The many uses of mobiles

Mobile phones can deliver information in many different ways

Over the years, ICT Update has covered the many ways in which mobile phones are used to promote agricultural and rural development. The technology has proven so useful that it is likely to remain a popular method of information delivery for some time to come.

A recent World Bank report noted that mobile phones were ‘the single most powerful way to extend economic opportunities and key services to millions of people’. The report added that in the next few years almost all new customers connecting to mobile phone networks will come from the rural areas of developing countries. They will join the 3 billion people in the South who already use a mobile phone.

In little more than a decade, mobile phones have become the clear technology of choice for communication. SMS (short message service) in particular has become an extremely important way to send and receive information. These short and simple messages are convenient and affordable and, perhaps most important, they are (usually) free to receive.

Another advantage of SMS is that it is possible to set up a system to deliver messages automatically to a large number of people at the same time. This is difficult to achieve with voice messages, which also cost more and rely on the fact that the person receiving the call must have their mobile phone switched on and connected to the network at the time the call is made. SMS is, therefore, an ideal way for organizations and businesses to reach their target audience, whether they want to sell bank services, promote safe sex or share commodity prices, but especially if they want to get a message across to people with limited or no access to the internet.

Farmers are now far better placed to receive accurate market information on their mobile phone. Small producers no longer have to accept the first price they are offered; with access to up to date market information, they can negotiate to try to get a better deal. They can also communicate with other farmers more easily, making it feasible for them to set up cooperatives that can explore new markets and sell their products to bigger buyers.

Positive feedback

Market information services are now helping farmers in ACP countries by delivering the information they need to build their businesses. Over the years, ICT Update has reported on several initiatives that have continued to innovate and develop their services.

As early as November 2002 (issue 9), Daniel Annerose described how the Senegalese company, Manobi, delivered market information to farmers. ‘Manobi has developed a system that collects data in real time and makes use of internet and mobile technologies to follow the daily price fluctuations and deliveries of produce to markets.’

Seven years later, Manobi is still delivering agricultural market information throughout West Africa. ‘Throughout every step of production farmers need information on a whole range of topics from access to credit and supplies (seeds, pest control, fertilizers) to contact with extension services, pricing details, processing and packaging,’ said Annerose in 2009. ‘If a company can provide this information and can help farmers generate more income then the farmers will have extra money to pay for the communication services.’

Like Manobi, the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (KACE) realized that farmers need more than simple market information; they need to connect to other businesses involved in bringing their products to market and to consumers. In other words, the farmers need to become part of the market supply chain. KACE helps to link farmers, companies and markets through a network of franchised market resource centres (MRCs). The centres provide KACE with up-to-date market data, which is then distributed via SMS to farmers. The MRCs also offer on-site internet, email and phone facilities.

Also in Kenya, DrumNet operates a network of information access points or ‘info-kiosks’ that offer marketing, financial and information services for farmers. Each info-kiosk is equipped with an internet connection, a computer and mobile phones, and is connected to a hub in Nairobi. There, information from around the country is aggregated in a central database and is then distributed to the info-kiosks and to the farmers by SMS.

Similar services are currently operating elsewhere in East Africa. These include the Farmers’ Information Communication Management (FICOM) project, which began by supporting dairy farmers in Uganda, and FoodNet, which delivers market information via mobile phone and FM radio broadcasts.

In West Africa, BusyLab, a group of Ghanaian software developers, launched TradeNet (now known as Esoko), a service that allows farmers to send SMS messages advertising their products. The messages are published on the web and are sent via SMS to subscribers who may be interested in those products. The advantage of this service is that the information reaches a broad audience – anyone with access to the internet – thus encouraging cross-border trade between neighbouring countries and even other continents.

The National Association of Agricultural Producer Organizations of Côte d’Ivoire (ANOPACI) also uses the TradeNet system and distributes market prices on radio and on information boards in local markets.

With care

SMS is also used widely by organizations to deliver health information to rural communities. In April 2009, ICT Update reported on how the Praekelt Foundation, a South African technology company, has developed a way to use the space available in ‘please call me‘ (PCM) messages to deliver targeted health information. PCM is a messaging service where someone can send a free text message asking the recipient to call back. Because a PCM uses only 40 of the 160 characters allowed in a text message, Praekelt developed SocialTxt, which adds messages of up to 120 characters to fill the unused space.

Also in the context of healthcare, the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) has developed a device that holds a mobile phone in position on a microscope. Using the phone’s camera function, it is possible to take a picture of a microscope slide (with a sample of malaria infected blood, for example) and then send it via MMS (multimedia messaging service) to a specialist laboratory for analysis and diagnosis. The laboratory then delivers the results to the same camera phone in the form of an SMS message .

But while SMS is proving to be a very useful and cost-effective method of providing market and crop data, it also requires that users some level of literacy, and sometimes knowledge of a language that is not their mother tongue. Communication by voice, especially if you can talk in your own language, has many advantages.

Complex and detailed crop production methods or pest control procedures, for example, cannot be explained in the short space available in a typical SMS message. More detailed information has to be delivered in other ways. Radio broadcasts can be a very effective means of explaining detailed processes to many people at the same time. But if a particular radio programme talks about maize harvesting, it doesn’t really help the farmer who needs to know how to control a fungal infection in tomato plants.


In December 2007, ICT Update reported on the Banana Information Line, a pilot project in Kenya to provide farmers with specific information as and when they need it. The farmers could call a number and, via a voice-activated menu, listen to a recording giving the specific information they needed, in either English or Kiswahili.

That initial experiment led to the development of the National Farmer Information Service (NAFIS) where farmers can now call a dedicated number to get advice on the best ways to grow a wide range of crops (maize, tomatoes, mangoes and chillies) or raise livestock (cattle, poultry, goats and bees). While a phone call is more expensive than a text message, farmers have the advantage of being able to get the right, detailed advice at the moment they need it. The same information is also available on the web, so that farmers can access it from a telecentre, for example. They can then print out the information they need to read later and to share with other producers.

In South Africa, the Shuttleworth Foundation, together with the private telecommunications company, Dabba, and a host of other partners, have launched the Village Telco project. The team has developed a basic, low-cost wireless router – which they call a ‘mesh potato’ – into which customers can plug a POTS (plain old telephone service) telephone. The router connects to a local wireless network and the telephone signal is carried to a central hub, often in a nearby internet café. Customers can therefore use an ordinary telephone, which is much cheaper than a mobile phone. The business model for the mesh potato system encourages entrepreneurs to develop their own local telephone network in areas where a mobile network doesn’t yet exist.

The Fantsuam Foundation in Nigeria is also helping to bring telephone services to rural communities. But rather than mobile phones, the organization uses voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology for their ZittNet network. Customers can buy a simple plug-and-play system, called ‘VoIP in a box’, for around US$ 50. They then plug it into their computer and connect to the network to call other ZittNet customers for free or buy pre-paid airtime vouchers to make use of the local mobile network to call fixed-lines and other mobile users.

Similarly, Connect Africa is setting up payphones in remote parts of Zambia through satellite telephone providers, Iridium Satellite and Thuraya. The real innovation in this system is that it uses zinc–air batteries, which are much cheaper and easier to maintain than normal lead–acid batteries, and means that the payphones can even serve areas where there is no mains electricity supply. And, of course, the spread of mobile phones has also made it possible for people in rural areas to access financial services such as money transfers, savings accounts, credit and insurance (see page 11 for more on mobile banking).

Getting smart

The next major development in the use of mobile phones for agricultural and rural development will be the continued growth of ‘smartphones’, such as the Blackberry and iPhone. These devices can access the web over 3G (third generation) wireless networks, which provides greater bandwidth to deliver data and voice services. Smartphones can also access the internet via local Wi-Fi networks, such as those installed in many offices and homes.

These devices are becoming extremely popular throughout Europe and North America where most people have access to a computer to surf the web and send email. There is also a huge potential for smartphones to supply web services to areas where it would be too expensive to install broadband cable networks. These are early days, but there are signs that smartphones will be useful to many people in ACP countries.

A recent Unicef report showed that more than 7 million Nigerians are now browsing the web on their mobile phones. In Nigeria, the number of web pages accessed with Opera Mini, a mobile phone browser, increased by nearly 1700% between January and September 2008. But other figures from Opera Mini show that South Africa and Egypt lead the way in mobile web adoption in Africa, followed by Kenya and Nigeria.

Almost all major computer hardware manufacturers now produce small, and steadily cheaper, laptops, also known as netbooks. Many projects are promoting netbooks, especially in education, but perhaps future discussions will not be about whether to use small laptops or mobile phones. It’s likely that future developments will make use of both technologies.
It would make sense, for example, if mobile phones and computers had compatible operating systems, allowing users to run the same software and applications on both devices. Integration of technology is surely the most sensible way to reach rural areas and connect with the millions of people that can make such a system economically viable.

Related resources

Manobi Development Foundation
Promotes the use of ICTs for rural economic development.

Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (KACE)
Collects and delivers agricultural market information for Kenyan farmers.

A project of Pride Africa providing business support services to smallholder farmers.

A market research network for East and Central Africa.

Esoko (formerly TradeNet)
A software platform that delivers market data via the web, email and SMS. (

National Association of Agricultural Producer Organizations of Côte d'Ivoire
Association Nationale des Organisations Professionnelles Agricoles de Côte d'Ivoire
ANOPACI uses Esoko to deliver market information in Côte d'Ivoire.

Praekelt Foundation
Designs and develops digital media products.

Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research
An independent Dutch research and development institute.

National Farmer Information Service
Provides agricultural and livestock information to Kenyan farmers via the phone and on the web.

Village Telco project
A broad partnership of experts working to develop a village telecommunications system.

Fantsuam Foundation
Delivers microfinance and ICT services in rural Nigeria.

Connect Africa
Supplies public phone systems to rural communities throughout Africa.

06 August 2009

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)