The second week of the trip (see the first week post for background) is now over. After Senegal and the VOICES project, Aman and I, together with the VU team (Hans, Anna, Chris, Wendelien, Nana) and Mary from Sahel Eco flew to Bamako in Mali for the second part of the trip dedicated to W4RA.
This project started a bit more than a year ago, and we had a series of meeting during 2010 (see related blog posts), starting with a field visit and a workshop in Burkina Faso. This led us to identify potential Web-based services to support the Africa Regreening Initiative. In order to be sure that we are on track, we developed demos of different technologies (voice, GIS, etc.). The aim of this trip was to drive over the whole region where partners of W4RA are working and test these demos on the different actors: farmers, ICT experts, radio stations, extension agents, etc.
We started in Bamako for a meeting with farmer organizations, ICT companies and radio stations. Then we traveled to Segou, Bandiagara, and Bankass, entered in Burkina Faso to stop in Ouahigouya, and ended up in Ouagadougou. Along the way, we met lots of farmer organizations and community radio operators. All these meeting were really informative and inspiring. In summary, the output exceeded by far my expectations.
First of all, our demos worked relatively well (!). Showing people what they can do with their own phones was a hit. The feedback was very positive, and both radio stations and farmer organizations could see directly the use of voice-based services. The GIS demo also created some excitement, though limited to those that are computer literate. We identified many use cases and scenarios that are already implemented, but which could be improved significantly through the implementation of voice-based services.
Honestly, I was not expecting such excitement about the demos, and the recurring question about “when are you going to deploy those services ?” in all meetings. I also was not expecting to discover that people are already using their phones as extensively (and expensively) as they are to communicate between themselves, but also to communicate with the radio. People are eager to have access to information and to participate in the life of the community and are ready to use (and already using) (a lot of) their airtime. As an aside, while most people working at the radio stations were literate and using their phone for voice calls and SMS, absolutely none of the farmers we met, not even the head of farmers organizations, were using SMS, due to local language support and illiteracy. While this was something I was expecting, I would not have thought that the use of SMS was so low in the rural areas.
Then, we learned a lot about the local conditions. The important role of community radio in Africa (or at least in this region) was certainly reinforced in my mind. Radios are the key information source for farmers and people in rural areas. Radios are used for entertainment; to gain new knowledge about health, farming, etc.; to communicate personal messages to other communities/families/individuals; etc. It is clear that radio stations are major stakeholders for any information-related initiatives. It was interesting to see that radio operators were also very excited about integrating new services to develop more interactivity with their listeners, and to automate some of their manual tasks. This was all very positive, and some operators were so excited that I had to give live interviews on the fly!
So this is very promising!
On the less positive side, we found out that ICT companies don’t really show the same excitement for new technologies, and were not really showing strong motivation to adopt them. So this is something we will have to take into account in the process. Another interesting fact we found in Burkina is the availability of mobile phones. While absolutely everybody we met had a mobile, we learned that coverage is a major issue. For instance, in the Yatenga region, around 30% of the villages are not covered. People know where to go to place a phone call, but making an unplanned call to these same people presents a challenge. This is another interesting fact to include in our thinking.
In conclusion, we learned a great deal, as always, and I’m even more excited to take the next steps. I’m sure Aman will bring more news from the last part of the trip in Ghana (Tamale).
From a technical perspective, if anyone is interested, my voice demo is built on a standalone Voice Browser platform based on asterisk, a mobigater to transform mobile connections in SIP, and Voxeo Prophecy as the voice browser. I take the opportunity again to thank Brenda Burrell and Freedomfone who largely inspired this work. On top of this platform, I built a couple of services for the demo:
- a portal pointing to three services below
- a service allowing the listening of program radio (songs, broadcast on agriculture in Mali)
- a service enabling people to drop an announcement
- a service playing all the messages dropped through the previous service
I also brought for the demo a small FM transmitter, allowing me to show how easy it is to broadcast e.g. the messages received in an automatic way (i.e. without human intervention) on a plain very basic radio.
The GIS demo is based on Ushahidi that Max heavily adapted to our needs, and tweaked so that it works offline through the caching of OSM Maps. In case there is an interest, we could publish both demos and instructions on how to build the platforms. On the non-technical part of the demo, Aman prepared a presentation about voice-based services in India, and this was also very helpful for the discussion (the slides will be published when Aman returns).
Apart from the work, the trip itself was really marvelous. Mali is a beautiful country, very colorful. The Dogon area is really amazing, and I will publish soon all the pictures. Same for Burkina (but I knew more about the country due to last February visit).
To end, this is only a couple of feelings from my experience. We will publish a more complete report about the findings coming out of this trip. Stay tuned.