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A telecom operator in West Africa

Orange helps to make mobile services available to farmers in Niger

With a presence in 18 African countries, Orange is an important telecom operator in Africa. Making its services available to small farmers is one of the company’s priorities.

Orange believes that mobile phones and the explosive growth of apps for these ICT devices are key levers of economic and social development in rural Africa. Mobile phones can be used to access agricultural information services and can play a particularly important role in sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of the rural population is often illiterate smallholder farmers in remote and marginalised areas.

Agriculture is the principal economic engine of most African countries, sometimes employing over 60% of their workforce. It, therefore, makes good commercial sense for telecom operators to focus on agricultural areas, where they can use their expertise to set up mobile networks and address the challenges facing smallholder farmers. A Vodafone and Accenture study from 2011 estimates that the farming populations of Africa, once properly connected to mobile value-added services (VAS) such as information, marketing and banking services, represent an additional 237 million new voice, SMS and USSD connections per year between now and 2020.

A number of telecom operators have recently decided to promote VAS to small farmers by delivering it to their mobile phones. For instance, in India the large mobile network operator Airtel partners with the Indian Farmers Fertilizer Cooperative to provide free voice-based agricultural information services to farmers. This partnership has resulted in a triple-win situation: the cooperative improved the reach and quality of its services; the farmers were able to access agricultural information services on their mobile phones; and Airtel saw a substantial growth of the use of its mobile phone network. In Kenya, KenCall, a firm that provides call centre services worldwide, successfully launched M-Kilimo, an innovative helpline farmers can call with their mobile phones to obtain reliable information on market prices, weather forecasts and other agricultural advice.

At Orange we have been inspired by these and other initiatives and decided to offer VAS to meet the particular needs of smallholder farmers in West Africa.

Labaroun Kassoua in Niger

In 2011, the Network of Chambers of Agriculture in Niger (RECA, Réseau National des Chambres d’Agriculture du Niger) and Orange Niger joined hands and launched Labaroun Kassoua, a mobile agricultural value added service (Agri VAS) providing continuously updated market prices of agricultural produce in over 70 markets in Niger. This Agri VAS was well received and by October 2012, Labaroun Kassoua had already over 8,000 regular unique users of its information service. And, these users had initiated thousands of SMS and USSD connections with Labaroun Kassoua’s servers using their mobile phones to connect to RECA’s information service.

In early 2013, building on these results, RECA and Orange Niger started a pilot project to vocalise Labaroun Kassoua’s services using IVR (Interactive Voice Response protocol). The instant positive response shows that there is great appetite for agricultural information that can be obtained in French and Hausa (the local language) through interactive voice servers.

What is USSD?

USSD (Unstructured Service Supplementary Data) is a protocol used for communicating with the computers of value-added service (VAS) providers via mobile telephone networks. The protocol supports high-speed real-time information exchange between VAS and their subscribers. Unlike SMS (Short Message Service) messages, USSD messages create a real-time connection. After entering a USSD code on a mobile phone, a reply from a VAS provider appears within seconds. The connection remains open, allowing a two-way exchange of data. Originally, USSD was designed for supplementary services of mobile network providers, such as call forwarding or multiparty calls. Today a wide range of mobile network services make use of this protocol, including VAS such mobile-money services and agricultural information services.

Orange receives a grant to launch mFarmer in Mali

In April 2012, Orange Mali received a grant of €300,000 to test and roll out the mFarmer initiative in Mali. This Agri VAS provides smallholder farmers with access to agricultural information and advice including weather forecasts, market prices, agronomy tips and advice on dealing with pests and diseases. mFarmer uses the same technologies – SMS, USSD – used by Orange Niger in its Labaroun Kassoua project. In addition, farmers can call a helpline to speak directly with an agronomist. The service was officially launched on 25 July 2013. In setting up and managing this Agri VAS, Orange Mali closely cooperates with local NGOs and the International Institute for Communication and Development.

The positive impact of mobile phones on agricultural economic development has become clearly evident. Telecom operators must also take their corporate social responsibilities and offer their expertise in setting up mobile networks in remote rural areas in Africa. In doing so, telecom operators have to work with local NGOs and other local partners who know these rural areas and the development challenges of the smallholder farmers who live there. Only by openly collaborating with such local partners will they be able to contribute effectively to sustainable development in Africa. The biggest challenge for telecom operators such as Orange is bringing mobile networks and Agri VAS to the level that these services can be financially self-sufficient and operate without government or donor support. 

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