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In rural Africa, a fertile market for mobile phones

The mobile phone is becoming a powerful instrument of learning in remote African villages.

BUSHENYI, Uganda--Laban Rutagumirwa charges his mobile phone with a car battery because his dirt-floor home deep in the remote, banana-covered hills of western Uganda does not have electricity.

When the battery dies, Rutagumirwa, a 50-year-old farmer, walks just more than four miles to charge it so he can maintain his position as communication hub and banana-disease tracker for his rural neighbors.

In an area where electricity is scarce and Internet connections virtually nonexistent, the mobile phone has revolutionized scientists' ability to track this crop disease and communicate the latest scientific advances to remote farmers.

With his phone, Rutagumirwa collects digital photos, establishes global positioning system coordinates and stores completed 50-question surveys from nearby farmers with sick plants. He sends this data, wirelessly and instantly, to scientists in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

"We never had any idea about getting information with the phone," Rutagumirwa said. "It was a mystery. Now our mind is wide open."

Africa has the fastest-growing mobile phone market worldwide. Entrepreneurs and development organizations are eagerly seizing the opportunity presented by such growth. They are creating mobile phone applications for profitable and nonprofit ventures across the continent. Millions of Africans, for example, now use their mobile phones to transfer money, turn on water wells, learn soccer game scores and buy and sell goods.

The penetration of the mobile phone is far greater than that of the Internet in Africa, especially in rural areas, making it the most accessible communication tool, said Jon Gossier, founder and president of Appfrica, a technology company with headquarters in Uganda.

The recent completion of the first of several planned undersea cables connecting East Africa to broadband Internet has raised hopes that high-speed Web access will increase here. But Gossier said he expected mobile-phone messaging applications would be needed for several more years. The development of useful, local Web content will lag after falling Internet prices, which will quite likely take longer than a year, he said.

"I don't think the development being done now for mobile phones is going to stop," Gossier said, "but I think we'll see a whole new generation of applications coming out of Africa, including mobile applications that utilize the Web."

Tracking banana disease and educating farmers on how to protect their plantations is among several mobile phone applications being piloted in Uganda by the Grameen Foundation, a nongovernmental agency that aims to reduce poverty through microfinancing and new technology.

Grameen partnered with Uganda's largest mobile network operator, MTN, to create AppLab Uganda, an initiative to explore ways to use mobile technologies to improve people's lives, said the program director, Eric Cantor.

"People already have phones in their pocket, already need information, and some organizations already that provide information," Cantor said. "We're accelerating those connections."

Building applications for agriculture seemed logical in a country that is predominately rural and reliant on small farms, he said.

Rutagumirwa is among several leaders in rural communities who were trained by Grameen to survey and educate neighboring farmers about the proper methods to contain banana disease. In recent years, the wide spread of two diseases has decimated banana crops in East Africa, threatening the food security and livelihood for an estimated 30 million farmers, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

In Uganda alone, bananas cover about 40 percent of the country's farmable land and are a staple food for more than 12 million people. Losses from banana disease are estimated to be $70 million to $200 million each year.

In neighboring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, another disease called banana bunchy top is also devastating banana crops. This disease has not yet been found in Uganda, but officials are on alert for it.

Once the bunchy top disease becomes established in an area, it is almost impossible to eradicate, said Idd Ramathanni, a microbiologist with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Uganda. Using mobile phones to connect the most remote farmers with scientists in Kampala vastly improves surveillance and the possibility of preventing its devastation, Ramathanni said.

"It's better to prevent than cure a problem which is here," he said.

David Bangirana, another village leader trained by Grameen, said he saw potential in using networks of community leaders armed with mobile phones like himself to educate and collect data in remote villages on topics beyond banana disease.

Bangirana, 60, a former teacher and village chief, wears a bright yellow T-shirt with the words "Ask Me" across the chest. His community now comes to him with questions about farming practices and health issues, and he can quickly find most answers using Google text messaging and an operator service. He said he sometimes took his phone to village primary schools to show the children the limitlessness of the information available to them.

"The use of the mobile phone," Bangirana said, "has empowered the community to know what they never knew and ask any question concerning their surroundings."