A project to improve environmental conditions for farmers in West Africa is developing a voice-based market information system. The Web Alliance for Regreening in Africa intends to develop the system further to create a speech-operated world wide web.
S ibiri Sawadogo is a farmer in Burkina Faso. Over the past few years, using very simple farming techniques, he has managed to fight desertification by ‘re-greening’ the degraded and barren soil in his fields. He protected young trees and seedlings against grazing animals, used manure to improve the land, and aligned stones along his fields to prevent the rain from flushing away the topsoil.
Conditions have never been easy in this part of Africa. Water is scarce and soil is poor in the Sahel. Farmers who manage to apply re-greening techniques have more trees on their land and better soil conditions, which leads to better crops. The trees provide additional produce, such as honey and shea butter. The total increase in food production makes them less vulnerable in periods of drought, and leaves the farmers with a surplus that they can sell in the local markets. Higher productivity also offers opportunities to access new value chains.
Sibiri Sawadogo does not have sophisticated tools to cultivate his land. He holds a hoe in one hand, a cell phone in the other. His farming knowledge is of great value to others in the Sahel. If more producers in the region could take advantage of these methods of re-greening the land, their living conditions and livelihoods could greatly improve.
Many farmers in remote rural areas in the region like to share information about the produce they want to sell on the local markets, about vaccinating their herds and other topics. Many farmers are not able to read or write. They rely on voice communication, talking mainly in local African languages. Any useful method for sharing information would, therefore, have to use voice communication.
Development specialist, Jeffrey Sachs, said that mobile telephony had become ‘the single most transformative technology of economic development of our time’. The widespread availability of cell phones is creating opportunities to bring the benefits of the world wide web within the reach of many poor people in developing countries.
However, even if it is possible for farmers to access and exchange information about re-greening on the web, and even supposing that the web could be accessed simply by speaking through a cell phone, farmers in the Sahel do not have smartphones that can host a mobile browser. Many are not able to send or read an SMS.
The problems they face in terms of communication and lack of information are common. Creating, searching for and sharing information are very basic human needs. Unfortunately, the web was designed in the context of rich, industrialised countries. Adaptations are needed to make it accessible to and relevant for the other 4.5 billion people in the world.
With this in mind, the Network Institute from VU University Amsterdam, together with the World Wide Web Foundation and Sahel Eco, an NGO from Mali, initiated a project called the Web Alliance for Regreening in Africa (W4RA). Since 2010, the work of W4RA has been part of VOICES (VOIce-based Community–cEntric mobile Services), a research project investigating generic voice-based web access and its application in agriculture and health.
The project team began with a visit to three countries in West Africa – Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana – where they met with many rural communities, farmers, nomadic pastoralists, local NGOs, farmer organisations, local ICT entrepreneurs, and local community radio stations. The team talked with the various groups to learn more about their lives and work, and about how they share information.
During the trip, the team spoke with farmers and shepherds and visited several small radio stations in the three countries. Community radio and cell phones are, apart from word-of-mouth, the main communication channels. In the remote villages, there is no electricity, television or internet.
Every day, radio programmes are broadcast in the local languages to a wide audience. People often walk several miles to have a handwritten message for their friends or family read out on the radio. They are ready to pay a broadcasting fee of 500 CFA francs (just under one euro), which is a considerable amount for many people in this region.
The team asked the farmers, herders and radio professionals to share their thoughts on voice-based services that might be of use to them. The concept gave rise to a vivid discussion with many original ideas for innovative services. The farmers have a lot of information to share with their peers and they indicated that they were prepared to pay a small amount for a service if it was useful to them. One farmer envisioned some sort of directory service, which could put him in touch with an expert who could teach him how to prune shea trees.
That first visit to Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana provided enough data to develop plans for the creation of voice services based on simple cell phones and involving community radio stations.
The work done by the W4RA is based on the ‘living labs’ concept. Following this approach, all stakeholders, especially the end-users, are involved in the development of a new system. Accordingly, stakeholders in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana were explicitly involved in various stages of the project’s development.
The first system built by W4RA-VOICES is known as Radio Marché (or ‘market radio’). It supports agricultural value chains by delivering market information and simplifying the trading of goods in the region. Radio Marché is based on a combination of cell phone, voice and web technologies, and has been designed to automatically generate voice messages containing market information that can be broadcast over the radio.
There is the web-based form, for example, for Sahel Eco staff to enter and store the market data, a voice-generating module that creates speech with a Malian French accent. This system can be connected to the computer or a phone network, so that the radio stations can access the speech messages by phone. In this way, it becomes easier for farmers to have their details entered into the Radio Marché system and have the availability of their products promoted on the radio.
Sahel Eco specifically requested the development of the system, and provided suggestions for the initial design. The organisation is already working to improve trading conditions for 20 rural communities in the Tominian area of Mali. Farmers here sell honey, nuts from the shea tree, a moisturising cream made from the oil of the nuts (shea butter) and other products.
The communities already use radio advertisements to reach new customers. And, every week, the farmers send SMS messages to Sahel Eco with information on the types and amounts of goods they have available for market. Previously, a staff member from Sahel Eco would manually enter the information into a computer text file, then print the data on paper and send it to the radio station by bicycle.
Now, the Sahel Eco employee enters the market information into a form on a dedicated Radio Marché website. With the data stored on a database, the system can automatically convert the information into a speech message. The radio station then receives an SMS notification when a new speech message is ready. The programme presenter can dial a number to hear it, and can either broadcast the information directly from the phone or record it for broadcast later.
The station often plays the messages several times a day. A presenter no longer has to read out the long list of details, which saves time and ensures that the data are broadcast accurately. If the radio station has an internet connection (not all of them do), they can receive the voice message as an audio-file attached to an e-mail.
To create the automatic speech messages, the W4RA project team recorded and processed the voices of two radio journalists from Radio Moutian and ORTM Segou. Although the voice message is computer generated, recording human voices gives it a very natural sound. In 2012, the Radio Marché system will be extended to generate voice messages in the local Bambara language, and there are also plans to make it available in the Bomu languages.
When the W4RA team next visited the region they met radio journalists and farmers and talked to them about the Radio Marché system. The radio journalists were keen to use the new technologies, and the farmers were pleased with the fact that the system helped to connect them with new customers for their products.
The main objective of the W4RA project is to improve value chains for farmers by setting up mobile web services that are useful in the local context. Making the world wide web available on simple cell phones through voice access, however, is a great challenge. Speech is a very different medium from written text. A speech-operated web would therefore need a very different design from a text-based one, and would have to be adaptable to be able to recognise spoken words in every language, and ideally every dialect within that language.
The current Radio Marché system, for example, is only equipped to produce audio messages in French. An important step is to record the required audio fragments in other regional languages, and to adapt the audio message construction methods to be able to deal with these languages.
W4RA hopes to overcome these issues by listening carefully to the needs of
users, and by developing and deploying innovative technologies that provide access to knowledge sharing systems that really suit the local context.
To ensure the system is as robust as possible, Radio Marché has been extensively tested in the environment where it will be used. The software developed by W4RA and VOICES projects will be made available as open source products so that anyone can use, or further develop, the voice services without paying a subscription fee or licence. Anyone who wants to support and help build these services is welcome to join the W4RA networked community. Meanwhile, W4RA will train local ICT entrepreneurs (initially in the three project countries and later in others) to set up and maintain voice services similar to Radio Marché.
In November 2011, Radio Marché began operating in Mali with the backing of a group of local radio stations and staff members from Sahel Eco. Since then, W4RA has been developing other voice-based systems that can benefit more organisations and rural communities. They will do this by introducing facilities such as voice-based social networking, voice information services related to value chain development and other rural and regreening matters.
Over the coming years, W4RA plans to focus on developing local communities by organising events, workshops, and training activities, and by creating a group of individuals, businesses and institutions that want to build on the success of innovative voice services in the areas of re-greening and in support of poor communities.
The project also plans to make the information from the system available to non-radio users, providing any potential buyer or seller with the latest market messages. The project will further investigate the economic sustainability of the system too. Radio Marché is designed to be a low-cost, easy-maintenance system, and early market analysis results suggest that it can be economically sustainable even with a small number of users. Moreover, the system can be easily replicated in other regions and can cover a wide variety of uses.
W4RA is not just any other project. It is a global networked community involving computer scientists, farmers, local radio stations and ICT entrepreneurs in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana. It aims to expand the world wide web by creating a communications system where people can create, access and share their knowledge – even if they cannot read or write, and even if they only speak a single language. The philosophy of W4RA is to build an open web platform – based on voice services – that will empower men and women in remote rural areas of Africa.
Voice-based services may bring new opportunities for people to exchange information about regreening activities, or about prices at the local market, about health or legal issues, local news or about music and entertainment. Just about anything you can imagine. Just like the world wide web.