Cellphones and (Rural) Development, Part Two

The agricultural sector employs 2/3 of India’s population, and contributes to 1/3 of its gross domestic product (GDP) – yet, Indian farmers in rural communities are plagued by debt, falling commodity prices, changing weather patterns, fluctuating demands in the global market, and failing crops. In regions such as Vidarbha, farmer suicides are endemic, to the extent that even the recent governmental debt relief scheme has been unable to mitigate the crisis.

Moreover, most rural farmers are unable to capitalize on the true value of their crop yields, often getting as little as “25% of the value of the final price of their raw produces against 40%-50% in America and Britain.” In light of this concern in particular, technological advances, specifically with respect to mobile phones, have gained traction within South Asia through initiatives like Grameen Phone, InternetSpeech, the recent IBM initiative, etc.

As highlighted in a recent Times Online article, of particular interest is the Reuters Market Light campaign, which has the capability to provide, for example, weather reports, crop spraying information and competitive market pricing, all through the mobile phone for 175 rupees a quarter.

I know what you’re thinking – we’ve all heard of this kind of technology before, but what makes this particular initiative so unique? According to the Indian Development Blog, Market Light uses a very different, and in their opinion, “superior system for gathering and reporting local spot prices than that employed by local newspapers.” The blog goes on to explain:

Newspapers typically rely on middlemen to report the range of prices observed in the market each day for a given commodity. The problem with this method is that the maximum and minimum quality of the produce that shows up in a mandi on any given day can vary quite a bit so these figures are often difficult to interpret.

Reuters Market Light takes a different approach. Rather than report a range of prices, Reuters provides the exact spot price for a given quality level of each commodity. Doing this takes more effort – the person providing the prices must be able to precisely discern between varying levels of quality — but it is much more useful for farmers.

In terms of measurable outcomes, this initiative has reportedly generated positive results to date, concretely enabling farmers to enhance their abilities to bargain, negotiate prices, and most importantly, make choices on the basis of the most favorable financial outcomes. Sounds great in theory, but what exactly does this look like on the ground, you may ask? (this article continues after the break – click “Read More”) Continue reading

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InternetSpeech – The New Digital Genie?

In a recent interview with Fortune Magazine, Muhammad Yunus beautifully articulated his dream of a “Digital Aladdin’s Lamp”, which would provide poor women around the world with access to global markets and trends for local benefit:

“A genie comes out of it and asks, ‘What can I do for you, ma’am?’ And she says ‘I make these baskets but nobody buys them.’ And the lamp says ‘I will find somebody to buy it.’ And the lamp comes back with buyers. She doesn’t know about a keyboard or a computer. She just asks questions of the genie.”

Sound like a fantasy?  Well, it seems we aren’t so far from realizing Yunus’ dream.  How?

Previously, we wrote about the “Question Box,” which aims to “bring some of the benefits of the information on the Internet to places that are too remote or poor to sustain a live Internet link.”  Now, there is another access point for the BoP – audible internet accessible over the phone (developed by InternetSpeech).  Let me say that again – internet access over the phone, no literacy, keyboards, or screens necessary.

It seems that new trends in mobile phone technology are ushering in a new era of connectivity, access, knowledge, and power for the rural and urban poor.  Can you imagine what the future holds?

Imagine a farmer in a remote village using her voice and her $20 People’s Phone (which only works as a phone and doesn’t even have a screen to send or receive text messages) to check market information via Reuters, and then log onto an eBay-like market to offer her crafts.

A few hours later, she could log listen to the bids received and settle a transaction through e-mail.

Sound too good to be true?  Click here to listen to a demo.

Source:  NextBillion