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A connecting business October 29th, 2017 by

More people than ever before are now connected to electricity and digital communication in tropical countries. Progress is slower in the countryside though high demand from rural customers is driving new efforts to give farmers the connectivity they crave.

Rural electrification has been high on the agenda of development aid for decades. Although significant progress has been made, donors, policy-makers and rural people alike have come to realize that connecting remote areas to the grid is more challenging than many had once assumed. The poor often lose out on electricity, which most people now consider a basic service. But if necesity is the mother of invention, as the old saying goes, then the father of invention must be a new idea, as Jeff wrote in one of his inspiring publications in 2000. New technologies are giving rural people plenty of fresh ideas to experiment with.

New modes of communication and businesses have popped up to help the poor access the web and related services. Mobile phones have penetrated rural areas at an unexpectedly fast rate, even in villages off the grid. Two years ago, when making a series of videos on “Milk as a business” with pastoralist Fulani herders in Nigeria, I was amazed to see 13-year old Yussuf run a mobile phone charging business under a tree near one of the milk collection centres. Solar pannels provided Yussuf with electricity. When I asked him how he could remember which phone belonged to who, he smiled and showed me the name of each owner written on a little piece of masking tape he had stuck on the back of each phone. “I went to the madrassa and learned to write in Arabic.” In madrassas, Islamic religious schools, children learn Arabic, so they can read the Koran. When the dairy company installed a milk collection centre for the Fulani herders, Yussuf realised that the transporters who collect milk on motor bikes needed to have their phones regularly charged.

In countries such as India and Bangladesh with high population densities and lots of potential customers, local ICT-savvy entrepreneurs have developed popular apps to help farmers monitor real-time market prices and weather forecasts on their mobile phones.

Last week, Ahmad Salahuddin, of Access Agriculture, and I met with some 20 farmer seed producers in Jessore, Bangladesh, to introduce them to the free services offered by Access Agriculture. By the end of our presentation, three of these farmers had already started watching some of the training videos on the website, and one had registered to download videos. When Salahuddin asked how they could share the videos with other farmers, many said via “Share it”, a popular app to transfer videos from one phone to another.

Fernando Soussa, a Swiss researcher, and colleagues interviewed 460 farmers in Mali and Burkina Faso about their use of mobile phones. They found that many villagers, including young women who had until recently had limited access to information services, were now using 3G mobile phones with Bluetooth to watch videos.

Videos on mobile phones help to reach illiterate farmers, so new business ventures are more likely to emerge as it gets easier to watch videos and as good farmer training videos become increasingly available. Entrepreneurs typically innovate when new products like cell phones meet old demands for information, to create new market potential. Farmers increasingly want audio-visual information, and businesses will play a role to make this happen, for example selling inexpensive smart phones and charging phones for customers off the grid.  When my colleagues and I started placing farmer learning videos on the Access Agriculture platform, few farmers had access to computers or the internet. We thought that farmers would have to go through extensionists to watch the videos. But in a few short years, farmers in remote corners of the world have started buying smart phones, and eagerly getting on line themselves.

Read more

Bentley, J. (2000) The mothers, fathers and midwives of invention: Zamorano’s natural pest control course. In G. Stoll (ed.) Natural Crop Protection in the Tropics: Letting Information Come to Life (pp. 281-289). Agrecol, ICTA, MArgraf Verlag.

Sousa, F., Nicolay, G. and Home, R. (2016) Information technologies as a tool for agricultural extension and farmer-to-farmer exchange: Mobile-phone video use in Mali and Burkina Faso. The International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology 12(3), 19-36. Download article.

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