Today’s guest post from Tom Owen
The World Wide Web Foundation innovative approach to Market Information via Radio
The World Wide Web Foundation has implemented some interesting initiatives aimed at making the web both useful and accessible for farmers in rural Africa. While undertaking research in the Sahel region of West Africa, the Foundation discovered a few key points. One is that there is a lack of information on the Web that is relevant to the needs of farmers in the Sahel. A second key learning is that most rural dwellers aren’t using SMS for communicating and gathering information; rather the phone is mostly used for voice communications. It was also found that community radio was a popular method of communication in rural areas.
With these lessons as a starting point the Web Foundation, working with Mali based organisation Sahel Eco, set out to develop voice based technologies that can help break down barriers preventing farmers from connecting with potential buyers for their goods. As the first part of a multi pronged Market Information System initiative the Web Foundation has developed a voice-based toolkit that allows community radio stations to easily broadcast locally relevant market information.
While many Market Information Systems (MIS) and trading platforms for agricultural goods are based on textual information transmitted via mobile phone, the Web Foundation is using mobile phones in a different way, as a voice based data entry mechanism as well as a tool to disseminate information to community radio stations.
The service is called Radio Marché. Farmers can call in to a hotline number to list goods for sale, these listings are then aggregated into a single audio file by Sahel Eco that can be disseminated to community radio stations. The community radio stations can download the audio file to a computer or mobile phone in cases where internet or mobile broadband is available. In the case that a community radio station has no data access they can call in and play the audio feed directly from a mobile phone. The system is accessible regardless of the connectivity of the radio station. This approach also allows farmers who are illiterate or uncomfortable with using SMS to easily list goods for sale.
The Web Foundation is using the pilot to promote an ICT, community radio, and a communication medium, voice, that is often overlooked in agricultural initiatives that use ICTs to support smallholder farmers. It’s a great example that shows voice based services are an acceptable and indeed in many cases a preferable communication method for ICT based farmer services.
Perhaps most importantly this pilot serves as a platform for the Web Foundation to develop and disseminate voice based technologies that can be easily adapted for use by other initiatives. While SMS and smart phone apps have been the poster children for ICT based initiatives in agriculture, this pilot project will hopefully bring increased awareness to the potential of voice based technologies such as interactive voice response. It’s also important to note there isn’t a significant cost premium to implement voice based services (in comparison with text based SMS systems). SMS is most common because it’s the path of least resistance for developers, not because it necessarily costs less.
The Web Foundation sees voice based services as part of a larger ecosystem for facilitating agricultural trade. While Voice services are an important link that can directly connect producers and buyers, there is also value in providing web-based services which are more suited to aggregating supply or demand (i.e. to facilitate bulk sales for larger buyers). There is also an opportunity for other actors to connect existing MIS to community radio stations, extending the reach of their services.
While textual interfaces based on SMS or smart phone apps have been touted as the future of MIS and trading platforms, the Web Foundation has shown that community radio and voice based systems have will have a big role to play in connecting farmers to markets.