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Web for Agriculture: Reflections

Aman Grewal · April 27, 2011

In my previous postcard from Sahel, I had shared with you an exciting journey across Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana. 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. Subsequent to the road trip we published a report highlighting key takeaways and a future roadmap of deploying voice services. Web Foundation’s strategic focus on voice applications has been an inflection point for VOICES, VBAT and W4RA.

Specifically under the VOICES Project the objectives are to:

  • Improve voice-based access to content and mobile ICT services, by developing an Open Source toolbox for local ICT developers.
  • Integrate local community radio and ICTs, making audio content widely available to people.
  • Better support of local languages: speech technologies that facilitate content creation in African languages.
  • Long-term sustainability: provide a sustainable architecture and business models co-developed with local partners and communities.
  • Enhance uptake through community-building activities, such as a mobile training lab that offers education for local partners and entrepreneurs in developing mobile ICT and Web services.

It is evident from the key takeaways of the report that W4RA shares these objectives as well. To make sure that the results of W4RA and VOICES are adapted to the local African context, extensive pilots and associated community building activities will be carried out. The two pilots will focus on health services in Senegal, and agriculture knowledge sharing (mobile Agro Knowledge Sharing Pilot) in the Sahel countries, especially in Mali. To recap the road show; target audiences included African project partners, NGO partners, agri- extension agents and ICT practitioners. Field research included conducting focus group discussions related to the technology demonstration(s) with extension agents, farmers and ICT practitioners. Qualitative data and usability feedback was collected at each demonstration site. Brainstorming sessions helped to fine-tune the technology services of the W4RA and VOICES projects.M-Event

To flesh out the specifics of what we can develop and deploy as a set of locally relevant and useful voice based services, the project team met in Toulouse from 19-21st of April. We discussed two use cases extensively:

  • Shea butter & honey market information service
  • M-Event organizer

Many organizations have invested in the Market Information Systems domain. For us the differentiator in this project is using the simplest possible form of information dissemination-voice. Thanks to an already existing pilot at Sahel Eco we now know that buyers and sellers are interacting with each other and negotiating prices using mobile phones. Data is gathered from the seller end by a community Market Information System (MIS) facilitator.

The MIS facilitators are producers / entrepreneurs selected to act as intermediaries for the other members of their groups and then trained how to send information using SMS. The information consists of details on: product, quantity, quality, price, name and village of producer/seller and telephone number of MIS facilitator. Staff at Sahel Eco draws up a table in a standard format each week containing this information and includes his/her own name and contact details. S/he sends the table by email to the radio stations in Segou, Koutiala and Mopti then sends them each an SMS to say the table has been sent. Radio Mountian is given a printed copy of the table. The community radio stations then broadcast this information and facilitate a voice based MIS. We are now in the process of strengthening the delivery model of this service and working with our infrastructure and technology partners to come up with a simple voice based application for facilitating this MIS exchange between Sahel Eco and the community radio stations.

There are challenges to be overcome, like reproducing a good quality audio file consisting of the seller data. Stephane will be tackling these issues along with Nana from VU. We also have to keep in mind the seasonality of the non-timber produce as in this case.

Another interesting use case we discussed is the M-Event organizer. Essentially a short broadcast by Sahel Eco to the community members for an upcoming event, inviting their response, and using the same channel to register new members using voice. Sounds simple, yet invaluable for organizations like Sahel Eco that are struggling with more popular-yet unusable- options like SMS, or prohibitive air time costs. We plan to complete the technical specification phase by end of June and aim to have our feet on the ground at the end of 2011. We will keep you posted on these developments throughout the year.

On a side note Toulouse was pleasant as usual. The French cuisine is making me think hard for another career move in the future. If you have not tasted the non-controversial version of Foie gras and cassoulet, you are missing out on something.

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  1. Anna Bon

    April 27, 2011

    Very nice blog! It was really a nice meeting in Toulouse.


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