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Re-engineering subsistence agriculture

By Stephen Kafeero

The Grameen Foundation is applying innovative ICT systems to spur smaller holder subsistence agricultural practice in Uganda. Sean Krepp, their country director in Uganda, spoke to Stephen Kafeero about their operations.

How are you applying mobile phone technology in agriculture, health and financial services in Uganda?

We have created a suite of smart phone applications that can tap into a large digital knowledge base on agriculture and we have a community of 1,200 Community Knowledge Workers (CWKs) in 41 districts of Uganda that are selected by the communities.


They are empowered by a smartphone that has access to agricultural information and do agricultural extension in the communities to help small holder farmers to do production and to provide linkages to the market. We also have nutritional and agricultural information on the smart phones and we teach people how to intercrop and have high nutritional information for their families.

Tell us about the data collection that the foundation under takes?

The nice thing about the smartphone is that it is interactive. When we train our CWKs, we also train them to be data enumerators, we teach them how to do a proper interview and to make sure that it is ethically done so that they can collect and capture the information on and offline and when they connect to a mobile network, they can send it to the cloud (an internet centralized repository) and then we can analyze that data and put it on a digital dash board in real time so that we can monitor and evaluate what is happening.

That is powerful because it means that we get the voice of the farmer and their families into our programmatic work and also to the organizations that we work with. We collect data for the World Bank, the government and other NGO’s.

Then who does the intervention?

It works in both ways; in some cases we partner with an organization like the World Food Programme and we do the intervention. In other cases we give them the data of course with a data protection agreement of  how it can be used and they do the intervention themselves.  That is really the power of what we do because we believe poverty is a complex thing to solve. It requires partnership and in this way we can empower our partners to take better decisions in how they serve the poor.

I understand that you have a project monitoring and Dash board, how does it work?

We use a tool called Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI), a statistical tool of ten questions where you can go and observe somebody’s home and look at the materials on their walls, their electronics and based upon that you get a probability of whether one is below the poverty line or not. We also collect information on what they are producing and then look at demand for inputs.

We can then aggregate the demand from the smaller holder farmers. We also look at who is bankable and that information can be used to help the financial institutions get closer to the farmers in their communities. In our personal dashboard, we look at the farmers we have served who are below the poverty line and their gender because generally speaking food crops in Uganda are typically managed by women and the men tend to manage the cash crops.

So if you want to help the families with nutrition, you have to address the women and make sure that they are getting the knowledge because they tend to be the ones helping the children. We have special focus on women and we follow that on our dashboard in real time.

What are its benefits?

To me, the benefit is not the data collection or even the data itself; it is taking better decisions and taking them quickly by having real time information coming in. There is a famous management guru called Peter Drucker who said that, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  This is about measuring in real time so that you can manage better. It is not just for us to manage our things better but also helping other organizations manage better.

This can help reduce waste and allow more of the funding to get to the end beneficiary for whom it is intended. It can also allow for transparency, if you have a GPS coordinate of where the client is at any given time and whether they have been served or not, then it is completely transparent. You can get a better read on whether you are getting a social return for your economic investment.

The Open Innovations Platform that you do, what is it all about?

It is based on the premise that innovation actually is about a collision of ideas coming from a lot of people’s minds. An idea gets richer when it collides with other people’s ideas. So the open innovation platform is a place where people can come onto the Internet with a focused problem statement like poverty reduction or how we can serve better farmers with information and then everyone who is an expert in farming, policy formulation, service delivery, transportation etc can come together and give their two cents.

From those ideas, we can actually create viable concepts.  From the concepts we actually build products and services and taste them in the market place. We use the platform to leverage the power of really smart people to come together and again solve this problem and put it into the museum.

In 2002, you launched mobile technology work in Uganda with a village phone. What impact has this had on the people that you interface with?

The village phone was set up to be the coming together of microfinance and information services. We had partnership swith MFI’s whereby groups especially those of women could actually purchase a mobile phone then pay back their loan by selling airtime to communities in the early days of mobile phones and before networks where covering the whole country. That program took off very nicely here and in other countries such as Rwanda and we created a joint venture with MTN, which in the end bought the assets.

So if you see all the yellow telephones around the country that is the continuation product that came out of the village phone. What was fantastic about it was that by virtue of connecting 100 more people GDP increased by 1 to 2% because people started to connect their business to suppliers and were able to sell to others and so by virtue of just getting connected they started to benefit as a community.

How different is the Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) initiative from other agricultural and health programs in the country?

Most interventions that are trying to help the rural community are programs and they have a start date and an expiry one. When they wrap up, someone comes in and has to rebuild social capital. CWK is a social enterprise that comes in to stay like a company and we go to the last mile of the community which is usually unaffordable to do. We however use a community member who is connected to us by a phone and we don’t need the trucks or the offices and this implies that we can work at a much lower cost and continuously have a dialogue with the community through the phone.

So we cut out a huge amount of cost, which allows us to reach more people through the phone. The other element is combining technology with the human network. The CWKs are elected by the local people, can speak the local language, are farmers themselves and live within the communities but they are also innovators because farmers can sometimes be conservative on certain practices.

What impact has it had on the beneficiaries?

We did an independent experimental with International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a policy institute here, and they basically found that farmers served with a CWK versus those that weren’t served had very big differences. They had 37% higher grain prices because they were connecting with more serious traders, less farm gate brokers and money lenders.

The attitude towards farming was more positive compared to those not served and there was actually knowledge increase on core farming practices whereas there was knowledge degradation in communities that did not have the services. We also did an internal impact survey and found out that 71% of the farmers we reached are adopting the knowledge we share with them.

What are some of the challenges that the foundation encounters in the implementation of its projects in Uganda?

The biggest problem we face is the poor infrastructure in the country. Being an innovation lab that focuses on the internet, when the internet outages occur, we struggle and we really can’t do the work. Because we want to reach the last mile, we operate in areas where we get to the end of the road and our recruitment team gets stuck.

The other challenge is the human capacity.  When you get to some villages, there are people with low levels of schooling and so we have to spend a lot of resources on training but what I like to see is that it does pay back because people blossom once they get the knowledge.

Compared to the other countries that you operate in, how is Uganda faring as far as your operations are concerned?

Uganda is the largest Grameen operation and we like to think of ourselves as a center of excellence and a hub of innovation. After we did the village phone, we worked with Google and MTN and we did the Google SMS projects and we worked with Google trader, which is scaled into many countries where Google operates and then we moved from voice to SMS and now to data, which has so many possibilities with the internet and the growing smart phone penetration in Uganda.

We will continue to innovate and as far as the CWK program is concerned, we have spread our wings and we have similar programs in Latin America, Cote’divore and in Kenya and this is made in Uganda with pride. Most of our team comprises Ugandan developers who want to see change happen in the country and I can say we are supporting all those countries from here.

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