Android phones help poor farmers in Uganda

The Grameen Foundation has combined Android, Salesforce, solar charging and open-source tools for a project in remote Africa

Mobile-phone companies and aid agencies have talked for years about deploying feature phones, coupled with basic text information services about the weather and crop pricing, to empower poor people in undeveloped parts of the world. Now, the Grameen Foundation is taking that idea to the opposite, high-tech extreme.

About 400 so-called "community knowledge workers" in Uganda are using Android phones loaded with an open-source data-collection application that feeds data into Salesforce. The phones are powered by batteries that can be recharged in a variety of ways, including solar and bicycle.

Developed by the Seattle-based Grameen Foundation Technology Center, the project offers select farmers loans to buy an Android phone loaded with information about when and how to plant crops, care for farm animals and find markets for products.

Those farmers, whom Grameen calls community knowledge workers, then serve as experts in their villages. Other people turn to them with questions about crops or farm animals, and the knowledge workers find answers in information loaded on the phones. The knowledge workers also gather information about the farmers they talk to.

People have questioned why Grameen is using smartphones rather than low-cost feature phones, but Android phones had a number of benefits, said Heather Thorne, director of ICT innovation at the Grameen Foundation Technology Center. Android is open source, so Grameen could hire its own developers to customize the phones for improved use of power and to make applications usable when the phones aren't connected to the network. Plus, because Android is growing so quickly, she figured that phone prices would drop.

Grameen started out using the Android G1, built by HTC, but found battery life wasn't good enough, said Thorne, who came to Grameen from Microsoft's Windows Mobile group. Once, on a trip to Uganda, a knowledge worker Thorne was visiting had to return home without talking to additional farmers in a village because his phone had run out of power.

Now, Grameen is starting to use the less-power-hungry Android Ideos, built by Huawei and purchased through the local mobile operator, MTN Uganda.

It turns out that going with a smartphone rather than a feature phone was a good bet for other reasons. Grameen is hoping to make the project self-sustaining and has begun working with other agencies that see value in the network of knowledge workers. Organizations including the World Bank, Heifer International and others are paying Grameen for data that the knowledge workers collect by conducting surveys with villagers. Some organizations that are interested in such surveys have said they'd like to also collect location data and photographs, which is possible with smartphones.

Grameen uses the Open Data Kit tools, developed by researchers from the University of Washington, to create forms on the phones for collecting and sending data. The workers can input and store data on the phones even when they are out of range of a cellular network, and that information is uploaded once they move within range of the network.

In addition to collecting information for the surveys, the knowledge workers collect data about the people they talk to. That information is automatically uploaded to Salesforce. Daily, from her office in Seattle, Thorne views a Salesforce dashboard showing statistics about how many farmers the workers have talked to, what percentage of them are women, how many are considered very poor and what sources of income they have in their households.

The workers have interacted with 24,000 households so far, Thorne said. Seventy-five percent of farmers say they find the information offered by the knowledge workers to be very useful, and 80 percent said they acted on information they received at least once.

They reported that the top actions they've performed are timing their planting activities based on weather information, asking for better prices from traders, going to markets where they can get better prices and providing better care for their livestock.

The knowledge workers must buy the phones and charging stations. They can pay them off monthly, a process that takes about two years. They get paid for their work and can earn a maximum of US$20 a month if they meet targets, such as talking with a specific number of farmers.

The technology center is an arm of the Grameen Foundation, an organization founded to offer microfinance and technology to poor people around the world.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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