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"


Gloria Valentine 30 June 2009 at 19:58  

This surely is going to make disease surveillance very manageable.

Marco 28 July 2009 at 02:21  

Danke für den informativen Beitrag zum Thema Handys und Uganda. Es steht ja außer Frage, dass die modernen Technologien wie Handy und das Internet das Leben der Menschen weltweit verbessern. Doch stellt sich mir gerade eine Frage. Wie steht es mit der Sicherheit der Netze in Uganda ? Gibt es Datenschützer ? Gibt es das Recht auf informelle Selbstbestimmung ? In Deutschland kämpft sich gerade die sogenannte Piratenpartei in die Öffentlichkeit, weil sie fürchten Grundrechte werden durch Zensuren im Internet verletzt. Gibt es solche Meinungen und Strömungen auch in Uganda ? Oder wird die neue Technologie ohne Furcht angenommen und ins Leben integriert. Ich war zu dieser späten Stunde leider zu faul auf Englisch zu schreiben, hoffe aber es ist kein Problem. Falls doch bitte ich das anzumerken, dann werde ich es nochmal übersetzt posten.
Viele Grüße aus Bonn.

Barbara 28 July 2009 at 08:02  

Das sind alles sehr gute und berechtigte Fragen. In Uganda werden - soweit ich es gesehen und erlebt habe - neue Technologien ohne Furcht und jegliche Vorsicht ins Leben integriert. Mobilfunkanbieter und Internetbetreiber gehören zu den profitabelsten Wirtschaftsbranchen des Landes, was sich nicht zuletzt daran bemerkbar macht, dass die Häuser im ganzen Land (und auch in den entlegensten Dörfern) in den Farben dieser Unternehmen gestrichen sind: MTN Gelb, Zain Pink, Orange Orange, etc ... Datenschützer und ein Recht auf informelle Selbstbestimmung gibt es, soweit ich weiss, nicht. Zu gross ist die "Mobile-Mania", ausserdem muss man schon sagen, dass das Internet noch nicht sehr weit verbreitet ist. Zwar ist das neue Seacom-Internet-Seekabel, das am letzten Donnerstag (23.07.2009) in Betrieb genommen wurde, ein riesen Fortschritt für Ostafrika und wird die Internetkosten auf etwa ein Zehntel senken und die Geschwindigkeit vervielfachen. Doch für die große Mehrheit der Ugander und besonders die Menschen auf dem Land bleiben Computer und Internet vorerst unerreichbar teuer. Sie müssen sich mit Zwischenlösungen wie "Google SMS" und "Google Trader" begnügen. Aber ich bin gespannt wie schnell sich das Internet verbreiten wird und werde die Datenschutzfrage bei meiner nächsten Afrikareise unter die Lupe nehmen!

Anonymous 18 October 2010 at 06:56  

last week our group held a similar talk on this topic and you illustrate something we have not covered yet, thanks.

- Kris

Barbara 18 October 2010 at 10:36  

Hi Kris,

Where are you based and what exactly are you doing?

Best, Barbara

Anonymous 22 December 2010 at 00:18  

Finally, an issue that I am passionate about. I have looked for information of this caliber for the last several hours. Your site is greatly appreciated.

Anonymous 10 January 2011 at 18:03  

It’s really a nice and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

Barbara 10 January 2011 at 18:44  

Thanks for the feedback!

Barbara 31 January 2011 at 23:49  


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