982. The two-minute film "Hellzapoppin" from the year 1941 showed eight African-Americans dancing in pairs in a wild frenzy of moves.

A truly international camp

Today, the love of dance attracts people to Sweden from around the world. Many come from the United States and Europe, but in the last couple of years, there have also been dancers at Herräng from as far afield as China, South Korea and Brazil.

Russia has the second highest number of participants at the camp after Sweden. Even though the dancers might not speak the same language, they can all communicate through their passion for swing.

And you have to be passionate about dancing to take part in the camp, which has a hectic schedule. Dance classes start every day at 10 in the morning. Each class lasts for an hour and twenty minutes.

After supper in the evening, there is a meeting, where the community comes together to hear about the day. Then they watch film clips from jazz history, to get everyone in the mood for the dance parties -- which often go on till 6 the next morning. After that, the dancers grab a few hours of sleep before slipping on their swing shoes for class the next morning.

As Faye, a dancer from Malaysia says: "You don't come to Herräng to sleep; you come to Herräng to dance."

The camp brings unavoidable noise, parking problems and traffic jams to the village. But the locals put up with the downsides in the knowledge that the money it generates is a lifeline for the former mining area. The rest of the year is so quiet that the local shop would not survive without the annual summer dance camp.

According to Herräng local Birgitta, the dancers are welcome.

"They like to learn and they like to practice, so they are tired," she says. "So they eat, sleep and dance, so no problem!"

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