The Village e-Science for Life project is working with two rural communities in Kenya to test a variety of mobile devices for delivering and recording agricultural information. The research led to the development of the Mobile Resource Kit.
‘We went there with no preconceptions at all, with no particular technologies in mind. We wanted to find out exactly what technologies would help farmers and schools.’ Kevin Walker is a researcher with the London Knowledge Lab, working on the Village e-Science for Life (VeSeL) project. A diverse group of scientists from the UK and the University of Nairobi make up the project team, along with sensor network experts, communications specialists and ethnographers.
The VeSeL researchers wanted to look at how rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa could use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve agriculture and increase literacy levels. The project, which started in 2006, is initially working with two communities in Kenya to identify which technologies are best suited to the villagers’ needs.
The team deliberately chose two very different locations for the pilot phase of this project. Kiangwachi is located in the central highland area of the country, near Mount Kenya, where the land is generally fertile and receives regular rainfall. There are large, well-watered fields of maize, beans, wheat and vegetables, and the soil is rich, dark red-brown and moist.
Kambu, on the other hand, is in the south of the country, halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa. The area faces severe challenges, including drought and environmental degradation. As a result, the area around Kambu regularly suffers from famine and is one of the poorest parts of Kenya.
‘In the two villages, very few people used SMS,’ explains Walker. ‘Those who had phones mostly used voice, due to literacy problems. People didn’t access the internet on their phones, mostly because the phones were older and didn’t support the technology, but even if they could, the connection charges are too expensive. The charges would have to come down before more people start using the internet on their phone.’
VeSeL tried out a variety of mobile devices in both communities, including digital cameras, mp3 players, desktop computers and Apple Macintosh laptops. With detailed feedback from both villages, the team came up with a Mobile Resource Kit containing the equipment that the communities felt most comfortable with, and which would be the most useful.
‘We anticipated that a mobile system would be preferable,’ says Walker, ‘as it could be taken from village to village, or farm to farm, and in areas where there was poor reception from the mobile network, it could be moved to a place with a better signal. One interesting result of the research was that the Apple MacBook was popular with people who hadn’t used a computer before, as they found its interface much easier to use than other operating systems.’
The Apple MacBook is the main feature of the Mobile Resource Kit, along with a modem that plugs into the computer’s USB port and connects to the internet via a mobile phone network. The power supply comes from a portable solar panel. From the very first discussion with the project team, the farmers made it clear that they wanted a two-way information exchange system. They wanted information about markets, crops and pests, and they wanted to contribute content to publicize their products and their work. ‘We set up blogs and websites using, where possible, free and open source tools and trained them how to use these applications along with the equipment. They could then take pictures and post them on the internet and add text.’
The team provided one kit to each primary school and farmers’ group in both villages, on the assumption that the people would share use of the laptop. However, they quickly ran into some ownership issues, where one person would take the laptop home and keep it for a long time.
‘One school was very interested in the system,’ explains Walker. ‘And we saw that it only takes one or two people to be really enthusiastic to motivate and engage the others. For this idea to work, of providing one laptop for a group of people to use, then there needs to be one main person to champion the technology and who is also prepared to train others. It doesn’t work if one person monopolizes the equipment and doesn’t let anyone else use it.’
Currently, computer science and agricultural students from the University of Nairobi visit the communities to train a few people there. They, in turn, will go on to train others in the community. Computing skills would, in theory, continually develop among villagers, but there would have to be a plan to ensure that the communities could cover the ongoing maintenance and connection costs in the long term.
‘We thought about sustainability from the start,’ says Walker. ‘We thought about how the project could continue after the initial period of support ends. We didn’t want to be another project that just flies in and drops some computers, which are left untouched after the project ends. However, we hadn’t decided on specific business models, but that was one of the first issues that arose when we spoke to the farmers. They wanted to know which crops they could grow to make the most money and find the best markets for their products. The increased income would help pay for the running costs of the system. Others suggested they could use the solar panels to recharge mobile phones, or charge individuals to access the internet and use the computer as a small, portable internet café.’
For many farmers, the VeSeL project was the first time they had used the internet and so they had to learn how to browse the web, what search terms to use, and how to end up with the most reliable information. In an effort to help keep the internet connection costs to a minimum, the team decided to work with Infonet-Biovision, an organization that had completed a database of agricultural information especially aimed at developing countries [see page 7 for more details].
Through a series of usability studies, they came up with an information system that was mostly pictures, so users could browse through the photographs and find the crops they are interested in, or identify the diseases that are causing problems. With this database loaded on to the hard drive of the laptops, the farmers could browse the information without having to connect to the internet.
‘We also tested iPods that we loaded with agricultural information, such as pest and crop disease details,’ explains Walker. ‘The farmers use the scrolling wheel on the device to flip through a set of pictures. When they find one of interest, they can then select either audio or text information. This exploits a feature of the iPod which was developed to hold album photos, lyrics and music. This system was very popular with farmers and extension officers. Sometimes, the equipment that arrives in communities is so fragile that many people are afraid to use it in case it gets broken, but that wasn’t the case here. This device is very portable and robust; it was simple to use and carry around and can also be charged, with power and data updates, from the laptop.’
The project team then started looking at other ways they could use the technology to improve crop production. ‘It’s easy to see if something is affecting your crop if there are spots on the leaves,’ explains Walker, ‘but other important factors are not so easy to visualize. There were also no records of the types of crops grown, where or when, what was sold and to whom, when there was a dry spell or when there was heavy rain.
Some older people had recorded data on paper, but long-term record keeping would really help the farmers to plan future crops. It would be useful for the farmers if they could measure certain conditions over time. We decided to try out a sensor network that would help record, for example, soil moisture, as the ground can look wet on top but could be dry underneath, or vice versa.’
They started by using small wireless sensor nodes with a small solar panel connected to them to provide power. The sensors can store data until an internet connection becomes available. The data are then transferred to the laptop. The project also tested handheld sensors, where the farmers have to physically go to the location, as they often do anyway, to take a reading. They were able to measure the conditions surrounding the plant – the amount of sunlight and moisture, for example – and then download the data on to the computer.
‘The farmers are very good at what they do,’ says Walker. ‘They use techniques that work well in their local environment. We’re trying to augment those methods with the technology, to work with those methods they’re already using. We tried the sensor network and saw that it wasn’t really adapted to what they were doing, but that the handheld sensors were more useful.’
Since the farmers collect the data themselves from each location, they can also take photographs, make notes, or record observations by speaking into an mp3 recorder. All of this information can be matched later to the sensor data, to give the farmers a better overview of the changing conditions and how they affect their crops. The next step from that would be automatic watering systems, so that the sensors are not only reading information but, based on the amount of water in the soil, the computer can use the information the sensors send to work out how much extra water the crop needs.
‘The farmers now know the exact moisture content of the soil,’ adds Walker. ‘You can stick your finger in the ground to test how dry or wet it is, but the sensors give a more precise reading and at a deeper, root level. Of course, this is nothing new. Major agricultural producers throughout the world routinely use sensors in very large networks to track production conditions. The project simply developed the same system on a small scale. And, so far, the handheld sensors seem to be the most useful.’
After the success in Kenya, VeSeL is now looking to introduce their system in other countries. ‘We’re looking to test the kit in South Africa next. I expect that we’d be able to use the same technologies there too, since laptops, digital cameras and soil sensors could be useful anywhere, but it remains to be seen if different locations require very different technology. We would still go through the same test process, with no preconceptions, and just listen to what people are doing, what they would like to do and how they think the technology could help them. Together with the community we could design a system that’s ready-made for each location, probably requiring only minor adaptations.’
As more communities start using the technology, it would be possible to link all the farmers into a grassroots network for small producers. Farmers could post questions to the group to ask others about their experience with particular soil types, harvesting and propagation techniques, or ask advice on which fertilizers to use. Making connections to other people working in similar situations has been beneficial to the VeSeL project team too, offering opportunities for future collaboration.
‘We have been contacted by lots of organizations after they heard about our work,’ says Walker. ‘It could be interesting, for example, to work with an international aid organization to test the Mobile Resource Kit in multiple locations, where they have support from local offices. Another way would be to go through government departments and have agricultural extension workers using the kit. They could ride out to remote villages on a motor bike, as many already do, with the kit and be able to access and publicize information instantly, depending on the needs of that particular community. They could also train people how to use the technology.’
The training aspect is very important for the VeSeL team. Since technology develops and changes rapidly, familiarity with a variety of ICTs will help communities adapt future technological advances to suit their specific situation. ‘If more people can learn basic computer skills,’ says Walker, ‘and have an idea of how to use the internet, then those skills will still be useful as new technologies become available. Whether it’s the next generation of web access phone, mini laptop or desktop computer, the farmers can apply even basic knowledge to improve their crops and add to the economic development of their communities.’
Village e-Science for Life
Kambu village websites
Kambu Agricultural Information Exchange
Mtito-Andei Development Initiative (MDI)
Kiangwachi village websites
Karia Farmer Self-Help Group