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Regina

3 Nov

Send A Cow farmer Regina

Regina’s interesting mobile phone project is simple. She lives in a remote community outside Busia in west Kenya, and is a one of Send A Cow’s peer farmers (which means that due to her success with organic farming, she now trains other farmers in agricultural techniques.) As more and more of her neighbours begin to buy and use mobile phones, she saw a business opportunity.

At her house, Regina has electricity, but she is in a minority. Most of her neighbours have to travel a long way to reach charging stations. They’re not uncommon in the region, but it usually means a trip to the nearest town or village which can take a whole day there and back.

For these small scale farmers, time is precious. They don’t want to waste it. Unfortunately, one of the burdens of owning a mobile phone is it’s battery life, and to keep it topped up, trips to the town and to electricty are essential.

Enter Regina…

This is Regina’s charging station. By investing in a variety of charging adapters, a broad enough selection to fit the most popular mobile handsets, she offers mobile phone charging on her neighbours doorsteps at 10 Kenyan shillings (just less than 6 and a half pence) a go.

Regina’s charging station is an example of how mobile phones are seeping into the everyday consciousness of people in rural Kenya. Knowing that many of the farmers I interviewed didn’t have electricity in their homes, I often asked them whether this was a problem for them, but they rarely told me that it was. Either they get used to charging when they’re in town. Or they look for other solutions, like Regina, like this or even like this! 

As entrepreneurs go, you have to hand it to Regina who saw an opportunity, and used it to her economic advantage, alongside the money she earns from her farm.

And it’s not her only side-project. She also dabbles in incubation…

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National Geographic

3 Nov

During my trip, I found FrontlineSMS to be one of the most innovative and widely used tech-mechanisms for social change. – Especially in Kenya.

Today, a blog post which I wrote about FrontlineSMS, and it’s users has been published on the National Geographic Newswatch blog, curated by Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS and National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

I’m very proud and I’d be delighted if you took a look.

What did you expect?

18 Oct

A shopfront near Busia, Kenya

Have you ever been to somewhere new and thought, this isn’t what I expected. Maybe you’ve even told whoever you’re with, only to be confronted with the question, ‘well what did you expect?’. And you think…you know, I don’t know.

In many ways, travelling to Kenya and Ethiopia fulfilled many of my expectations. Mobile phones, as twitter would suggest, are truly everywhere. Everyone, in fact most of the adult population use MPESA to control their finances. But for some reason, if you’d told me that I would see phone masts rising amongst hilltops and eucalyptus trees I would have found it very hard to picture.

Which is funny really…

I admit, it was rather ignorant of me.

But one of the biggest lessons I learnt from the people that took their time to talk to me during my trip, I learnt from their reaction to my questions. The tilted head, the vague and baffled eyes when I asked if I could stop asking questions about their farm and speak to them about their mobile phone.

With the huge impact that mobile phones are having in the developing world, it can be easy to imagine that these revolutionary devices are the pride and joy of their owners, locked away and treasured above any other possessions.

But an egg is an egg is an egg. And a phone is a phone is a phone. True, they’ve become extrememly important to people. But they are still buried in people’s pockets, flung in baskets, and abandoned on bar tops.

In many ways this is their great beauty. In taking little steps to improve people’s everyday, they enable the big changes and make the giant statistics.

Getting to the point

6 Jul

In three days I will be on a plane bound for Nairobi so it’s about time I get to the nitty gritty of my project. I’m going to use the next few days to think about the main questions that I hope my documentary will go some way to finding answers for. Beyond that, my blog will become a bit of a progress diary, a travel log. So check back to see how I’m getting on.

Mobile technologies are changing lives, especially in the developing world. Since beginning my project, many people I have quizzed have emphasised that technologies must not simply be seen as a tool for administering aid. I hope that this argument will raise it’s head during my documentary. But my focus will be to ask…

How are mobile technologies affecting the relationship between NGOs and farmers? 

In a way, the argument which says that mobile technologies should be used for change outside of the confines of the aid industry goes some way to answering this question. Are people so empowered by the technologies that they are using that they don’t need the support we’ve come to see as ‘conventional’ from Non-governmental organisations.

On Monday, Oxfam launched it’s largest ever emergency appeal in Africa. We are, they say, amid the worst food crisis in the 21st century, as the Horn of Africa suffers from widespread drought. The Guardian have produced another great interactive map which shows some if the facts and figures. (I will stop banging on bout their maps I promise) Notice it states that 10 million are in need of ‘humanitarian assistance’.

So what does humanitarian assistance mean in an age when the internet and mobile phones make it increasingly easy to start up businesses? Have we moved into an age where aid has altered from being about Geldof and his gigs? Or are these ten million people still needing instantaneous solutions?

The reality is that I won’t be visiting the people who are really desperately in need of food aid. But I do hope to talk to farmers about how they see development projects that they are part of, and how technology is making them think differently. I’ll also be talking to people who have seen NGOs and the work that they do evolve as attitudes, politics and technologies have all had their part to play in changing international aid and development.

If the Horn of Africa really is amid a food crisis, I’m hoping that my documentary might shed some light on the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inequality?

20 Jun
My last blog post makes access to online and the availability of social media sound as if we’re all on an equal footing, we’re all involved in this big global discussion. But perhaps that’s not quite the case.
 
I was inspired by a tweet from Guardian Development today. They were also live tweeting from Africa Gathering in London today. They tweeted
 
“We must act to ensure digital access & literacy doesn’t become a new source of inequality @claremelamed#aglondon
 
Are mobile phones considered a luxury? Or a practical tool? Or can they be both? In the UK they are widely regarded as a tool I suppose. But this does not strip the iPhone of it’s allure.
 
Whilst I was in Ethiopia last year, I noticed that many people who owned a mobile phone, had more than one. My host mother had three. Why, was unbeknown to me. But she enjoyed having three mobile phones. Three more than some people that she knew I suspect. Is this inequality?
 
What about the huge regional disparities between the frequency of mobile connections?
 
Or do these inequalities just mean nothing in the grand scheme of things? The M-Ubuntu Project has brought mobile phones into the classroom in two South African schools.
 
Whilst in Kenya I hope to meet the thinkers behind M-Farm They have created a system which uses SMS to allow farmers to access accurate market prices whilst selling their crops. Mobile phones for good? ICT4D? I hope to find out.
 
I wonder whether mobile phones may be a complication and a solution to the problem of inequality. Or maybe this is just progress and development and continuity towards the future.
 

Africa Gathering

20 Jun

Image by Africa Gathering

As I plugged away with emails and enquiries for my forthcoming trip (less than three weeks now!) I whiled away my afternoon reading the ferevent stream of tweets coming from the Africa Gathering in London. #AgLondon for anyone who wants a refresh.

In their own words, Africa Gathering…

“provides a space to bring technophiles, thinkers, entrepreneurs, innovators and everybody else together to talk about positive change in sustainable development, technology, social networking, health, education, environment and good governance in Africa.”

Now I know that I only scraped the very surface of the gathering by reading the tweets. It sounds like a fascinating day, packed with important and insightful presentations which following online I wasn’t fortunate enough to see. But it felt rather apt to be part of the event via twitter. Scrolling down the stream of tweets from today’s gathering I found another place to bring ideas, thoughts, questions and information together.  

When I travel to Nairobi I will visit the iHub and I’ve been learning more about it today. Another centre, another space to share ideas enrich, engage and enable.

It’s strength in numbers I suppose.

Mobile phones for building the bigger picture.

1 May

Image: Denaldi Photography

Kibera in Nairobi is Africa’s biggest slum. It’s home to 60% of the whole population of Nairobi and takes up just 6% of city’s area. About one million people live in about 200 settlements here.

At least that’s what we think. Heaving, thriving Kibera was only recognised by the Kenyan government as an area of housing in 2003. The figures that we have are generally based on estimates by non-governmental organisations.

One thing we can be sure of is that many many people call Kibera home, and no matter how many Kenyan settlements there are in the slum, if they were to look at a map of the area in 2009, they’d find a blank space where their homes should be. Unrecognised. Unmapped.

Of course Kibera is not just made up of homes. There are roads, shops, cafes, hairdressers, bars and many other facilities. Where there are people there are also sports clubs, meetings being held and churches.

So out of this blank space came Map Kibera. A project which has resulted in an interactive map of the area, showing all available facilities. Here’s a snippet…

Image: Map Kibera

Initially it was created with simple GPS mapping methods as explained here  by William Underhill. Now though it has reached a new phase and is one dimension of an interactive community project, Voice of Kibera. This is where the phone come in.

Based around this wonderfully up-to-date map, Voice of Kibera is a citizen reporting project. Residents with news of a meeting or an incident can text or submit a report online and using information about the location. The incident is then verified and plotted on the map using the Ushahidi platform where anyone logging onto the website can see it. An incident can also be investigated further if needs be. This is a video of Samson Ochieng Ooko detailing a forced eviction on the 27th February 2011.

Witnessryan: Railway Communities Facing Eviction

It’s another example of people using mobile phones to go the extra mile, important for communities and interesting for humanitarians, anthropologists and statisticians.

This multi-dimensional project has filled what was an empty space. But is it an accurate picture? Can we rely on adequate, widespread mobile use in Kibera for creating a service which is useful for all?

Follow Voice of Kibera on Twitter

And get updates via the Map Kibera Blog

Applab connecting Uganda

20 Apr

Original video: Applab, Grameen Foundation

Grameen Foundation work with communities in the developing world, increasing access to technology and micro-finance initiatives, aiming to help people make their way out of poverty.

Like Question Box , when it comes to connecting people, Applab‘s philosophy is a simple one. Community knowledge workers work with farmers, bridging the gaps that can’t yet be connected by the internet. Farmer’s questions get answers. Knowledge is shared.

Their flickr page and blog are also worth a look.

Spreading the word…

19 Apr

Since I started researching this project, I have been overwhelmed by the amount of talk on developing mobile and internet based technologies in the developing world. There’s continuous discussion on ICT4D via social networks. I find it quite hard to keep up! There are big businesses getting involved and world wide NGOs.  And there are so many articles, blogs and stories being written about developments. I found one this week in this month’s Eden magazine, about the rise of apps for social change. (More on that later.)

But where are the projects that are really stepping up social change? I think it’s about time to look at some real examples.

A couple of weeks ago I had a fascinating chat with Ken Banks, the founder of FrontlineSMS. Ken is a great believer in innovating to solve real problems. His blog post on the reluctant innovator is worth a read in this regard. It’s a label he also gives himself. He says:

FrontlineSMS was never planned – and the team behind Ushahidi would likely feel the same. They were simply responding to a crisis in their country. None of us went out looking for something to solve. A problem found us, and we felt compelled to solve it.”

FrontlineSMS is all about disseminating information beyond the bounds of internet coverage. As I have blogged before, there are literally billions of people all over the planet without access to the internet.

Ken also told me about a fantastic project called Question Box based inPune, India. It literally does what it says on the can. It’s a box, with a button, in a village. It’s connected by a simple telephone line to an operator. When someone presses the button, they can ask a question to the operator who looks up the answer online and replies, in the local language.

Rose Schuman from Question Box explains more in this little video.

Making connections, it would seem, doesn’t necessarily need broadband.

Why agriculture?

17 Apr

linkTV: Meeting Food Needs – Solutions from Africa

70% of the population of Sub-Sahran Africa are employed in agriculture. 80% of Uganda’s population of 31 million are involved in agriculture and as you can see from this list, agriculture in Ethiopia provides a whole host of valuable exports. The Gates Foundation has lots of similar facts and figures, all of which emphasise how important agirculture is to the economies of many developing countries, in particular African countries.

In accordance with an African Union programme, many African governments are investing more money into strengthening agriculture. But there is still work to be done.

There’s the problem of waste shown in linkTV’s video above. There’s also the plight of the ‘Middleman’ who take a share of the money that would otherwise go to the food producers. There are cultural aspects too. In Ethiopia I saw farmers driving huge herds of skinny cows along the road. I was told that these farmers see the size of their herd as more valuable than the productivity of the individual cow. Even though a smaller herd of better nourished, productive cows would really be far more cost efficient.

These are some of the reasons why agriculture is being targeted by the mobile market. As Danielle Nierenberg says huge numbers of farmers have access to mobile phones. If information can be distributed via them and farmers can connect to each other using them it could have global implications.

MobileActive.org: Mobile phones in rural development and agriculture