Farmers, Phones and Markets: Mobile Technology In Rural Development
By Howard Rheingold, Tue Feb 15 08:30:00 GMT 2005

What would a small-scale farmer in Africa, Peru or India want with a mobile phone or a Wi-Fi kiosk? Market information. Timely knowledge about who is buying potatoes today, what the buyers are willing to pay and where they are located can be vitally important to those who are just getting by.

Markets aren't only for the rich. Certain kinds of information, however, convey advantages to those have the right data at the right time. Until recently, only the relatively wealthy had swift access to relevant market information. The cost of technologies that connect people with economically useful price data has declined steadily, however, from the tycoons of the early 20th century with their home ticker-tape machines to the day-traders of recent decades with their desktop PCs, and now, to farmers in developing countries who are beginning to own mobile phones. With more than 320 million mobile subscribers in China already, and 150 million mobile phones among the 200 million phones projected for India (where mobile phone use already exceeds land line use) by 2007, the mobile phone looks like tomorrow's most likely access device for agricultural market information.

University of California computer scientist Eric Brewer is convinced that low-cost access to agricultural prices could yield enormous payoffs. He cites an experiment in China that indicated that farmers could earn 60 percent more on their crops if they had access to telephones to learn the true prices in nearby urban markets. "The assumption of economics is that there's basic information available about the state of the market," Brewer says. "That may be true on Wall Street, but it's not true in a rural village in China."

Small farmers worldwide have traditionally been at the mercy of middlemen and victims of their own lack of timely information. If pilot projects like KACE in Kenya, Peru's Huaral Valley Network, the wireless experiments in India by Brewer and his colleagues' ICT4B (Information and Communication Technology for Billions) organization or any of dozens of other experiments underway now around the globe prove successful, the mobile Internet might make a real economic difference in the lives of rural farmers, especially in the developing world, where wireless technology can leapfrog landline infrastructure.

A private firm, Kenya Agricultural Commodities Exchange (KACE), has contracted with African mobile provider Safaricom Limited to sell timely market information and intelligence via SMS. In addition, eleven kiosks across the country, located near where agricultural commodity buyers and sellers meet, provide low-cost access. Although farmers who can pay for SMS services aren't among the poorest of the poor, many of them aren't very much richer. The bottom end of the information market is, if anything, more fiercely competitive than wealthier info-consumers. Although the entry costs and per-unit costs for a KACE user are low compared to other capital investments facing small farmers, if the market knowledge this information provides doesn't produce a net profit to impoverished buyers, the service won't last long.

In Peru, a network of wirelessly connected, community-based kiosks in the rural Huaral Valley provides a similar service. The Agricultural Information Project for Farmers of the Chancay-Huaral Valley makes agricultural market information available and also enables local organizations in different regions to coordinate collective action around another vital commodity -- irrigation water.

In contrast to KACE's purely commercial venture, the Peruvian effort is a public enterprise, supported by a coalition of NGOs, local institutions, Peru's Education and Agriculture ministries and European development organizations. These backers put up $200,000 for two urban kiosks with ADSL links, 12 rural telecenters with Wi-Fi links and training for both operators and users. The Board of Irrigation Users runs the telecenters and plans to become economically self-sustaining within three years through revenues generated by using the facilities as Internet cafes. In addition to the technical infrastructure, the project runs Sistema de Informacion Agraria, an information portal that aggregates time-critical market data and provides practical information on plant disease prevention, farming practices, and irrigation issues.

ICT4B is an interdisciplinary collaboration of UC Berkeley's schools of Business, Public Health and Information Management and the University's Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), with backing from Hewlett Packard Labs India in Bangalore, Intel, Grameen Bank, the Markle Foundation, India Institute of Technology Delhi, Microsoft and the United Nations Development Programme. The National Science Foundation has earmarked $3 million for the project. In the summer of 2004, an ICT4B team of social and computer scientists began field studies of the first installations of their custom wireless technologies in India to prepare for wider deployments in 2005 and beyond. The technologies themselves were provided by ICT4B's sister project Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions.

India abounds in rural and urban infostructure projects of both the top-down and grassroots-up variety. The wireless pony express of Daknet uses thousands of buses equipped with Wi-Fi transceivers to pick up and deliver e-mail wirelessly from village kiosks. The Cambodian "Motoman" project uses Wi-Fi equipped motorcycles and a satellite connection to deliver e-mail to remote villages. Malappuram, India's "first e-literate district," provides basic knowledge of computer and Internet usage to more than 600,000 people. Madhya Pradesh State Initiative built an intranet to give villagers direct access to government documents: in the past, farmers had to pay $100 to officials for a copy of a land title. Now, the same titles can be ordered online for less than a dollar. Deeshaa Network uses the same Drupal software that the Howard Dean campaign used so effectively as a groupblog and information portal dedicated to "bring about greater participation in the economic development of India by providing a platform to collaborate and cooperate." Nabanna, a Unesco-implemented project, provides ICT access and training for women in rural communities in West Bengal. Peoplelink and CatGen help rural artisans increase their profits by eliminating middlemen and selling their products directly over the Internet. blogger Jamais Cascio has written about the part that rural wireless infrastructure can play in a broader economic development effort: "Rather than following the already-developed nations in the same course of 'progress,' leapfrogging means that developing regions can experiment with emerging tools, models and ideas for building their societies. Leapfrogging can happen accidentally (such as when the only systems around for adoption are better than legacy systems elsewhere), situationally (such as the adoption of decentralized communication for a sprawling, rural countryside) or intentionally (such as policies promoting the installation of Wi-Fi and free computers in poor urban areas). The best-known example of leapfrogging is the adoption of mobile phones in the developing world. It's easier and faster to put in cellular towers in rural and remote areas than to put in land lines, and as a result, cellular use is exploding."