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Making Information Mobile
Lee-Roy Chetty   Oct 22, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Among the plethora of technological developments within the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, mobile phones have had the most pronounced impact in developing countries.

Mobile phone adoption has been driven primarily by improved accessibility and affordability to consumers.  This has been made possible through the expansion of mobile networks that are cheaper to deploy than fiber-optic cable infrastructure.

The capacity or bandwidth available on mobile networks also continues to increase as the technology evolves, enabling more data-intensive services to be delivered through sophisticated devices such as smartphones and tablets.

However, the most common device in developing countries is still the basic mobile phone.

As prices continue to decline, data-enabled devices such as feature phones, smartphones, and tablet computers are expected to become more accessible to more people. These devices include an operating system, which means they have computing capabilities and can carry software applications, referred to as mobile applications.

In the past year tablet computers have started to revolutionize various entertainment and knowledge-based industries such as music, videos, books, newspapers, and magazines. Combining the operational potential of a computer, the communications capabilities of a phone, and the versatility of a notepad, companies have already started selling no-frills tablets for less than the cost of some mobile phones.

These data-enabled devices, along with their increasing affordability, can have a range of implications for the development of mobile applications. These include ease of use, richer multimedia that can transform agricultural extension services and the ability to access relevant information on demand in local languages.

While cost may still be a barrier for smallholder farmers, community knowledge workers, and local entrepreneurs, users are increasingly able to afford these mobile devices, incorporating them in their work to collect and disseminate information. Devices targeted for this market increasingly use offline technology such as USB media to overcome connectivity issues.

Mobile and remote wireless sensors and identification technologies also have an important role to play in gathering data and information relevant to agricultural production, such as temperature, soil composition, and water levels.

Increasingly, specialized mobile services targeted to specific agricultural functions are becoming more available. The basic functions of a mobile phone—sending and receiving voice calls and text messages—are invaluable in increasing efficiency in smallholder agriculture by improving the flow of information along and between various stakeholders in the value chain from producer to processor to wholesaler to retailer to consumer.

Furthermore, mobile phones also enable smallholder farmers to close the feedback loop by sending information to markets, not just consuming information from markets.

Mobile phones, although owned and used by individuals, can nevertheless have an important impact in linking markets and key stages of the value chain. A recent study of farmers conducted in Bangladesh, China, India, and Vietnam found that 80 percent of farmers in these countries owned a mobile phone and used them to connect with agents and traders to estimate market demand and the selling.

More than 50 percent of these farmers would make arrangements for sale over the phone. Improved understanding of real-time market dynamics can help farmers deal with external demand, such as switching to high-demand but riskier (perishable) products. Risky products include crops that are easily ruined if the rainy season arrives too early, for example.

The growing sophistication and knowledge of value chains also means that farmers can work directly with larger intermediaries, capturing more of the product’s value. Farmers are able to expand their networks and establish contacts directly with other buyers in other areas. Aside from the overall impact of mobile phones on marketing and market linkages, certain mobile applications can help aggregate information between buyers and sellers.

As information becomes more accessible through the use of mobile devices for stakeholders throughout the agriculture value chain, people are gradually moving toward more efficient ways of producing agricultural products, increasing incomes, and capturing more value by linking fragmented markets. Key benefits include increases in productivity and income for farmers and efficiency improvements in aggregating and transporting products.

Although elements of the mobile agriculture platform are emerging in developing countries, the full potential has yet to be realized. The mobile services cited here are simply tools, and without the proper supporting pillars such as those described above, the key challenges that hamper their sustainability will be difficult to overcome.

In the future, governments will need to examine their role in creating an enabling environment for innovators seeking ways to meet the needs of this information-intensive sector. Specific ICT strategies for the agriculture sector would help guide both the public and private sector in creating this enabling environment. These policies should take into account the need for new business models in specific country contexts and facilitate inputs such as the supporting infrastructure (broadband services) and the IT industry (IT skills).

Technologists, governments, NGOs, private businesses, and donor agencies are just starting to work together to leverage mobile technologies for greater inclusion of rural and poor communities into their spheres of activity.

Lee-Roy Chetty holds a masters degree in media studies from the University of Cape Town and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A two-time recipient of the National Research Fund Scholarship, he is currently completing his PhD at UCT and an economics degree with Unisa.

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