Posted by editor
on September 28, 2009 at 6:05 AM PDT
When a farmer in Musita, Uganda has questions regarding a decision he must make, he's likely to go visit Michael Malime, the village mobile phone operator, and connect via text message to the Farmer's Friend service...
When a farmer in Musita, Uganda has questions regarding a decision he must make, he's likely to go visit Michael Malime, the village mobile phone operator, and connect via text message to the Farmer's Friend service. Sending a text message like "rice aphids" or "tomato blight" will result in either a return text message with relevant information, or a phone call from a human (if the database does not contain a relevant response).
This news is reported in the article Beyond Voice , one of 8 articles in this week's Economist magazine special report, Mobile Marvels . The special report is subtitled: "Poor countries have already benefited hugely from mobile phones. Now get ready for a second round."
The subtitle of the Beyond Voice article is: "New uses for mobile phones could launch another wave of development." That indeed seems to be happening, as the price of mobile phones and mobile access drops. The article describes a wave of new mobile applications that are springing up to serve the needs of communities that are poor, and have none of the basic infrastructure that the developed world takes for granted (landline phones, for example, electricity in many places).
The conduit that makes these applications possible is the growing mobile networks in countries like Kenya and Uganda, and in many other developing places in the world. Today, 40% of Africans have a mobile phone. For many who do not have a phone, there is a village phone operator, like Michael Malime in Musita, Uganda, who sells the opportunity to use a mobile phone for a voice call or a text message. Often, the text message destination is a mobile application service like Farmer's Friend.
The Farmer's Friend service:
accepts text-message queries such as "rice aphids", "tomato blight" or "how to plant bananas" and dispenses relevant advice from a database compiled by local partners. More complicated questions ("my chicken's eyes are bulging") are relayed to human experts, who either call back within 15 minutes or, with particularly difficult problems, promise to provide an answer within four days. These answers are then used to improve the database.
Many organizations are getting involved in this effort in developing countries. These include, most notably, the Grameen Foundation , founded by Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus (who also recently received the 2009 U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom ). An organization that readers of this blog will be more familiar with, that is also significantly involved in the effort to develop mobile apps to serve the needs of developing regions, is: Google.
Another aspect: mobile "banking"
You may recall our recent article by Biswajit Sarker, Using the Payment API for Microcredit and Other Applications . In that article, Biswajit showed how to develop an application that applies the Payment API (JSR 229) to enable the transfer of funds using a Java ME app for mobile devices. In his article, Biswajit talks of a user "purchasing a loan voucher" -- that is, a "voucher" is the means of transferring the money you as microcredit lender would like to provide to the person whose business idea you'd like to invest in.
Biswajit's description sounds exactly like what's happening with mobile money transfers in Kenya and other places today. The Economist's lead article for this issue, The power of mobile money (featured in this week's java.net Spotlight ), talks about how:
With such phones now so commonplace, a new opportunity beckons: mobile money, which allows cash to travel as quickly as a text message. Across the developing world, corner shops are where people buy vouchers to top up their calling credit. Mobile-money services allow these small retailers to act rather like bank branches. They can take your cash, and (by sending a special kind of text message) credit it to your mobile-money account. You can then transfer money (again, via text message) to other registered users, who can withdraw it by visiting their own local corner shops. You can even send money to people who are not registered users; they receive a text message with a code that can be redeemed for cash.
And there's more...
It's easy, as one who lives in a developed country, to think about mobile applications only from the perspective of the life we live and the things we see in our own world every day. But, the biggest and most important change of all, with respect to mobile applications, may actually be happening in the most underdeveloped regions of the globe.
There's so much in this Economist series -- I've barely scratched the surface of talking about the effect mobile phones and apps are starting to have in the developing world in this post. Take a look at the Economist Special Report (before they make it available only to subscribers) if you'd like to read more.
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