From the web to the phone

Information system sends RSS feeds to Chilean farmers via SMS

Meghan Cagley

In Chile, the Mobile Information Project takes advantage of the growing ubiquity of mobile phones to deliver agricultural information from the web directly to farmers.

Susana owns a small farm a few hours away from Santiago, Chile. Despite her proximity to the capital city, she doesn’t have access to the internet or to relevant news updates. But she does have a mobile phone. Today, across the world, people like Susana are walking around with miniature computers in their pocket; even the cheapest mobile phones have formidable processing power. And the Mobile Information Project (MIP) takes advantage of this fact to provide farmers with the information they need.

DataDyne, a not-for-profit organization based in the United States, developed the MIP software. The program organizes searchable content from the internet into news feeds (RSS) and then passes that content on to farmers via SMS messages. The program designers developed the system to work smoothly on simple, low-cost mobile phones, and to operate effectively even over slow networks with intermittent connectivity. Most prepaid mobile users in developing countries have these types of phones and often only have access to lower-quality networks.

Since early 2009, we at DataDyne have been working with a cooperative of agricultural producers in the Cachapoal Valley, two hours south of Santiago, Chile, on a project called DatAgro. The cooperative, called Cooperativa Campesina Intercomunal Peumo (Coopeumo), is made up of 346 small-scale farmers, the majority of whom work with maize, but who cultivate other crops as well. The region is recognized for its good soil quality and suitable climate, and the local economy relies heavily on agriculture and related industries.

Choice

However, it is an enormous challenge to increase agricultural productivity. This is largely due to the lack of government support for small-scale farmers in the region, who do not have the same resources as the large agro-industries. To be more competitive, small-scale farmers need support to enhance their productivity levels and to enter export markets.

In particular, farmers need timely information on emerging weather patterns for their region, along with information on farming inputs including soil conditions, the quality of seeds, market prices, local infrastructure and global pressures. Studies, carried out in 2008 showed that the majority of Coopeumo’s smallholder farmers consider an internet connection as essential.

Improved access to specific market-, technology- and climate-related information, along with cultivation advice, would make farming easier and more productive, and help farmers make better-informed decisions, such as what to plant and when. And, while it may take some time before the internet reaches Coopeumo’s farmers, the MIP software delivers the same information directly to their mobile phones.

Coopeumo farmers now receive details on weather, news, sports and more via SMS messages. The information comes from several sources. Two of our partners, UNESCO and the Fund for Agrarian Innovation, create messages based on work they have already done, but which they were not previously able to share with the community. The El Mostrador and El Mercurio newspapers also send up-to-date news to the system that can then be forwarded to farmers. And users can customize which message feeds they subscribe to, and can rate the messages they find the most helpful.

In less than a year, the DatAgro service has already had success with the Coopeumo farmers. One member, Hugo Tobar, says his entire crop for 2009 was saved by an SMS message from one of our partners. Just before he intended to plant, he received a message that urged him to wait because of impending bad weather.

Thankfully, he did wait, because for the next week there was torrential rain that would have washed his seedlings away. Hugo’s story demonstrates how a little bit of timely information can help farmers plan and quickly adapt to changing circumstances.

‘Our farmers can now find information about supply prices, product prices, the weather, and what’s going on in international markets,’ says, Ricardo Danessi, executive manager of Coopeumo. ‘That’s important, because today, everything that goes on outside Chile also affects us. When there’s an excess of production in one place, the prices go down here. Or when there is a sudden disaster or catastrophe somewhere else, the prices improve here. When demand goes up in China or India, the prices here get better. Everything is related in this connected world, and small-scale farmers aren’t left out of that reality.’

Opportunity

Now more than ever, there is a strong focus on connecting communities to digital information. Internet connectivity rates are rising slowly, but mobile penetration rates are increasing rapidly across the world. Mobiles, therefore, provide people living in rural communities with the opportunity to access information.

The main challenge lies in being able to provide the right content for each individual user’s needs. Further complicating this is the need to be able to send information without requiring a human editor, who will bottleneck the process. In other words, MIP has solved the challenge of sending information from the internet via SMS messages; we now need to ensure that the content sent is valuable to the user.

Another limitation is that text messages transmit a maximum of 160 characters. This makes it difficult to ensure that SMS messages contain useful information. Even when a system chooses relevant information successfully, there is no guarantee that the first 160 characters of the message will accurately convey its meaning.

The farmers have stressed the importance of the information they receive and the convenience of the MIP platform. The project is now expanding beyond the beta testing stage, and we are working with local partners to continue and expand DatAgro. MIP technology can also be used for applications besides agriculture. Currently, it is being used in a joint project with the Pan American Health Organization to send messages about the management of childhood illnesses to doctors and nurses in Lima, Peru.

Basic, low-end mobile phones are the main point of access for information access for impoverished communities across the world, but they seldom have access to the internet because of the high cost of access. Almost all mobile phones can, however, receive SMS messages, which can be used to provide farmers with agricultural information that can be used to improve productivity and their businesses. The challenge is to develop a reliable and scalable way to send relevant, internet-based information by SMS messages. There is a huge opportunity to reach a large number of people with basic, but essential, information via their mobiles.

Mobile Information Project
MIP is a tool for creating news channels on even the most basic mobile phones. Using the program, organizations can route RSS feeds to SMS messages and reach a variety of people with targeted messages.
www.datadyne.org/programs/mip

DatAgro
The DatAgro project takes advantage of the high penetration rate of mobile phones in Latin America to allow rural farming cooperatives in Latin America, beginning with Chile, to define the types of information most critical to their lives and livelihoods and receive it via text messages.
www.datadyne.org/programs/mip/datagro

Cooperativa Campesina Intercomunal Peumo Ltda
Coopeumo rural cooperative works with around 400 small-scale farmers, in four counties of the sixth region of Chile. The farmers grow mainly fruit, including avocados, oranges, lemons and grapefruits, and cultivate vegetable and cereal crops such as maize.
www.coopeumo.cl

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Meghan Cagley is a programme officer at DataDyne ( www.datadyne.org)

24 February 2010

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)