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Mobile Phones Connect Ugandan Farmers to Agricultural Information
By Phillip Kurata
Staff Writer
Washington — “My goat is sick. Its neck is swollen. It can’t eat,” an old woman in a remote village in Uganda said. She spoke to a man passing by with a mobile phone.
“Let me see if I can help,” said Laban Rutagumirwa.
He sent off a text message that read “goat bloat.” The message went to an agriculture information service devised by the Grameen Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A response came back shortly with instructions to mix a half kilo of rock salt with a liter of water and have the goat drink it. Two weeks later, Rutagumirwa was passing through the village and came across the old woman. She happily reported that her goat had recovered.
The woman was lucky that the passerby was Rutagumirwa. He is one of about 140 employees of the Community Knowledge Worker program that is bringing “relevant, actionable information” to poor, remote farmers in Uganda, according to David Edelstein, the Grameen Foundation ( )’s technology center director.
The program started in 2009 in Uganda’s Bushenyi and Mbale districts. Trusted local residents, such as farmers, agriculture extension workers, shopkeepers and school teachers, were trained to disseminate and gather information about agriculture using mobile phones. The workers help the Ugandan farmers treat not only sick goats, but also blighted bananas, coffee berry bacterial infections, discolored tomatoes and other plant and livestock problems. In addition, the mobile phone-equipped workers have put farmers in touch with markets and weather forecasts.
“What we have seen so far is really encouraging,” Edelstein said. “Farmers have seen their crop yields rise. They have learned better planting techniques by the phone. They have been able to diagnose problems with pests and diseases. They monitor market prices by phone. The mobile phones enable them to bargain more effectively with middle men.”
“In the past, some guy pulls up in a truck, puts 100 head of cabbage in the back, pays off the farmer and drives away. Now, with the Community Knowledge Workers helping, the farmers can combine their cabbages into a single batch and force the buyer to pay a better price,” Edelstein said. Thanks to the knowledge workers, the farmers know when the man in the pickup truck will arrive and what the price of cabbage is in the markets, enabling them to demand a fair price from the buyer, he explained.
Weather forecasts are another element of the information service that farmers value. “Farmers are able to avoid planting seeds or applying fertilizer just before a storm hits and washes everything away,” Edelstein said.
The Grameen technology director said the Community Knowledge Worker program will be expanded throughout Uganda and possibly to other East African countries and later to South Asia, where hundreds of millions of people also are engaged in small-holder farming.
Tabitha Salimo, a knowledge worker in Bushenyi, said, “The farmers love the information.”
She said farmers sometimes expect more from her than she can provide. “They sometimes want things that we do not have,” she said. “We do not get them fertilizer. We do not loan them money. We only get them information.”
Salimo charges 100 Ugandan shillings (about $0.05) per call, but she is not always able to collect the fee. “Sometimes, the farmers do not want to pay until they see that what I tell them works,” she said.
Edelstein said what is important at this stage is to get life-improving information into the hands of farmers. He said program managers are trying to determine the appropriate fee for mobile phone queries. He expects that the charge will drop, perhaps to 50 Ugandan shillings. Nevertheless, he believes that the farmers should pay for information because they are more likely to act on if they pay for it.
In addition to providing information, the Community Knowledge Workers collect information on behalf of the World Food Programme, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and other international research organizations. The Community Knowledge Workers take photographs of agricultural conditions and conduct surveys for which they are paid. This makes the program economically self-sustaining, according to Edelstein.
“The use of Community Knowledge Workers is much cheaper than previous collection methods that involved sending people to the field from the capitals,” Edelstein said. “The workers collect detailed, up-to-date information in rural areas that would be otherwise unavailable or too costly to collect on a frequent basis. Also very little time is lost between when the data is collected and when it arrives in the hands of the research organizations.”
The Grameen technology director said that with 5 billion mobile phones and large numbers of small-holder farmers throughout the world, the model holds tremendous potential to create higher living standards for the rural poor.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.  Web site:
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