Collaborate, Create, Communicate

M-agriculture: mobile devices and their role in transforming communication

Many are surprised by the rapid emergence of mobile telephony and generally connected populations across the globe thanks to mobile devices. There are so many possible applications arising, but as usual the challenge is in understanding what is the right place and role of the technology in social, economic, educational interactions.

Some tough questions around the use of mobile devices in agricultural development have been the starting point of a series of sessions organised by CTA that culminated in the 2009 ICT Observatory wiki and in the knowledge cafe’ on m-agriculture at the IAALD Congress.

At the 2010 IAALD Congress in April, an interesting knowledge cafe’ was held on m-agriculture. M-agriculture refers to agricultural services, technology dissemination, and communication using mobile devices such as mobile phones, laptops, netbooks, PDAs and other wireless enabled devices.

In this step of an ongoing process aimed to define an emerging domain, the participants were asked to discuss three questions on the ways in which mobile devices are transforming information and communication in agriculture. To inspire the discussion, three panelists were there to share their stories of mobile devices enabling change processes: from dissemination of alerts of new available literature, to informing a small group of people of available crops on sale, to a complex community based project involving women farmers.

Here are the stories in the voice of two of their tellers.

Paul Barera, Chairman of the Rwanda Telecentre Association, describes how mobile phones supported an innovative service from the Nyamata telecentre in Rwanda.

Paul Barera on mobile phones and sustainable telecentres from CTA on Vimeo.

Sulah Ndaula described how a mobile phone increased the profitability of Sunday, a migrant farmer in Uganda:
Sunday, a 32-year old migrant from Uganda-Rwanda boarder, arrived in Wakiso district, a suburb of Kampala, in 1995. For a decade he hopped from job to job; trying out serving people’s households as a farm boy, to a porter on road construction before turning to farming, a childhood skill he learnt from his father – but all with little success. According to Sunday, his father had written him off, as a failure.

Last year, 2009, he got a break through – change his father’s attitude about him. His horticulture and legume garden helped him succeed. Unlike previous times where he sold to middlemen, I helped him develop strategies to sell to rich households.

We developed mobile phone mailing lists of the nearby households. With this list he kept sending updates about what is ready and available for consumption. As a result, consumers bought his farm output fresh and cheaper directly on his farm. Many actually used m-money to pay him. The strategy gained him U$ 1500 in profit for the season. He used this money back home to buy 5 heifers at U$ 500 and a plot of farming land at U$ 1000. He also used the money to hire an additional 2 acres of land to expand his farm to 4 acres.

Imagine what m-agriculture can do from enhancing the availability of food on plate, raw materials for industries that make human needs meet to linking up the five sub-domains making the holistic domain: research, education,  extension, production and marketing.

The story behind the story

In May, 2008, I was in Hungary for the Global Telecentre Alliance conference. Observing along field trip, I could see that households parked at farms buying farm outputs directly from farmers. Reflecting over it, I thought it could be one way to enhance money mobility to rural communities as well as creating positive feedback to increase food production. Use of ICT tools could even make it possible at national and regional level. Sunday gave me the chance to test this innovation in my country’s experience.

The knowledge cafe at IAALD 2010

This was structured around three questions:

  1. what feature or application do you want on a mobile device or what feature will emerge?
  2. focus on agriculture: the nature of mobile devices is using the relationships with end users. the format of the info is different than on a standard computer. How is information changing on mobile devices that is changing use of information?
  3. focus on business models: mobile devices bring commerce into the information space: is it good or bad? what’s the impact on info as public good? how can information specialist adapt to this changing relationship between public and private sector? what are the opportunities?

Some highlights emerged from the table discussions:

1) What kind of application do you want to see?

It would be good if the open source software movement would expand to the mobile telephone sector, so that software could be adapted faster to local languages and the use of symbols. Another striking example of an application that has emerged to meet specific local needs is Novatell’s MiFi which connects to a mobile channel and creates a local wifi network to which more than one device can be connected.

2) How is technology changing the information formats?

There is a need to develop tailored apps and information, but attention in particular should be given to the possibility of sending images or videos or voice not only text. New compression technologies for video, audio and images would be highly desirable so that multimedia could travel light. Also content standards may become necessary, not only in terms of formats but particularly in terms of the methodologies used to collect and synthesize the information.

Information and applications rely often on location, which is automatically detected by mobile devices so that local content can be pushed to users. In looking at content, we need to look at it in interaction with the environment, so the technology is not considered in isolation.

3) What market models or opportunities are emerging?

The issue is how to minimise the cost so as to guarantee equitable access and affordability. Countries should look at ways of harmonising costs and discuss with private sector. There has been progress in this direction in some Asian countries, like India, where the government has involved the private sector in investing in making the phone market more affordable.

In Africa, on the contrary, the market is unregulated, and here the opinions of the participants diverged. Some advocated the balancing act of the free market while others supported the opinion that competition doesn’t bring down prices, particularly for sms. Unless there is enough consumer protection, there are lots of risks in free markets.

Participants argued that there are funds available in Africa but are not being spent in the right way. This is partly a result of an inadequate regulatory framework, which could channel sources such as Universal Service Funds to appropriate projects. But it is also important to recognise the role of regulation in encouraging commercial investment. To stimulate the private sector, the market needs to be regulated and monitored and companies encouraged recognise that their involvement extends beyond the narrow perspective of investment alone.

However, the analysis needs to match the complexity of local contexts, where a range of factors such as location, content quality and cost change the nature of the models. For example, looking at the dissemination of market prices via mobile devices, issues of validity may arise if the price does not take into account distance, which of course would influence the final price. But if the added value of the service is clear for the end users, as for instance where such information is enabling them to run the business better, the issue of cost becomes secondary.


Special thanks to Pete Cranston, who facilitated the Knowledge Cafe’ at IAALD, for documenting the stories and substantially contributing to this post.