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Mobile phones for farmers in Africa:
Myth or reality?

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Kenyan shack by the road

My first trip to Africa, goes back to 1994: Angola in the midst of the civil war. I “left” the continent end 1999, moving from Uganda to Kosovo.

Through my five years in Africa, I travelled extensively throughout. I was a first-hand witness of the the mobile phone networks rolling out in different countries. From the old AMPR system and 2 kg mobile phone/walkie talkie bricks in Congo (then Zaire), to the new generation MTN-types using the latest technology, huge bandwidths, and connectivity of “a certain reliability”.

Still by the time I left, end 1999, mobile phone connectivity was still pretty much limited to the capital cities. Even though, in just a few years, GSM had completely taken over the old ‘copper’ landline market in African cities, it seemed there was quite a hurdle to get the connectivity “upcountry”.

Not only was the support infrastructure – electricity, security – often lacking to spread mobile phone towers in remote areas, but it seemed like the companies doubted if there was a real market…

That was back then, in 1999.

Since then, I have always been very reluctant to join the highly enthusiastic crowd propagating mobile phone technology as one of “the” key means for rural farmers to be “informed”. “Informed” about the weather forecast, seed fertilizer and crop prices, and agricultural support.

I still remember saying “those farmers hardly having ends meet, without electricity in their homestead, often illiterate, ain’t gonna use mobile phones”…

And then, last week, during my first trip to Africa in 12 years, we are in Karurumu village in Central Kenya.
View Larger Map

Karumu is about an hour’s drive from the nearest provincial town. In other words: Karumu is, euh… remote.

Kenyan couple

We are sitting in the shade of a mango tree, on the yard of Celeste’s farm. Celeste is 88 years old. He fought the English colonizers “way back when”. He has 10 kids. He says he can’t remember exactly how many grand children and grand-grand children he has.

Celeste speaks slowly and stresses every word. We are listening to his story of how he built up his farm from nothing to the 30 acres it is now. How he was blessed with his children. Some who lived on his farm. He points out a house, a few meters further up. The house is locked up. It belonged to his son and his daughter-in-law, a doctor. Both passed away. Celeste and his wife Julia are now taking care of their grand children.

interview team Kenya

We are pulled into the story of Celeste and Julia, a story which is so common in Africa: children being raised by their grand parents. A generation being wiped away. Bart, our camera-man, keeps the focus on the sound and the ever changing intensity of the sun. Jan, the radio-reporter, is taking mental notes on what he would like to discuss further with Celeste. I am sitting on a stool, with Julia, Celeste’s grand-grand child on my lap. Julia is fascinated by the sound an elastic band makes when you pull it like a guitar string.
In short, we are all pulled into the story, into the moment.

And then, all of a sudden, a mobile phone rings. Celeste, 88 years old, farmer from Karurumo village in Kenya, stands up, says “Excuse me”, reaches into his pocket, pushes a button and starts talking into a Nokia.

Kenyan farmer with mobile phone

It is one of his five trucks. It is held up loading fertilizer a couple of farms further up.
Celeste calls the driver of his other truck, informs him of the delay and orders him to pick up a load of firewood from another farmer.
As he puts the phone back in his pocket, Celeste, 88 years old, farmer from Karurumo village in Kenya, sits down, and continues his story about the price of fruit tree pesticides and the market price for a bag of maize. As if it all was the most normal thing in the world.

The picture of Celeste, answering the phone, stays with me. The sur-reality of a mobile phone ringing in the African bush.

Have I really missed a lot during my 12 years absence in Africa? Driving around for five days in Kenya, I think not. The overloaded trucks are still the same. The accidents are just as grave. People still die needlessly of diseases we find common in “The West”. Nothing changed except one thing: Mobile phones are now everywhere. Farmers call each other with information, with questions, they are more informed, and stay ‘connected’ to each other.

I will be curious to see if I find the same giant leap into rural connectivity when travelling through Mali, Ghana, Niger, Burkina and Senegal in November.

One thing is for sure: I will not make fun anymore of those enthusiasts saying the mobile phone connectivity makes a big difference for rural farmers!

Picture interview team courtesy Willemijn Drok

Written by Peter

October 20th, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Articles

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The dream of OLPC and the aid bubble

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OLPC - One Laptop Per Child

Fellow aidworker Alanna wrote a provocative post on UNDispatch about the “end of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) dream”.

OLPC set out a couple of years ago, designing, manufacturing and distributing a simple laptop (or call it a “Netbook”) geared towards kids, specifically in developing countries. Their mission was formulated as:

To create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

From the beginning, the plan was ambitious, innovative,.. and controversial. “Tall trees catch a lot of wind” is surely applicable. The more as it was such an easy target for cheap sarcasm: “How will a laptop feed a hungry child”? You can imagine…

OLPC cartoon
Alanna’s post is creating a bit of a sturr in the ICT4D (ICT For Development), and in the development blogosphere as such (Check out the latest posts via a Humanitarian News search). I might disagree with Alanna on the OLPC, I surely appreciate provocative posts to stir up discussions. ;-)

Here are my views:

  • Anyone trying to make a difference, and is not afraid to put words into deeds, especially if it is innovative, provocative and controversial, deserves my respect. Especially if it is well thought through. OLPC has my respect.
  • Proper education is one of the principal ways to eradicate poverty. There are different means to boost education in the developing world. Rendering technology more affordable and accessible is one.
  • …But it is not the only solution. Cheap laptops can not feed hungry children, that is for sure. But neither can “feeding children teach them how to read”. Boosting education in the developing world has many challenges. Starting at the basics:
    • How do we get the kids to come to school, if they have to work in the fields helping their parents to grow enough food?
    • Once they come to school, how do we keep them in school up to the point their education becomes applicable to their lives?
    • How do we train teachers, and keep them into education. How do we avoid poaching of teachers by the commercial world?
    • How do we ensure kids have enough nutritional food, are they properly de-wormed (and are healthy enough), so they can capitalize to the max on the efforts brought? (there is a whole series of studies illustrating how proper nutrition boosts a child’s capacity to learn)
    • How do we make sure there is a proper school infrastructure, proper teaching material, proper latrines?
    • How do we make sure the educational programme is institutionalized and self-sustainable (I need to write something on sustainability as this is one of my sore points at the moment).
  • Attacking OLPC because they triggered only one part of the solution, is unfair, I think. However triggering debates to ensure OLPC is properly integrated in a wholesome solution, is constructive.
  • However, as the cynical aidworker I sometimes am, I have to say that wholesome solutions to complex development goals are virtually non-existent. It is simply not built into the humanitarian system. It is very very very difficult to have different organisations work together for a common goal. Even if it would be as simple as “address the problems of this ONE school in all of its aspects”. Leave alone all schools in a country. Beh.. Different organisations have different means and goals. But most of all, they compete. They compete for the same donor-dollar. In the end, why would I, as organisation X, work with organisation Y, if I know that in the end, we will be approaching the same donors for the same money? X and Y are competitors in a competitive world. And that will remain forever (unless at a certain point, there is a more even balance between the world’s needs and the world’s capacity to give. Dream on!).
  • And finally: OLPC is an easy target. I will challenge anyone to bring up examples of aid projects which are the right bang for buck, with wholesome approaches, lasting and self-sustainable projects. There are not many. There is a lot of “make believe”, but there are not many good examples. If the aid organisations would be commercial enterprises, the “aid business bubble” would have burst decennia ago. And would have burst every five years.

OK, that is a lot of ranting, what is the solution then? According to me, we have to start at the basics. Some food for thought:

  • Better and stronger oversight of the aid spending, both by the organisations themselves, governments and independent bodies. Make the audits public. Make the impact data public.
  • Work out better criteria to measure impact, sustainability and integration in wholesome solutions.
  • Ensure outcomes are measured by impact, and not by amount of money spent. (You think I am kidding? I am not! No donor is ever happy if at the end of the project, you return the balance of unspent money. Ever!)
  • Entice cooperation between organisations, while recognizing that healthy competition is good.
  • Transparency, transparency, transparency, transparency.

Shoot me. I am a dreamer.

Pictures courtesy OLPC,

Written by Peter

October 1st, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Posted in Soapbox

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Help. I outsourced my life!

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outsourcing life

I don’t have to remember how to get anywhere. The sooth-voiced GPS in my car guides me from where I am to where I wanna be, via roads I did not know before.

I don’t have to remember meetings. Those who want meetings with me, fill in an electronic form which automatically replicates with my Blackberry, which reminds me 15 minutes before the start. It is widely accepted to miss meetings because someone’s Blackberry froze. We then commiserate with the person, feeling real bad for them, as we know the feeling of being Berry-less.

I don’t know when my car needs maintenance. My car reminds me, 500 miles before.

I don’t carry cash. I just slid a card in a slot. For those backward situations, where I do need cash, I carry some small notes hidden in a secret pocket of my credit card wallet. And then I am not surprised the cashier needs his calculator to see what the change is for a twenty. On a 18.95 sale.

I don’t remember names. I remember I met this guy in New York, in 2003. A quick search for the keywords “New York”, “2003”, and “male” on my PDA tells me who and what he is, and on what topic I met him before. And if I want to connect to his company website. Or update his business card automatically.

I don’t have to look for a job. LinkedIn ensures I get at least 10 offers per month.

I hear music on my iPod I have never heard before. I go online with iTunes, and it tells me what I like. I just click “OK”. Music is automatically copied to my iPod. I play “Latest Updated” and hear my favorite music. Only a pity that I don’t recognize the artist names nor album titles.

Likewise, Amazon reminds me when new books by my favorite authors are published. Their names don’t ring a bell, though.

I don’t remember how to spell. Microsoft word auto-corrects my errors.

My Blackberry (that thing again!), makes different noises, dependent which email it receives. If it comes from my boss, it makes a “whoopwhoop” noise.

I don’t read manuals. I try things. I don’t read instructions on a website, I just click haphazardly. If I don’t get what I want, I try another website. Choice plenty.

I don’t have an opinion. Before commenting, I check CNN to see the latest poll. I always make up my mind after consuming several 3G or GPRS megabytes.

Loads of electronic services I use, are password protected Passwords are remembered by my browser. I only have to click ‘OK’.

I don’t have to remember to contribute to charity. It is deducted from my checking account automatically.

My cellphone remembers the birthday of my mum and dad better than I do.

Facebook tells me who are my friends. I don’t recognize half of their thumbnail pictures, though. I have new friends every day.

I don’t have to speak to people. I email them. I vaguely remember the name of the guy in the office next door. But I bet ya, I had an email fight with him. Or at least blindcopied him on some stuff he outta know. If only I would remember what the issue was about. Then again, my intelligent Email search engine can tell me in a moment.

I know I am fired once my electronic badge no longer works.

I don’t have to visit places to learn. Wikipedia tells me all what I need to know. Google Earth shows me the sights better than in real life. And faster. And cheaper! Linked with Flickr and Panoramio, it shows better pictures I could ever take. And above all, the weather is always perfect on those, contrary to real life.

I don’t have to put my nose outside to know what the weather is. I have at least 10 websites that tell me. And what weather to expect in the next 1o days.

I don’t have to call the airport to check delays on my flight. My PDA tells me if my flight will leave on time or not.

I don’t remember my wife’s telephone number. My cell does. I don’t remember my own number. It is stored on my cell under the label “ME”.

I skype with my kids who are sitting in the next room. From time to time, we have conference chats with the family to decide on important matters. Opinions on critical issues are submitted anonymously with SurveyMonkey. We have breakfast together, though. Each with our iPod in our ears.

And if I screw up in life, I always have a.. Second Life.

Inspired by The Outsourced Brain. Discovered via Betty. Picture courtesy Glasbergen and DuckDown

Written by Peter

December 3rd, 2008 at 10:18 am

Posted in Funny

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Software developers indited for crimes against humanity

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Okay… I consider myself an IT person. My work is mostly IT related. Not as a user, but as an IT systems provider. I am supposed to like IT stuff. But I don’t. I think these days, IT is no longer a service. It is a drag. A burden.

This afternoon, this error message just gave me the creeps:

Stupid Error Message. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Make a selection. OK. Make a selection of WHAT? **%%$$!! And then I try to print a file, and I get an error: “Subsystem: IMAGE, Operator: ReadImage, Position: 2218, PCL XL Error. ” What the F**?

Maybe this is not my day, but how many times does it not happen: You start a meeting. And the first half hour you waste fiddling around with wires, interfaces, software settings, LAN connections and self-installing software, only trying to project a Powerpoint slide on a wall. Just as an example.

I despise user-unfriendly software. I find it cruel. I think many software developers should be indited by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. “Crimes against humanity”, that is what I call user-unfriendly software. Nothing more, nothing less. Moral genocide.

Written by Peter

December 2nd, 2008 at 8:33 am

Posted in Funny,Ranting

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Information Technology in Evolution…

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The school I graduated from, had one PC at the time: An Apple II. It stood in the library, and was almost inaccessible for any student. If they could, they would have put it under a glass bulb to make sure nothing happened to it.
I wrote string loads of programs in BASIC, but it remained a paper exercise as was never allowed to key it in.

After I graduated in 1983, I worked for an IT research company. We worked mainly on high tech graphic stuff. Such as digital imaging. Such as the stuff you can now do 1,000 times faster and 1,000,000 more accurate on any laptop. With freeware software. But we, we needed a 15 by 10 metres room full of PDP and VAX minicomputers. The number-crunching power of this room was roughly 1/10th of my laptop. My laptop also stores 1,000x more information.

In 1985, I bought my very first home computer, this Apple IIe:

apple IIe

It costed around US$5,000. Had a whopping 64 Kbyte of memory. No hard disk, but storage in two 128 kbyte mini floppies. The screen featured 40 characters per line. I sneaked in another 64 Kbyte of memory and upgraded to 80 characters per screen, but that is how far I could go.

Just last week, we bought this little thing for my youngest:


This iPod Nano has 18 Gbyte of memory, roughly 100,000x more than my Apple IIe but at 1/20th of the price. Hard disks are no longer used. The screen has a better resolution than anything we could dream of in the 80’s.

And still, with all of this technology, we can not get half of the flights in the air due to 10 cm of snow. Proof of the matter: I am looking at it, here at Brussels airport.

flights delayed...

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Written by Peter

November 23rd, 2008 at 1:00 pm

Posted in Soapbox

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