Software, developed especially to be used by nonprofit organizations, provides a quick and easy way to send information to a large number of people at the same time.
A high level of dependence on farming and farming-related activities is common in rural communities in ACP countries. But many farmers are still restricted to selling their produce locally, or to collectors who come to their village. Many small-scale producers do not know the true value of their goods, and sell it at a price based purely on trust. The farmers lack the kind of information which would help them make an informed decision about who to sell to and at what price.
NGOs that have traditionally helped farmers increase yields, establish co-operatives or deal with pests are beginning to realize the opportunities that increased coverage from mobile phone networks brings. There are now pilot projects springing up all over the developing world, each trying to figure out precisely what information farmers need, how to collect it, how best to deliver it and how people should be charged. To help them make sense of all this information, and to then put it to good use, several organizations are now using a piece of free software called FrontlineSMS.
The program basically turns an ordinary computer and a mobile phone into a two-way group text messaging hub. Crucially for NGOs working in rural communities, it works without the need to be connected to the internet. Originally released back in 2005, FrontlineSMS has helped election monitors in Nigeria and the Philippines, activists in Zimbabwe and Pakistan, news agencies in Iraq, humanitarian NGOs in Afghanistan and health workers in Malawi, among many others.
In El Salvador, 46% of the population live in rural areas and earn their income from agriculture-related activities. Even though the internet has become an important means of distributing information worldwide, farmers in El Salvador continue to be isolated from new communication technology that could help them access local markets and develop business opportunities. A valuable alternative to computer-based services for farmers is to use mobile phones, which are more affordable than computers and very popular even in rural areas. National statistics reveal that there are 55 mobiles for every 100 inhabitants, meaning mobile phones offer a real opportunity to deliver real-time agribusiness information, to promote products and services, and to establish real-time market links between producers and buyers and consumers.
The local nonprofit organization, FIAGRO (Agricultural Technology Innovation Foundation) use innovative technology in their work to improve the competitive advantage of the agricultural sector. They are currently promoting the use of mobile phones as a device to encourage buyers and sellers of agricultural products to exchange information and strengthen market linkages.
The project manages and posts offers from buyers and sellers. If sellers, usually smallholder farmers, are not comfortable using SMS, they can phone a small call centre managed by FIAGRO where an operator requests the information needed to produce a classified advertisement. For literate farmers or those more proficient in text messaging, posts can be made directly by SMS by writing a keyword, either ‘buy’ or ‘sell’, followed by the product information such as name, amount, sell or buy price, and product location. Using FrontlineSMS, FIAGRO then posts this information automatically to the database via the internet. [see TechTip on page 20 for more details].
The software, making use of an account on the online messaging service, Clickatell, then sends a daily summary of all the offers published during the previous 24 hours via SMS to a large number of subscribers. Through the call centre, the user can also get specific information about products geographically close to a particular market or urban centre and in the same way can request information about buyers for specific products.
The cost of calls made to the call centre will provide funding for the pilot stage of the project. At the moment, approximately 600 subscribers use the service and only pay for the information they receive or request, and they can cancel their subscription at any time. In the near future, the new multimedia (MMS) version of FrontlineSMS, currently under development, will give farmers who are unable to read or write the chance to receive market information visually, or via an audio message.
Elsewhere, in Aceh, Indonesia, Mercy Corps, an international development organization, is using FrontlineSMS to send price information to small-scale producers, mainly farmers, plantation growers and fishermen. According to David Lehr, of the Mercy Corps’ social innovations team, many of the producers suffer from a lack of up to date, accurate market price information because of their remote location, or simply because they don’t know how and where to get trustworthy information.
For the project, known as MarketInfo-SMS, Mercy Corps staff collect current commodity prices from a regular team of information gatherers and then enter the data into a computer (this set up will soon change as the data collectors will send the details directly by text message). The computer, running FrontlineSMS, sends out the data to groups of producers, government officials and others working in the agricultural sector, according to the type of information they require, which could be produce prices, prices of fertilizer and pesticides, or even weather forecasts.
In order to measure the effectiveness of the project, Mercy Corps meet with subscribers in different areas each month. The farmers say their main benefit is that they now have a better idea of a minimum price with which to start negotiation with buyers. They also gain an understanding of wider price fluctuations which helps them to determine which crops they could grow in the future to bring in a higher return. The buyers don’t lose out either; the information they receive gives them a wider choice of people to sell the produce on to. And agricultural extension workers are better placed to help farmers through improved information access and market knowledge.
MarketInfo-SMS is a free service with staff from Mercy Corps continuing to assess demand for the system and monitor its effectiveness. After only five months there are already more than 500 subscribers. To ensure the service will continue to operate for the long-term future, Mercy Corps is currently in discussions with local mobile operators and looking at potential business models.
Although no two projects working with farmers and the agricultural sector will be the same, most do try to achieve the same result; to promote market transparency. The Mercy Corps project in Aceh follows a similar UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) initiative in the same region which is also using FrontlineSMS. The benefit of projects using a common platform means the project teams can easily share their experiences. If the different organizations and service providers can learn from each other and look ahead to potential problems and find solutions then replicating the system in other parts of the world will be much easier.
Ken Banks is the founder of kiwanja.net and developer of the FrontlineSMS software. This article was written with contributions from Gary Garriott, Winrock International, and David Lehr and Mercy Corps.