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Two Questions on the Sustainability of Grameen’s Android App for Farmers

By Tyrone Hall on September 14, 2011

grameen foundation uganda

The Grameen Foundation Center launched a comprehensive Android phone-based project for Ugandan smallholder farmers recently, that could significantly improve farming processes, but how sustainable is the initiative?

The project is a high-tech response to fundamental challenges in agriculture, including unclear pricing structures and markets, unreliable weather forecasts, and a myriad of inefficient or absent extension services about when and how to plant crops. Each Android mobile phone has an open source mobile data collection app that feeds into Salesforce.com.

The Grameen innovation counters the electrical challenges in the East-African country, that would otherwise doom projects dependent on electrical power, by utilizing rechargeable batteries which solar energy can sustain. (PC World reports on this in detail)

The project is organized around 400 select farmers, known as “community knowledge workers“, who own Android phones – and 3 in 4 of all their peers value their high-tech extension services. But an Android phone costs US$600 plus upkeep costs, nearly twice the per capita income in Uganda. So, how do these smart phone owning farmers acquire them legitimately? The project offers select farmers loans to purchase the phones. On the surface, this approach suggests a level of sustainability, but I have a two questions:

  1. Are the benefits of using a smart phone, compared to a regular phone, so great that a farmer ought to take a loan and bear upkeep costs (combined) twice his/her country’s per capita income simply to access information? Of course, information is important, but it is only one variable among many that must be resolved to result in improved earnings for the farmers.
  2. Even if in the long-term ‘community knowledge workers’ charge for the services they offer, and even pay a fee to the platform providers, how long will it be before they can recoup and repay their loans? What is the interest rate on these ‘Android loans’?

These are critical questions that ought to be answered in order for us to truly grapple with the potential economic impact of deploying this sophisticated technology.

Join us for the next ICTforAg conference on technology for smallholder farmers.

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6 Comments to “Two Questions on the Sustainability of Grameen’s Android App for Farmers”

  1. Nic Pottier says:

    A year ago I would have agreed with the criticism, but I think the environment is changing quite a bit. We are seeing Android phones at $80 now, not $600, and that really makes one reconsider where they can be used.

    If you take the long view then you can also consider Grameen’s initiative as almost a leading indicator, an opportunity to learn something that will be used later. In another year will Android phones be $50, in a couple more $30?

    When that time comes, the lessons from these projects will come in handy.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think the technology could be extremely useful, but I think the burden of the loan might supersede the benefits of it. Perhaps some form of cooperative or communal use of the phone, where one phone is being used by 5-10 farmers, who share the loan, could solve the burden that would otherwise fall on one individual…

  3. Aaron Huslage says:

    I think you’re a bit wrong about the prices of these phones. In Nairobi, for instance, you can get a very capable Huawei IDEOS phone for roughly $80. Throw in another $20 and you have a solar panel. This is more than enough phone to run the Grameen app. Sometimes you can even find these cheaper.

    Aside from that, we’ve seen a ton of great work being done in villages all over the world with SMS-based price monitoring, etc. This is just the logical extension of that earlier work. They payoff of the $100 investment should become pretty clear as market conditions improve for the average farmer and even may increase the use of co-ops and other models of operation. The investment pays itself off in increased market knowledge and quicker time to market for these people.

    I think technology, in this instance, is a very good thing indeed.

  4. One question I had when visiting Grameen App Lab team in Kampala earlier this year was who was paying for the MTN data plan to support the M&E application. Currently I believe this is fully subsidized by the Grameen program, however we need to factor in data plan pricing when thinking about longer term sustainability and affordability for a Community Knowledge Worker (CKW).

    I have no idea how much data a CKW will consume when using the Grameen M&E application on a daily basis – the application is probably not a data hog. Retail pricing for MTN’s mobile data plans start at 500MB for UGX25,000 (1 month) or 1.5GB for UGX67,000 (3 months).

    Thus I don’t believe mobile data costs will be an issue when scaling similar agricultural livelihoods programs especially when the program data usage could be aggregated by the mobile operator’s mediation and billing system and covered as a program OpEx cost.

  5. Tyrone Hall says:

    Great point, Michael! I stand corrected on the current price-tag for a smartphone. But even so, the questions are still valid. If you take the current US$150 price-tag for MTN’s Huawei IDEOS U8150 Smartphone, add to that the roughly US$120 that a basic data plan of 500MB will cost for a year, plus say US$100 per year for the ag service, plus the yearly cost of regular calls, we are looking at over US$400-500 here.

    I doubt the benefits will outweigh the cost…there’s a lot more to this than having the right information. A farmer might know how to produce more and higher quality crop yields and where to find the best prices, but he might have to travel so far to get that price that he makes a loss or relatively lower gains.

    So, bear in mind that the viability of agricultural mobile value added service products is still uncertain.

  6. We are in agreement regarding the unknown long term viability and sustainability for mobile value added services for agricultural development programs. That being said, the Grameen CKW program continues to provide an excellent laboratory (an App Lab) for testing how smartphones and mobile apps will be used by nascent knowledge workers in new and evolving contexts.

    East Africa ICT trends and individual small holders’ micro-economic decisions will be very interesting to follow especially with the continued drop in smartphone device costs. Data plans and pricing may also be customized to fit special purpose programs.

    This was taken from the Grameen CKW pilot report:

    “Cost savings realized through data transmitted over GPRS and the higher demand for the enhanced survey capabilities of java-enabled phones outweigh the initial higher cost of purchasing java-enabled rather than basic phones”

    http://www.grameenfoundation.applab.org/ckw/uploads/pdf/Grameen%20Foundation%20Community%20Knowledge%20Worker%20Pilot%20Report%204.24.2010.pdf

    I am happy to know that somewhere in Uganda, a small holder may be using a mobile app to check out why his beans look angry instead of playing angry birds. 😉