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.