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New mobile applications help Ugandan communities
Advice services by phone on farming, health and commerce
New mobile applications help Ugandan communities
photo credit: IPA/Pia Raffler
AppLab staff member Bridget Naggagga (right) shows a market vendor how to receive health and agricultural tips by phone
 
New mobile applications help Ugandan communities
Photo credit: IPA/Pia Raffler
Fishermen receive a response to their request for a weather forecast

The rapid spread of the mobile phone has turned the device into one of the most effective ways of not only communicating with family and friends, but also learning practical — and sometimes vital — information. This is especially valuable in rural areas of developing countries. In Uganda, a suite of mobile phone applications was launched on 29 June 2009 by the Grameen Foundation. Developed with the Internet company Google and carried on the network of mobile operator MTN Uganda, the applications allow people to gain access to important information by text message, either on their own handsets or through the facilities of a village phone operator.

The suite of five mobile services combines text messaging, search technologies and databases of locally relevant information. It provides weather forecasts, agricultural advice and health tips, while a “Clinic Finder” application can locate nearby facilities. Also included is “Google Trader”, a virtual marketplace that links buyers and sellers to trade anything from agricultural produce to jobs. For example, through a simple text message a villager can receive tips on treating crop diseases, learn local market prices, or get advice on preventing malaria.

The applications come from Google’s short message service (SMS) and are designed to work with basic mobile phones. More than a million people in Uganda have mobile phones, but no Internet connection. The new service could be a step towards such connectivity. By sending a query in a text message, users can “search” a database from which a reply is received — similar to using an online search engine. And like on the Internet, users can call up information at any time, and in private.

Application laboratory

The origin of the new services is the application laboratory — known as AppLab — created by the Grameen Foundation in 2006, and joined in 2007 by partners Google and MTN Uganda. Both companies contributed start-up investments.

AppLab Uganda is located in the country’s capital, Kampala, under the direction of the Grameen Foundation’s Technology Centre. Local partnerships are important in the creation of services that have relevant local content. For example, weather forecasts are provided by the Ugandan Department of Meteorology. The “Farmer’s Friend” application for agricultural advice was developed with the Busoga Rural Open Source Development Initiative (BROSDI), based in Kampala, to provide information that has been tested by smallholders as suitable for their needs.

The Grameen Foundation is a non-profit organization that helps provide access to financial services and telecommunications, as well as technologies that can provide new business opportunities. In 2007, ITU and the Grameen Foundation jointly launched the “Village Phone Direct Manual”, available to be downloaded free of charge at www.itu.int/publ/D-HDB-VPD-2007/en.

Commercial interests are also served, as operators are able to connect with new markets. Since 2003, MTN Uganda has been promoting the village phone concept in collaboration with the Grameen Foundation, drawing from the pioneering experience of Grameen Telecom in Bangladesh.

Community development

Working with such operators, as well as with governments and civil society organizations, the Grameen Foundation and AppLab are developing services that will be tailored to the needs of poor communities around the world. In 2009, AppLab Indonesia was launched in collaboration with Qualcomm, as well as the Mobile Technology for Community Health (MoTeCH) initiative that aims to determine how mobile phones can be used to improve antenatal and neonatal care in rural Ghana. And in two regions of Uganda, Grameen is piloting the Community Knowledge Worker Initiative, by which residents of rural communities are being trained in using mobile phones to provide information to farmers. They also collect data to help experts identify outbreaks of agricultural pests, for example, and stop their spread. The idea is to help farmers increase their productivity and to empower entire communities.

 

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