“The voice of the farmer” vs. “The voice of the farmers”

I was surprised this morning when I read the news coming from the e-agriculture portal:

Mobile service provider Airtel Africa has announced that it is working with the GSMA to initiate a project to provide approximately 250 000 small-holder farmers in Kenya with reliable and relevant agricultural information via their mobile phones.

The innovative project, called Sauti ya Mkulima (Swahili for ‘voice of the farmer’), aims to provide farmers with access to pertinent agriculture-related information, advice and research that will help them make better decisions about their crops, increasing the productivity of their yield, as well as their potential income.

It will also help create a farmer community within which peers can share experiences and exchange information about social gatherings, events, and job opportunities.

Shivan Bhargava, Managing Director of Airtel Kenya, explains: ‘Our Sauti ya Mkulima project will provide small-holder farmers with access to quality content, information and know-how on agriculture-related activities. Gaining access to this information will be immensely beneficial to the farmers whose livelihoods are dependent on their yield. The information will allow them to make better informed decisions that will result in improved productivity.’

(The news originally came from IT News Africa. This project is related to the mFarmer initiative)

My surprise came, of course, from the similarity between the names of Airtel’s new project and ours, Sauti ya wakulima. It’s very likely that Airtel Kenya and Tanzania already know about our project, as it has gained some recognition in these last months through articles in the local press and radio broadcasts. So they probably took the name. But did they also appropriate our values? That would be a good thing … Continue reading

Sauti ya wakulima: news roundup!

Now for some fresh news about Sauti ya wakulima:

During the first days of August, a number of farmers who participate in Sauti ya wakulima were given a grant from the government in Bagamoyo to visit and document the agricultural fair in Morogoro.

Sauti ya wakulima has also been mentioned in two recent reports, which are especially relevant to all those involved in using social media for development:

  • Maximizing Mobile: Information and Communications for Development. A report by InfoDev and The World Bank, available here.
  • Africa-Adapt‘s Social Media Guide for Climate Change Practitioners in Africa. Available here.

Stay tuned for more!

Leapfrogging education?

You have probably heard about leapfrogging: in the context of development, it means that less developed countries may skip inferior or less efficient technologies and move directly towards more recent ones. This has happened in Africa, where mobile phones have leapfrogged landline telephones.

But can leapfrogging happen in education?

How many times have we heard that education is failing to address the world’s most pressing problems? Certainly, the highly compartmentalized academic environment has fallen behind the growing complexity and hybridity of global phenomena which require transdisciplinary approaches, such as climate change. But even beyond transdisciplinarity, what kind of citizens is contemporary education helping to shape? A standardized education might be an idea that looks good on paper, but on second thought it might actually hamper creativity by standardizing the modes of thinking. What sort of discussion can arise within a society where every individual thinks in the same way?

Let me turn to the writings of Ivan Illich. In his book, Deschooling Society, Illich makes strong claims against the way in which school-based education is regarded as the only legitimate source of learning in practically every corner of the globe. Below, some quotes from his book I translated from Spanish:

 School introduces youth into a world in which everything can be measured, including their imagination and even their own selves.

School prepares people for the alienating institutionalization of life, by teaching the necessity of being taught. Once this lesson is learned, people loose their incentive to develop independiently; they no longer find it attractive to relate to each other, and the surprises that life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition are closed.

But what about learning, then? Illich argues that … most learning is not the consequence of instruction. It is rather the result of an unfettered participation in a significant environment. Learning, in consequence, is not only for all, but also by all. Illich even foresaw the potential role of digital technologies in these learning webs.

But what do the thoughts of Ivan Illich have to do with leapfrogging, or agriculture? As I have argued before, most e-agriculture projects tend to reproduce a model of learning in which experts transfer information to non-experts, usually the farmers. That is, they reproduce a sort of school without walls, in which the lack of physical space does not undermine the authority and worldview of teachers and experts. In short, most e-agriculture projects that deal with learning are failing to liberate the potential of digital networks and turn them into true learing webs. Farmers become clients of institutionalized knowledge, even if schools are nowhere in sight. And this is not a good thing. I quote Illich again: Once a society has turned certain basic needs into demands for scientifically produced goods, poverty is defined by norms which technocrats can change according to their will.

Considering all this, I do believe that Sauti ya wakulima presents an alternative to institutionalized modes of learning, by strengthening peer-to-peer learning. Just as I write this post, the farmers who take part in the project have taken the initiative to interview other farmers at an agricultural fair in Morogoro, Tanzania. Through interviews, they extract knowledge and at the same time make it available online. Everybody can teach, everybody can learn. Even if an initiative such as Sauti ya wakulima is far from becoming institutionalized, it does resonate with a call made by Illich: we need research on possible uses of technology to create new institutions that are attentive to the reciprocal, creative and autonomous action among people. 

So, can we leapfrog schools in developing environments, and skip directly to more liberating forms of learning?

What’s behind those friendly faces?

From Mediae.org:

Shamba Shape Up is a practical, make-over style TV series aimed at East Africa’s rapidly growing rural and peri-urban TV audience and designed to deliver effective agricultural and livelihoods Research-Into-Use to benefit both farmers and international research organizations concerned with East Africa.

Through carefully explained, practical demonstrations, the series shows how different practical and accessible methods and approaches can bring about significant livelihood improvements on small farms, often at very low – or even no –cost.

Here’s the first episode of Shamba Shape Up:

Continue reading

Cheap computers and conflict minerals

I originally published the following note on nettime and Facebook. I have included it in this blog because of its relevance to its topic, and added a couple of important updates:

Powerful computers are getting unbelievably cheap and small: It’s a fact we witness everyday. Many of you may have heard about the Raspberry Pi: a $25 “credit-card sized computer” that plugs into a tv and a keyboard. it uses an ARM processor and comes with a GNU/Linux OS.

According to the manufacturers, the idea behind this ultra-cheap computer is to make it available for kids everywhere in the world. While i don’t doubt their good intentions, i believe the time has come to ask questions about the material nature of our devices, no matter how big, small, cheap or expensive they are. As many of you also know, computers are getting cheaper and more powerful partly because of certain minerals, such as tantalum or tungsten, which make the miniaturization of circuits possible. but these two minerals, together with others, are considered to be “conflictive”, because of many reasons. The best known case is Coltan (a metallic ore from which tantalum is extracted) mined in Eastern Congo under brutal conditions, both for communities and the environment. If this issue sounds new to you, a good place to get more information is the Enough Project. But conflicts are not limited neither to the Eastern Congo or Coltan alone. Take gold, for example, which is used in various electronic circuits because of its conductivity, malleability and resistance to corrosion. in Tanzania, the world’s third largest producer of gold, multiple violations to human rights and damages to the local environment have been documented because of careless mining.

There is, without question, a link between our small, cheap computers and the brutal damage we are doing to poor, voiceless communities and the environment.

So, i tried to do some basic research about the Raspberry pi. It uses a Broadcom bcm2835 SoC (system-on-a-chip)… according to a company engagement report made by the “ethical bank” Triodos in 2011, Broadcom corp. was uneligible for partnership because of their negative performance regarding conflict minerals. Broadcom doesn’t seem to have much to say about that on their corporate responsibility page. This research was the fruit of an afternoon’s googling, so i can’t make any claims about it. Thus, I figured I should ask the makers of the Raspberry Pi directly. On march 14, I asked the following question on their FAQ page:

“how do you ensure that the suppliers you are working with (arm, broadcom and others) are ethically responsible? more concretely, how do you know they are not using conflict minerals to manufacture the components you buy from them? the raspberry pi is a great initiative, and it would be shame to learn that the technology involved is not 100% ethically responsible.”

I didn’t get a reply, even if the people who manage the webpage are actively replying to most of the questions. I believe my question is respectful and legitimate, and that it deserves an answer.

If you also believe that asking about the materials used to make our cheap devices is important, I invite you to turn the “q” into a “faq”. Ask the question, using your own words of course, on their faq page. Insist until we all get a satisfactory reply. It’s not about attacking the Raspberry Pi or any other company: It’s about raising awareness about what’s happening at the other end of technology. We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to what’s going on out there. It’s not a time for being (only) enthusiastic: it’s a time for asking questions.

UPDATES: Some people answered to this call and, sadly, we all got very aggressive replies. The most “reasonable” one said that the Raspberry Pi shouldn’t be singled out in the case of conflict minerals, because it’s a small computer and thus uses smaller amounts of those materials. Here is a selection of the most interesting interventions on the FAQ page:

I was wondering about the ethical stance of Rasberry Pi with regard to sourcing components? In their reply, the manufacturers try to dismiss the subject, saying they can’t do anything about it and, thus, they just ignore the issue.

I believe we deserve an answer: What is your stance on conflict minerals built into the Raspberry Pi? This question got a particularly aggressive reply. These people should check their marketing strategies… [UPDATE: my replies were deleted. In them, I said that yes, we deserve an answer for the simple reason that we are were potential buyers of the Raspberry Pi.]

But the efforts have not been in vain. An “ethical policy” discussion was opened in the Raspberry Pi’s forum. Perhaps we can coax a corporate responsibility statement from them… Stay tuned!

UPDATE (from Tom Keene, 17/04/2012):
Inspired by your original post, I made an attempt to start a discussion here:


Sadly I got a lot of abuse from other forum members (about 15 messages
were deleted) and sarcastic/warning remarks from one of the admins
which essentially shut the discussion down.

UPDATE: Richard Hall has written “A note on humanity or ethics, mobiles and the Raspberry Pi”. Read it in his blog.

UPDATE: As of May 18th 2012 (probably a few days earlier), the Raspberry Pi’s FAQ page was closed to public comments. We can’t say whether their decision was based on the uncomfortable comments about conflict minerals lying there. But, in any case, it might have been a good decision on their part. A very intense debate around the Dodd-Frank section in the US is going on, and companies are now required to find out where their suppliers come from. So, Raspberry Pi probably made an intelligent move… it’s not nice being caught with your pants down!

Sauti ya wakulima reloaded !

After a few months of inactivity, Sauti ya wakulima is rolling again. The farmers are now using new Android smartphones with the Swahili version of the ojoVoz application. Although we still need to find ways of expanding the project, we are quite hopeful: we have good chances of materializing an agreement with the Bagamoyo District Direction, and we have the full support of the local Agricultural Office.

Mrs. Renada Msaki. Source: http://sautiyawakulima.net

In fact, the Bagamoyo Agricultural Office has found that Sauti ya wakulima can be very valuable in amplifying the work of extension officers. According to their statistics, one of the biggest weaknesses in Bagamoyo is the insufficient number of extension officers. Currently, there is a ratio of 1 extension officer per 1,145 farmers: almost half of the ideal, established at 1:600.

Stay tuned for upcoming news!

The “e-i-ization” of everything (including cows)

… and on that farm he had some cows / ee i ee i oh!

Please forgive me for the bad joke, but I couldn’t avoid using the lyrics of the famous children’s song as an introduction to this post. I will briefly explain what I mean by the e-i-ization of everything, and will also review iCow: yet another SMS-based information service for farmers in Kenya.

iCow logo

iCow logo

e-agriculture, e-learning, e-banking (sometimes also m-banking) on one hand… and on the other, iPhones, iPads, iCows. We are living in times where adding the e- or i prefix to anything turns it into something new and exciting. In the first case, e- stands for electronic, implying that the service in question has grown out of its analog phase, and entered a digital one. The i prefix may seem a bit less obvious, but it’s really what it seems: i as in I, myself. I searched the Internet for the meaning of the i in iPhones, and this is what I found: Continue reading

The voice of the expert farmer

Living in a remote and inaccessible region, such as the Kabale District in the southwestern tip of Uganda, is a powerful reason for establishing mobile-based services for farmers. With its rugged terrain, mountains of over 2,000 m., and inadequate road networks, Kabale is predominantly agricultural. Farmers there are not only isolated: they also suffer from lack of credit and financial services, up-to-date information about seeds, weather patterns, appropriate fertilizers, pests, and other agricultural issues, and also volatile market prices. Traditionally, the government’s agricultural extension service was the main source of information for farmers in Uganda, but the current ratio of extension workers to farmers in the country is 1:24,000, rendering the service largely ineffective.

Landscape of Kabale. Source: Edirisa (CC)

Continue reading

An agricultural guide to Sauti ya wakulima

The farmers who participate in Sauti ya wakulima have documented a great variety of issues related to their practices. On a previous post, I described how I have used six different study tags to classify their posts: creativity, knowledge, needs, advertisement, social capital and evidence.

In this post, I want to provide a guide to the Tanzanian farmers’ collaborative knowledge base, but this time from the perspective of agriculture. The following links are starting points to explore the great diversity of crops, techniques, innovations, knowledge and problems related to their practices: an invitation to discover real, on-the-ground issues, and also wonderful things!

Mr. Ndenga in his maize plot.

Continue reading

Connected agriculture?

When a mobile company (in this case Vodafone) publishes a report titled Connected Agriculture: The role of mobile in driving efficiency and sustainability in the food and agriculture value chain, in which the executive summary reads:

Mobile communications can help to meet the challenge of feeding an estimated 9.2 billion people by 2050. The 12 specific opportunities explored in this study could increase agricultural income by around US$138 billion across 26 of Vodafone’s markets in 2020.

One cannot help being suspicious. Especially when a large NGO (in this case Oxfam) also intervenes in the report’s introduction by saying:

Oxfam welcomes this report. Its focus on the opportunity to improve agricultural productivity using mobile services highlights the opportunity to bring new investment to a key group: smallholder farmers. Oxfam recognises that mobile telephony could have signifcant potential to help the poorest farmers towards greater food and income security.

Opportunity, but for who? In this blog, I have researched different case studies and reports which tend to point towards the same direction: mobile technologies and services can enhance small-scale farmers’ livelihoods. Yet, all the evidence gathered presently seems to be anecdotal, rather than statistical. Yes: in very specific cases, mobile phones have indeed helped farmers improve their conditions. But, so far, I haven’t seen a serious impact assessment, built on solid models. Continue reading