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Android phones help poor farmers in Uganda

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 customise the phones for improved use of power and to make applications usable when the phones aren’t connected to the network,” she said, in addition to which she figured that due to Android’s rapid growth the 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.

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.

Organisations including the World Bank, Heifer International and others are paying Grameen for data that the knowledge workers collect by conducting surveys with villagers, the organisation said. Some organisations that are interested in such surveys have said they’d also like to 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. According to Thorne, from her office in Seattle, she 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.  “75% of farmers say they find the information offered by the knowledge workers to be very useful, and 80% said they acted on information they received at least once,” she said.

“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,” she added.

According to Grameen, the knowledge workers must buy the phones and charging stations, they can pay them off monthly, a process that takes about two years. In addition to which, 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 organisation founded to offer microfinance and technology to poor people around the world.

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