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Postcard from Sahel

Aman Grewal · January 27, 2011

We are now back after being on the road for the W4RA project for the last sixteen days. We travelled from Dakar, Senegal after the Voices Project kick-off and you have read it all on Stephane’s post. For me, this was the very first trip to Senegal and I enjoyed every bit of it including discovering some delicious Indian food. It was also interesting to note that you cannot click a photo of anything without some random person, who happens to be nearby, screaming from a distance asking money. A business model that I had not thought of before.

We began our first leg in Mali with a workshop in Bamako. As Stephane has stated in the previous blog, Radio is the de-facto king of information across the Sahel. People use it for a variety of purposes. These can range from broadcasting information related to lost or missing animals to more general info-tainment purposes. It was interesting to see that the radio program related to most popular 40 songs by vote was oversubscribed with an incentive of free airtime for the listener who is able to guess two songs from the playlist. Our own Stephane Boyera was invited impromptu to be part of a live radio broadcast. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and in fact, followed it up again with Mary Allen from Sahel Eco and Anna Bon from VU joining in.

We were on the lookout for interesting examples and uses of mobile phones across the Sahel especially related to re-greening activities and we were not disappointed.

General Points on the Use of mobile phones:

Farmers, farmer representatives, extension agents, community workers, young and old all have mobile phones. They use it for variety of purposes. A milk seller in Tominian calling her clients to know the quantity needed, or re-greening farmers in Mali calling for help in case someone is seen cutting trees. Women in Bolgatanga in Ghana actually share their mobile phones with other women in the community who cannot afford the total cost of ownership. Mobile phone charging seems to be an unheard of business model till you see it in action.

Farmers and users in rural community are conscious of the fact that most of the voice- related services are not free and are happy to pay for what they use. Going back to Stephane’s view on the critical success factors of using voice in such environments, I agree that users will not pay to access voice-based services unless (1) it is useful for them (2) easy to use and access (3) in a language that they understand and (4) does not incur double cost for them in airtime and service usage. There has to be a fine balance between the airtime and subscription cost and the trade-off.

From Mali we crossed the border by road into Burkina Faso. It was the first ever border crossing for me by land and I was fascinated by the experience. I must say that border patrol and customs is much more relaxed and friendly compared to their counterparts at the airport. Maybe because they rely more on human instincts and less on machines, a different aspect of social science maybe? I also played a bit of guitar along with the border guards who spoke good English. Try doing that at Heathrow.

In Burkina Faso, we visited the now legendary Yacouba Sawadogo, popularly known as the man who stopped the desert. Have you ever met a farmer who maintains a visitors’ guest book and gives appointments over the phone to researchers, government officials, NGOs and anyone wanting to visit him? I even managed to persuade him to give me his business card. It is essential that we are able to disseminate the hard-earned knowledge of such individual farmers involved in re-greening initiatives so that others can learn, adapt and innovate further. Voice is a crucial component in such a scenario. Can you imagine a farmer leaving his fields and logging on to a computer to tell others what to do? I cannot. But I did see one taking calls on his mobile phone.

Our voice technology demonstrations along with an interactive Q&A session were very helpful in developing a baseline understanding of what we should develop as a pilot initiative. It is interesting to note that farmers, cooperative members, extension agents and community workers can easily relate to the aspects of farmer helpline in India and are interested in having a similar service for them. One of the community radio members was quick to note that we were giving them a taste of things to come. Their enthusiasm is infectious but we need to be grounded in facts.

Usage charge for a voice-based service is still expensive and out of reach for farmers who are struggling to cope with the rigours of the cropping cycle. Most of the discussion in favour of, or against, such a farmer helpline service was based on cost. Farmers were immediately able to see the value in it for them but struggled to visualize who would bear the cost of deploying and maintaining such an expensive infrastructure. The answer perhaps lies in Radio.

After Burkina, we crossed over to Ghana for the last leg of our trip. Ghana has taken up re-greening initiatives recently and the University for Development Studies at Tamale is leading once such initiative. We visited the local radio station of Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. It was remarkable to see the state-of-the-art radio infrastructure, complete with an outdoor broadcast van. The relatively frugal community radio stations across Mali and Burkina Faso were in no way inferior on services and content. In fact, we could not get a taste of live, on-demand services at GBC, that were readily available at the community radio stations.

During the workshop, the local expert informed us that they do provide agriculture question and answer services on a random basis and have some dial-in facilities for callers, but are struggling to manage quality content ever since the last agriculture expert was transferred to a different location. Visit to UDS project site was encouraging and we could see the early results of re-greening initiatives. However they can benefit a lot by the experiences of farmers in Burkina and Mali.

After Tamale, we moved on to the last destination in this trip, Bolgatanga. The workshop evoked keen interest among a rare breed found in minority in other workshops, ICT companies. However the joy was short lived. The CEO was off to Amsterdam for higher studies. They were very keen to play around with the demos and also interested in attending training sessions that Max is leading under the Mobile-Empowered Entrepreneurs in Africa Project.

They also expressed their keen interest in supporting the re-greening initiatives. Based on the demos they were confident of providing basic support services and training to NGOs and government agriculture department if required. For a moment, the entire workshop gathering was in splits when a male member came in to represent Single Mothers Association from Zuarungu.

We then moved to see the re-greening initiatives being undertaken locally in Bolgatanga by World Vision. Again we could see the same Zai technique being adopted by farmers as in Mali or Burkina along with the compost pond on site. Mary Allen of Sahel Eco shared her views on the work being done in Mali with the local community and they were very keen to visit these initiatives. The use of mobile phones to access local market information was the key demand by the community, especially women who carry the produce to great distances for selling. Sahel Eco is already working on a parallel initiative that can be a good use case for designing such a service.

Funded by the Tree Aid UK, Sahel Eco is implementing a pilot case for Market Information System for producers of non-timber forest products (e.g. honey, Shea nuts and butter) in 20 villages in Tominian. Producers call in to a number maintained by Sahel Eco Coordinator in Tominian. Information related to the product, its quantity, price and contact details of the producer are recorder on paper or keyed in a document, saved on a USB key and then sent via email from a cyber cafe 20 km away in the town of San. This information is received by 3 radio stations for broadcast at ORTM Segou, Koutiala and ORTM Mopti.  A printed copy of the information is given to Radio Mountian in Tominian. Potential clients either phone Sahel Eco to be put in touch with the producers or phone the producer directly (phone numbers are broadcast) for more product / price information. This was exactly what I tried to do in RIVERS project at Stanford in 2005 in a different context of minor forest produce in India.

There is so much that can be accomplished in this domain simply by learning from each other as in the case above. We now intend to sit down and figure out a simple implementation strategy to pilot our technology offering(s). We will talk about these in the next few months when we are ready. As we were getting ready to leave Bolgatanga, the village chief insisted on giving us a parting gift. It was a goat that Prof. Hans accepted on our behalf and I walked along stopping every few steps for the goat to chew on some grass. A simple fact of life that is not unusual till you realize that the grass is growing on some of the harshest known land in Sub Saharan Africa.

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  1. Mary Allen

    February 10, 2011

    Nice postcard Aman -


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