For Uganda's poor, a cellular connection

In a country where people don't have electricity, much less Internet access, the Grameen Foundation partners with Google to relay information through mobile phones.

AppLab staff member Bridget Naggagga shows fishermen the response received to their weather query.
AppLab staff member Bridget Naggagga shows fishermen the response received to their weather query. Pia Raffler/IPA, Grameen Foundation

In many parts of the world, electricity is a luxury. People spend hours gathering firewood to cook their dinners or warm their homes. In Uganda, only 10 percent of the population has electricity, the vast majority doesn't have microwave ovens, computers, or televisions. People don't have access to the latest information on disease outbreaks, weather forecasts, or soccer championships. But this may soon change.

More than a third of Uganda's population, about 10 million people, own a cell phone, and many more have access to these phones through family members and neighbors. Cell phones can be found in every desolate corner of the countryside, where 85 percent of the country's residents live. With the dire need to be connected, people go to great lengths to use cell phones, charging them with car batteries or solar chargers.

AppLab staff member Bridget Naggagga shows a market vendor her organziation's mobile app prototype.
AppLab staff member Bridget Naggagga shows a market vendor her organization's mobile app prototype. Pia Raffler/IPA, Grameen Foundation

In a place where cell phones could outnumber light bulbs, several nonprofits have begun thinking that the best way to reach the country's poor and get them much needed information is through their phones. The Grameen Foundation, a global nonprofit that helps the world's poor with financial services and technology solutions, has partnered with Google, telecommunications provider MTN Uganda, and several local nonprofits to develop and design mobile applications that let cell phone users get information via SMS text queries.

The goal is to improve the lives and livelihoods for Uganda's poor. "We had a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve," says David Edelstein, director of Grameen's Information and Communication Technology Innovation center. "We applied our expertise of being on the ground in Uganda and combined that with Google's expertise of disseminating information."

The type of information they're talking about can be anything from the nearest HIV/AIDS testing clinic, to agricultural advice on banana weevils, to the weather forecast. It is customized specifically for Ugandans and provides facts and resources that most people in the developed world take for granted. "Anyone with a phone can benefit from these services," says Edelstein, but they are "tailored to the needs of poor people."

The research for this project began a year and a half ago at the Application Laboratory, AppLab, which was set up in Kampala, Uganda, by the Grameen Foundation. It has done field research, quantitative needs assessments, prototyping, and focus group testing to figure out how to design and structure mobile applications that could deliver the information.

Since most cell phones in Uganda have only voice and SMS capabilities, the technology was built for SMS. A person texts a question to a specific code, which goes to the database built by AppLab, then using Google's algorithms, keywords are identified and the most suitable answer is sent back to the cell phone.

A farmer writes an SMS query to find out about a problem he has with yellowing banana leaves.
A farmer writes an SMS query to find out about a problem he has with yellowing banana leaves. The Grameen Foundation

There are three specific services offered (each with their own code): Google SMS tips, Google SMS search, and Google trader. SMS tips is a question-and-answer service where people can get information on health problems, clinic locations, and agricultural advice, such as how to alleviate a fever or when the next rain is expected. SMS search works similarly by letting cell phone users text queries and receive answers in a Web search-like experience. And, trader is a "marketplace" application that lets buyers and sellers find each other so they can negotiate their products, which can be anything from dried fish to furniture.

Right now, AppLab has more than 50,000 unique queries in its database. In the beginning, when the database was smaller, people received nonsensical or ambiguous answers to their queries. So, AppLab created a "Fail-Over Center," which captures failed queries and transfers them to people to be analyzed and entered into the database. "We have a mechanism in place to strengthen and improve the quality of the system and quality of information we're disseminating," says Edelstein.

People who don't own cell phones, are illiterate, or don't speak English (the language used for the SMS answers), can go to "village phone operators," which were also set up through the Grameen Foundation. They are local merchants who speak English and know how to use the three different SMS services. There are 10,000 operators throughout Uganda and people can go to them for help on their own cell phones or can pay a small fee to use the operator's phone. The village phone operators receive a discount from MTN, which gives them an incentive to provide this help.

MTN Networks owns half the market share of mobile phones in Uganda and is the only provider offering these SMS services right now. For the next few months, there is a promotional period and all texts are free, which helps AppLab continue to build its database of queries. When the promotional period ends, MTN and Google have agreed to charge agriculture and health queries at half the cost of a normal SMS message, while all the other services will have the standard rates. Meanwhile, Google will be supporting an on-the-ground assessment to make sure these services are having a beneficial impact for the people of Uganda.

People without phones can find answers to questions through village phone operators, like this woman.
People without phones can find answers to questions through village phone operators, like this woman. The Grameen Foundation
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About the author

Dara Kerr is a staff writer for CNET focused on the sharing economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado where she developed an affinity for collecting fool's gold and spirit animals.

 

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