Stories from the Field: What do our Community Knowledge Workers do?

August 22nd, 2011

Edward Chelangat is Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) field officer in Kapchorwa, Uganda

John Mamosogo in his coffee plantation

John Mamosogo is a farmer from Tangwen parish, Kabeywa subcounty,  Rumasaki village, who farms coffee as a business. His CKW is Tabitha Solimo whom he refers to as madam in the story. When I visited him, on August 8, 2011 he told me the following about CKW work and coffee farming:

“I had a friend called Ben who knows madam [CKW Tabitha Solimo], when we were walking together, he told me he was going to check something in the internet. I asked him where is the internet? He told me there is a madam who has internet and gives information on coffee. I accompanied him to the madam, madam scrolled for us everything and I centered on coffee mainly. I was interested in coffee because I had some problems in my coffee farm, so with the help of madam, we went through coffee management and under that we went to diseases. I gave my symptoms and madam compared with what was being described in the internet. I told her my coffee is “sooty black”, some leaves look yellowish and rusty and the flowering coffee drops. In another stage you find the immature berries as if hot water was poured on the berries and when you shake the coffee, they drop massively and those which are near maturity, they dry there and become “mbuni”, for us people were saying it is due to coldness, when I compared with the information with madam, I said this must be a disease not coldness.

The diseases which the phone told us were coffee berry disease; coffee leave rust and another one which I can’t remember the name. Madam advised me to spray with sypalanthy and copper, we also identified one which made white substance between my coffee berries, and it attracts ants to climb coffee, so I sprayed copper and sypalanthy, my coffee has improved so much. I have not registered leaves dropping again, even the berries are no longer dropping, those ants no longer make journeys up my trees. The copper which I applied speeds maturity of my coffee, my wife has already started picking coffee”

John’s message to Grameen Foundation:

“The knowledge we are getting is very good, give Madam a motorcycle so that she can reach all the farmers in three parishes, if she can reach every farmer, it will help farmers so much”

Joseph Solimo

Joseph Solimo is a farmer of coffee, beans, bananas, and  pigs  from  Gamatu  village, Gamatui parish, Sipi sub county, Kapchorwa District, when I asked him about his experience with CKW services, he had this to say:

“Last year in September, my pig gave birth to 15 piglets but the piglets died and I remained with 2 only, I consulted Tabitha who checked on the phone, it was found out that the pig lacked iron when it was pregnant. The phone also told us to apply iron tablets or charcoal 2 to 3 times in a month when it is pregnant. The phone also told us that the pig should eat dry soil when it is pregnant. When the pig got pregnant again, I used the methods of applying charcoal and tablets of iron and the dry soil. This was October 2010.

“I gave the pig charcoal 3 times in the month and iron tablets once, I continuously fed the pig with dry soil by grazing it where there is dry soil, the next delivery was very successful, my pig gave me 12 piglets and none died.”





Can We Text Our Way to Behavior Change?

August 17th, 2011

Jason Hahn is a Business Development Manager at the Grameen Foundation

Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) that show the evidence of mobile phone based development interventions do not come out every day.  At Grameen Foundation we look forward to them as they can help us shape our interventions with fact-based evidence of other interventions that worked - especially when they show an almost 25% change in behavior.

It was with great interest to read about one that did just that in a recent Lancent article on “the effect of mobile phone text-message reminders on Kenyan health worker’s adherence to malaria treatment guidelines”.  The article written by Dejan Zurovac, Raymond Sudoi, Willis Akhwale, Moses Ndiritu, Davidson Hamer, Alexander Rowe, Robert Snow from the Kenya Medical Research Institute - Wellcome Trust Research Program in Nairobi illustrated their findings after they text messages to health care workers encouraging them to follow treatment guidelines for pediatric malaria.  They sent two messages every work day for six months to rural health workers in 11 districts in Kenya.  The messages contained treatment guidance and an inspirational quote.  I’ve excerpted from the article one of the messages that was sent on Monday mornings:

Check ALL sick children <5yrs for any severe signs! Also check for fever, cough, diarrhea, pallor & any other problem.Quote: “Persistent work triumphs”

Health care workers who received the messages improved their management of pedatric malaria by 23.7% immediately after they received the six month intervention and by 24.5% when researchers went back 6 months later to check on them.  This compares favorable with a 9% success rate for traditional health care worker performance improvement programs which don’t use SMS.   The research this team did builds on other research that showed behavior change triggered by SMS messages among people living with HIV who were taking anti-retroviral medication for HIV.

Saving On The Mobile: Developing Innovative Financial Services to Suit Poor Users

August 11th, 2011

Grameen Foundation’s Sean Krepp and Dr. Olga Morawczynski recently published this paper on Saving on the Mobile in the World Economic Forum’s Mobile Financial Services Development Report 2011.

Savings on mobile money

A recent survey of over 2,000 Kenyan households found that 89% of respondents used M-PESA, a Kenyan mobile money (MM) application, “to save” (Suri and Jack, 2010). Dr. Morawczynski confirmed this finding after spending over 18 months studying the financial habits of resource poor M-PESA users in two locations: an urban slum called Kibera and village in Western Kenya called Bukura (Morawczynski, 2010). The study found that M-PESA was integrated into the financial portfolios and acted as a complement, rather than a substitute, to other mechanisms. This paper expands on these findings by disaggregating the term “savings” and focusing on behavior.

Four scenarios have been developed to explain how and why resource poor individuals use MM as a savings mechanism. These scenarios describe the frequency of transactions and the costs associated with each form of savings. A case study accompanies each scenario to explain the circumstances leading to the savings behavior.

Two MM applications are central to this analysis— M-PESA in Kenya and MobileMoney in Uganda. Product ideas are derived from analysis of practices. To “go beyond payments” and be relevant to poor users, mobile applications must be designed to fit into existing practices rather than trying to change or displace them.

Savings scenarios

Most survey respondents adopted MM to send or receive money. MM provided one of the fastest, and cheapest, methods of money transfer. Before MM was introduced, many respondents had to leave their villages to collect cash transferred by bus or via the post office. These trips were expensive, costing up to 30% of the amount received. However, after users became accustomed to MM services, many started using MM for savings. As one Kenyan farmer explained:

I signed up at first because my brother was sending me cash from Kisumu. I would also use M-PESA to send to my mother. Then the agent told me that M-PESA is also like a bank. I can save my money there and withdraw it when I need it.

There are several ways individuals “saved” on their MM accounts, also known as wallets. The following four savings scenarios are derived from interviews with respondents as well as financial diaries, which tracked respondents’ inflows and outflows for a month:

Scenario 1: Saving to Transfer

Some savers use MM to accumulate cash before transferring the value to a recipient. In most cases, the senders predetermined the amount they wanted to send and saved through small deposits until the target was met. This form of savings is often inexpensive for the users because deposits are free. In this scenario, MM is  a dedicated account for remittances and facilitates the  separation and organization of savings, allowing users to control their spending. As one security guard explained, “If the cash is not on hand then I can’t waste it”. It also allows the users to use the check balance function to track their progress, and know how much more they need before sending off the cash. Some also explained that this form allows them to “top-up” their balance. Topping up allows savers to meet their targets more quickly.

Paul, Mechanic and shop owner in Kibera, Kenya

Paul is a mechanic in Kibera, a slum near Nairobi. Paul also owns a small retail shop, at which he works during the evenings. He stays alone in Kibera, but supports his mother and three children who live in Bukura, a small village in Western Kenya. His wife died five years ago and his mother takes care of the children while he works in the city.Paul sends the equivalent of US$ 46 (4,000 KES) per month. This money is mainly used by his mother to purchase items such as milk, sugar, and porridge. Paul explains that the rising costs of city life make it difficult to meet the target. To organize his savings, he made a savings plan and started to deposit US$ 6 (500 KES) every week. This allows him to save half (2,000 KES) of what he needs to transfer each month. The other half is “topped up” by clients who purchase goods on credit from his shop and pay him the balance at the end of the month. After meeting the US$ 46 target, Paul makes the transfer to his mother and starts saving once again.

Customers engaging in this form of savings usually deposited on a weekly, or bi-weekly, basis and held the balance for one to two months. They would deplete their balance when sending money and thereafter start to build up their balance from zero. As shown below, this form of savings did not incur too many transaction costs. Paul was only charged when he transferred his savings balance to his mother.

Scenario 2: Saving down after receiving cash

In many of the rural villages, recipients engage in another form of savings behavior—“saving down”. They receive cash from relatives and withdraw the money in small increments until the balance is depleted. Many individuals who engage in this form of savings do not have a formal bank or microfinance institution account. They want to keep cash outside of the home for emergencies and to curb their temptation to spend the savings.

Moses, motorcyle taxi driver in Kyenjojo, Uganda

Moses lives in a small village in Western Uganda. He works mainly as a motorcycle taxi driver and also has a small plot of land that he farms. He has a sister living in Kampala, Uganda’s largest city, who sends him cash at least twice a year to help boost his business. He uses that cash to purchase petrol or spare parts for his bike. Moses does not withdraw the cash after receiving the  transfers because his sister usually sends a sizeable amount of cash (US$ 100 USD or 200,000 UGX). The agent usually does not have the cash float to handle a total withdrawal at one time. Instead, Moses takes out cash when he needs it and maintains a balance on his MobileMoney account. When his business earnings are good he makes deposits to increase his balance. Having available cash helps Moses deal with emergencies.

This form of savings is more expensive than the first scenario. The customer is charged a fee for each withdrawal transaction; the fee depends on the amount withdrawn as the pricing structure is tiered. This form of savings is cheaper than travelling to the nearest urban area to access banking service as the trips cost from US$ 2.00-$15.00 according to the research sites. In this scenario, the recipients often make withdrawals on a bi-weekly basis. They usually keep at least a small balance on the MM wallet until they receive the next transfer. This form of savings is especially appropriate for those who receive cash from several urban contacts. Their savings are often “topped up” without having to make a deposit.

Scenario 3: Transactions Account

Some respondents make frequent small deposits and withdrawals, using the MM wallet like a transactions account. In this scenario, transactions are more frequent and it is common for the wallets to reach a zerobalance. In some cases, those engaging in this form of savings are traders and micro-entrepreneurs.

Grace, clothes trader in Kiyindi, Uganda

Grace owns a small clothes trading business. She travels weekly to the nearest town center to purchase clothes, and bring the items back to resell in her village on market day. Grace opened up a mobile money account last year for safety reasons. She often travels with large amounts of cash and does not want to be robbed. She deposits cash before making her trip to town, and withdraws it when she arrives. Grace see great value in using MM for business purposes. For example, she sends cash to the clothing dealers in town in early morning to secure the best items of clothing. She accepts payments from customers who purchase clothing in bulk.

users because deposits are free. In this scenario, MM is
a dedicated account for remittances and facilitates the
separation and organization of savings, allowing users to
control their spending. As one security guard explained,
“If the cash is not on hand then I can’t waste it”. It also
allows the users to use the check balance function to
track their progress, and know how much more they
need before sending off the cash. Some also explained
that this form allows them to “top-up” their balance.
Topping up allows savers to meet their targets more
Customers engaging in this form of savings usually
deposited on a weekly, or bi-weekly, basis and held the
balance for one to two months. They would deplete
their balance when sending money and thereafter start
to build up their balance from zero. As shown below,
this form of savings did not incur too many transaction
costs. Paul was only charged when he transferred his
savings balance to his motherGrace owns a small clothes trading business. She travels weekly to the nearest town center to purchase clothes, and

Before signing up for MM, Grace kept most of her cash in a small box hidden in some pots at home. She used this form of savings because the cash was easy to access. Recently, her husband found the money and spent it on alcohol. Grace had to stop trading for over two weeks because she lacked cash to purchase clothing. After the incident, Grace moved the cash at home to her MM wallet, which she uses as her business account. She also opened a bank account in town to accumulate her profits. If she maintains a balance, she hopes to secure a loan to grow her business.

These users often send and receive money from business contacts. They make withdrawals to pay expenses or to invest in their businesses. Some use cash in MM for daily consumption. They make deposits when they have cash and withdrawals when needed. Although such withdrawals were costly, many engage in this form of savings because they do not want to keep cash at home. As the case study shows, money stored at home is prone to theft by a thirsty spouse. Some respondents use MM in this manner because banks are too costly for frequent and small transactions. Cash can be accessed from a network of agents, which allows users to travel without having to carry cash.

Scenario 4: Targeted Savings

Some respondents use the MM wallet to save for a particular goal, such as land, cattle or  school fees. Often, these savers develop a schedule for the frequency and amount of their deposits. Many only withdraw the cash when they meet their targets, unless they have a pressing need. With this form of savings, users keep cash in the wallet for weeks or months.

Oscar, sugar cane farmer in Bukura, Kenya

A few years ago, Oscar’s son suffered an accident and spent nearly five months in the hospital before passing away. Oscar had to sell his land to pay for medical and funeral bills. He eventually secured work at a nearby sugar plantation, which provided him with housing. Oscar wants to repurchase his land because he plans to retire in a few years and needs a place to live.

Recently, Oscar started his savings plan. He needs about US$ 700 to buy back his small plot of land. He earns about US$ 100 per month in his current job and put US$ 60 per month into his mobile money wallet. The sugar plantation has some savings groups, but Oscar prefers to use MM because he wants to put away larger amounts of savings “in secret”.  If the other workers found out that he had money, he would be asked for loans. Oscar can track his progress using his phone to check his balance. This has helped him to stay on track with his savings goal.

Many using this form of savings have no access to formal savings mechanisms or find such mechanisms too expensive. One tailor in Kyenjojo, a farming community in Western Uganda, prefers to save in MM for larger purchases even though there is a Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) in his village. The check balance function allows him to keep better track of his savings and “monitor” whether his cash has been stolen. Such monitoring was more difficult with the SACCO because he had to physically go there and wait for a receipt.

Individuals who accumulate savings through frequent deposits have several complaints. First, no interest is offered on MM wallets because they are not designed to be savings accounts. Second, it is often difficult to make large cash withdrawals in rural areas because the agents often run out of cash. Because most transactions in these areas are withdrawals, the agents have to travel to banks to replenish their cash floats. Such trips can be expensive and time-consuming. Some agents limit their trips and spend days without a float.Targeted savings provide one of the cheapest forms of money storage. Individuals are only charged when they make a withdrawal. There is no charge for storing cash in the account.

Product Design

These savings scenarios should inform the design of innovative mobile savings products that serve poor people’s needs.  They provide important insights into the what, how and why people use MM as storage and savings tools.  These insights have poignant implications for product innovation beyond payment.

Product Scenario 1: Saving to Transfer

Cash accumulation into an e-wallet or “saving up” is more challenging than receiving cash and “saving down” as in Scenario 2.  It took Paul one month of careful deposits and collecting his lines of credit to meet his monthly remittance targets.  As he lives in an urban setting there is greater temptation to spend on nonessential goods and services. Paul and other savers like him could be incentivized to put their savings into micro-time deposits, which earn interest while savers are depositing towards their targets.  If savers build up their deposits and do not withdraw over a given period they could be offered more attractive tiered interest rates, similar to the MM practice of tiered transaction fees. Savers could also be given the option of compartmentalizing the MM wallet to have a dedicated remittance account. This would allow someone like Paul to use MM as both a shortterm storage and a transaction account. Other creative approaches could increase savings balances. For example, a portion of airtime value could be funneled into the account when a top-up is made. Such strategies could help customers like Paul increase the remittance account balance without too much effort. For this to occur, the MM wallet and bank account would have to be linked.

These types of savers could be followed over time to build up credit risk ratings and thus become eligible for credit facilities such as an overdraft, similar to the M-Kesho offering in Kenya.

Product Scenario 2: Saving Down After Receiving Cash

It takes much less effort for customers to deplete their savings balances, or save down, than it does for them to accumulate cash.  As in Scenario 2 (saving after receiving), users like Moses only withdraw cash when they need it. This results in far fewer transactions than those in Scenario 1 (saving to transfer) or 4 (targeted savings). A product that funnels a pre-determined portion of cash into a separate account, every time that cash hits the wallet, could support this savings behavior. For example, Moses could opt into a programme that sends 20% of the money received into an interest bearing savings sub-account. This would allow him to maintain a balance for emergencies or business investments and use the money in the wallet for his business. Bulk salary payments could be linked to these types of sub-accounts, as could government poverty payments, providence fund offerings and international remittance payments. This could centralize the cash streams of users, and provide opportunities for the savings sub-account balance to be topped up.

Product Scenario 3: Transactions Account

In Grace’s micro-business she needs liquidity to pay suppliers and transact with customers. She wants to securely store and save larger sums. She also wants to build a credit history so that she can eventually access a line of credit. Providers could consider offering savers like Grace a transaction sub-account that charges both deposit and withdrawal transactions, but keeps the cost of the transactions low compared to banks.. This would facilitate high volume and low-value transactions while allowing mobile operators to increase the amount of cash that goes through the system.

Transaction histories could be monitored to measure credit worthiness. Overdraft facilities or other forms of credit could be offered to low risk customers. These could be modeled after the “pay-later” airtime schemes that are already offered in countries such as Uganda. These allow customers to purchase small amounts of airtime on credit, and pay the interest when they top-up their balances. In this case, interest could be paid when customers receive cash on their wallets. Customers could be allowed to extract their account history, for a small fee, to secure loans from other financial service provider.

Product Scenario 4: Targeted Savings

Oscar and others like him are deliberate in their savings targets. In Oscar’s case, the repurchase of his land was his motivation for systematic savings. Not unlike Paul in Scenario 1, Oscar saved in small increments toward his personal goal, whilst Paul saves to support his mother and children. The key value propositions are flexibility, transparency and personal control over targets. Savers could be empowered to set their savings targets through the mobile interface. This would allow them to decide how much they need to achieve their goals.

Savers could be given full transparency over the amounts saved toward their goals and could be sent reminders to stay on track.  Different target levels could be linked to different interest rates and increases in minimum balances could open up new facilities once risk profiles are ascertained.

Targeted savings account products could be marketed to serve common individual or collective savings needs such as group contributions for weddings or funerals. The goal would be marketed rather than the mechanism for getting there.


The industry has given much attention to scaling MM, either through growth of the distribution network or inclusion of a wide partnership base. These discussions have overshadowed those on products. We have forgotten that M-PESA grew quickly because it was appropriate for poor Kenyans, suited their needs and compatible with their financial habits. The expanding agent network and enrollment of many partners facilitated that growth.

If we aim to go beyond payments, attention must be focused not only on what people want, but also on what they do. Numerous empirical studies, including this one, show that poor people store money in a variety of savings devices—from locked boxes to holes in the ground. These  studies show that the poor wantsomething different, and are willing to pay for it. This provides a unique opportunity for banks and mobile operators to generate revenues by pulling billions of dollars from these hiding places.

In addition to understanding what people do, we must also focus on why it is important to them. This can cultivate value propositions that resonate with this segment. Nearly every Kenyan understood the three words that guided the launch of M-PESA—“send money home”. Finding propositions that work as well for savings—such as for school fees or business investments—is equally important. This will facilitate the shift of particular markets, as well as the entire MM industry, beyond payments.

Our Work in Mobile Financial Services

June 24th, 2011

Elizabeth Berthe is the Director of Mobile Financial Services at Grameen Foundation

Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Financial Services team is working in several regions around the world to help make mobile financial services simple, affordable and accessible to the poor.  We are working to innovate on three fronts:

  • Overcome technology barriers to facilitate integration of mobile solutions for microfinance institutions
  • Research to inform and influence the development of financially inclusive products as well dissemination of best practices
  • Implementation projects focusing on processes, evolving business models and relevant products.

Around 2.5 billion adults around the world do not have access to formal or semi-formal financial services – nearly 90 per cent of whom live in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East yet more than half the world’s population have access to a mobile phone and nearly a quarter use the internet as developing countries rapidly adopt new communications technologies. Access to financial services provides poor people with much greater resilience to economic shocks and increased capacity to increase or stabilize their income. Mobile phones can play a vital role in financial inclusion.

Through our work with Village Phone we discovered early on that many users sent pre-paid airtime as a form of money transfer saving the fees to travel to transport funds.  Airtime would be purchased then sent to a broker for example who in turn would resell the airtime for cash and pay for goods or services such as school fees and this transfer would take place via text messaging.

In 2007, Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile network provider, formalized this process with the creation of M-PESA.   This service allows users to deposit funds into a virtual account store on the mobile phone, send funds via text message for a fee to transfer or receive money, pay bills or purchase airtime.  Cash can be withdrawn from the system for a feeat an agent location, this agent acts as a “human ATM”.  M-PESA is recognized as the most successful mobile phone‐based financial service in the developing world with more than 20% of the annual GDP of the country flowing though the system annually.

(Jack/Suri 2010) revealed that between 2007 and 2009 the percent of M-PESA users who were unbanked doubled (25 to 50 percent) and the number living in rural areas also increased (29 to 41 percent). M-PESA users are not just using the service to send and receive money – 81 percent of customers now use M-PESA for savings, for example. Most importantly, 91 percent of people said their lives would be impacted negatively if they no longer had access to M-PESA.

Grameen Foundation’s team in Kenya is focused on learning and disseminating information to enable mobile financial services programs elsewhere to accelerate as well as working directly with the microfinance sector to adopt mobile financial services so that they can continue to increase and deepen their outreach to the poor.

Due to this vibrant space, we would like to share learnings from our work and happenings in this fast changing but ever exciting arena.

Think gardening is hard? Try farming.

June 14th, 2011

Heather Thorne Matthews is the Director of Information and Communications Technology Innovation at the Grameen Foundation’s Technology Center.

When I was in Uganda about a month ago, I spent 2 days living in a village with one of our CKWs, Simon, and saw first-hand how the farmers we are serving through the CKW program live.  Simon is featured in the video below where he explains the Community Knowledge Worker program to one of his fellow farmers.

I understood that life was hard for our CKWs and their neighboring farmers, but it really hit me after doing manual labor in my own small urban yard all weekend.  I had an electric edger, hoe, shovel, rake, broom, hose and wheelbarrow (albeit with a flat tire).  In comparison, the smallholder farmers we work with in Uganda work their land by hand, have few tools, rely solely on the rains to irrigate their crops, and often carry their harvest in bags on their heads, working through the day without lunch.   They come back to their huts in the evening where there is no shower, or refrigerator with iced tea to cool them off.  Yet they are thankful for what they have, and they get up each day and do it again.

By 3pm Sunday afternoon, several hours into my own gardening project, I could hardly walk.  I limped upstairs and lay flat on my cool floor for an hour, back aching and every muscle twitching.  Could I do this every day, if I had to grow my family’s food to survive?  If a Western development organization came offering to help, what could they possibly do to make my life better?

The easy answer would be “give me money”, but the more nuanced answer is give me confidence, capability, knowledge and financing so that I could buy better seeds and fertilizers, earn more from the same amount of work, and eventually increase my earnings, perhaps buying tools and hiring help so that the backbreaking work could be shared.  Once I saw my earnings increase, I could access additional financing so that I could grow my farm, diversify into new crops or livelihoods, and send my kids to school.  Once that flywheel is in motion, real change can occur, but as with all bold endeavors, the hardest part is to start.

AppLab Indonesia wins Global Telecoms Award for Best Mobile Application Innovation

June 8th, 2011

Congratulations to the AppLab Indonesia team!

From Left Aldi Haryopratomo (Ruma), John Stefanas (Qualcomm), Camilla Nestor (Grameen Foundation)

Together with our partners, Qualcomm Wireless Reach®, Ruma and Bakrie Telecom, the AppLab Indonesia team was awarded the Global Telecoms Award for the Best Mobile Application Innovation on June 7th in London.  This is well deserved recognition for the considerable investment of time, energy and creativity of the AppLab team, led by Farid Maruf in Jakarta and guided by Sean DeWitt in our Washington, D.C. office, who over the past several years has worked tirelessly to create our technology innovation hub in Indonesia.  Heather Thorne from our Seattle office and Happy Tan in our Manila office have also played instrumental roles in this achievement.

A Weekend with Simon Obwoya, Community Knowledge Worker

May 28th, 2011

Heather Thorne Matthews is the Director of Information and Communications Technology Innovation at the Grameen Foundation’s Technology Center.

The hut where I slept, and woke up to the sound of cows outside the door

I spent a weekend in early May with Simon Obwoya, one of Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Workers, near Opit, Lalogi Subcounty, about 50km south-east of Gulu in Northern Uganda.  Simon is 43, and is married, with 8 children, ranging from 6 months old to 19 years old.  He and his family have 3 simple thatch-roof, mud brick huts in close proximity to their neighbors. They have no electricity, but have a bicycle, 2 cows, and about 5 acres of land (a lot compared to his neighbors) – although all plots are in separate locations within about 15-30 minutes’ walk from his hut.  He speaks very good English.

While Simon seemed to be one of the better-off farmers in his village, his family can eat just 2 meals per day right now, cooks over a wood fire within a very smoky cooking hut, and their pit toilet collapsed, so they are building a new one and borrowing a neighbors’.  In addition, his 19-year old daughter lost her baby about 3 weeks ago.  All of these factors – food insecurity, whether or not a family has improved cookstoves, access to a latrine, and infant mortality – are indicators of extreme poverty as measured by Grameen Foundation’s Progress out of Poverty (PPI) Index, even though Simon and his family are lucky enough to have land and some livestock.  The family was hoping to use Simon’s income from working as a Community Knowledge Worker and sales of ground nuts to send her back to school.

Simon surveying a local farmer

Simon surveying a local farmer

Simon is an active member of his local farming network, and uses his involvement there to promote the CKW program, and to register new farmers.  He seemed to know everyone in his and the neighboring villages, and was well respected by his neighbors and peers, many of whom were registered farmers.  When I first arrived, he took me around to introduce me to his family and immediate neighbors, and got me set up in one of the two sleeping huts that his family of 10 shares.  I got an entire half, while 3 of his daughters slept on the other half.  He was sensitive to the fact that I was probably not used to an entire village of children crowding into my bedroom, and must have requested they give me space, as there were numerous curious smiling little faces peering in the doorway and one window, but none dared to tread over the threshold.

Later that evening, we walked across the little-traveled dirt road to a neighboring village, which is near the old railroad which was abandoned by the government about 20 years ago when the violent insurgency led by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army began.  Now that people are returning from the “security camps” to their land, and learning how to farm and take care of their families again, they are wishing for the railroad, which previously allowed them to travel to visit family, to sell goods at markets, etc.  Today, they must walk, bicycle, or save their scarce funds to pay for a ride into town, where they can get better prices for their goods.

The next day was when I really began to understand the value that Simon and his fellow CKWs are bringing to their villages.  As we walked around and met with different farmers, it became clear that there are some kinds of information that have extremely high value to farmers who are living on the border between being able to send their children to school or not…or in some cases, being able to feed their families or not.  The most valuable kinds of information in this arable but very poor region included:

  • When the rains were going to come, so farmers would know when to prepare their fields, and when to plant precious seeds (I saw many bean fields that were not germinating well, because the rains were late and farmers had rushed to plant, even though Simon had advised his farmers to wait based on the weather forecast he could access through his phone)
  • What crops to plant based on harvest risk, pest/disease outbreaks, supply, etc. Almost every family I saw was planting beans and ground nuts (peanuts).  Ground nuts, while earning high prices per acre planted, are very risky, as they can rot underground if the rains are too heavy.  On the other hand, maize (corn) is an important staple crop for food security and feeding livestock, but I only saw one field of maize in all of our walks because prices per acre, when re-sold in the market, are low.
  • Market prices. When farmers know what a crop is selling for in their local trading center, as well as the village 5km away, and the town 50km away, they know whether they should spend scarce resources on paying for transportation into town
  • Improved seed varieties. Simon was able to point out when a farmer had planted an improved variety by looking at the leaves.  Often, farmers do not know the potential value of paying a little more for those varieties in terms of yield, disease resistance, water usage, etc.   If they can learn, from a trusted source, they may be more willing to plant these varieties
  • Bulking – benefits of, how to find other farmers with whom to bulk.  When farmers are growing very small quantities, they often cannot sell their crops for a good price or at all, because middlemen want to buy in larger volumes.  In addition, programs like Purchase for Progress, by the World Food Program, require certain minimum volumes and quality in order to sell in.  Providing a service that promotes the benefits of bulking, and connects farmers to other farmers (and to transport), helps close that loop.
  • Post harvest handling and quality. Simon pointed out how he was teaching farmers to pick out bugs and beans that were too small, or of bad color, to ensure the farmers could obtain the best price for their crop.

The only plow or tool I saw in use among all the farms we visited

The only plow or tool I saw in use among all the farms we visited

I only saw one field being worked by a plow, and few to none of the farmers were using fertilizer.  It was clear that having access to not only information, but appropriate financing or direct access to inputs, will be very valuable as well, in allowing farmers to increase their yields.

Another observation related to Simon’s work as a CKW is that while introducing an entirely new way to get actionable, relevant, local information to farmers where they need it, and having the ability to collect data in real-time through the phone, we must make the technology work so simply and seamlessly that it fades into the background.  For example, poor battery life on Simon’s phone meant that we had to walk back 3km to his village after conducting a few surveys, even though there were 3 more farmers he would have liked to register and survey right in that same village.  It was hot, dusty, and we wouldn’t be able to make another trip back that day.  Grameen Foundation is looking for creative software and human solutions to minimize battery drain, extend battery life, and solve issues such as this one, but this was a good reminder that technology is only an enabler of the overall solution (and if not careful, it can become a barrier!)

I came away from my stay energized by the work the CKWs are doing, and really believing in the potential of this model.  While we haven’t yet proven that the use of CKWs to extend the reach of traditional ag extension into the most remote villages can result in increased farmer yields and incomes, I believe that with deep collaboration with our extension partners, and with a focus on continuous improvement based on farmer and CKW feedback, we’ll get there.

Simon and his family saying goodbye in front of their house

Simon and his family saying goodbye in front of their house

Simon and other CKWs like to describe their work as “volunteer” – because earning the respect of their peer farmers seems to be of most importance to them.  At the same time, they are able to earn about $20/month (after paying back part of the cost of their phone and battery) for performing CKW services.  For a farmer like Simon, this may almost double his family’s household income.  He was hoping to use his income from CKW services and sales of ground nuts to send their 19-year-old daughter—the one who had lost her infant child—back to school.  Maybe she’ll be the next CKW in her village… Or maybe she’ll go on to earn a degree and become Grameen Foundation’s next Gulu field officer…  Keep her in school, and there’s no telling what is possible.

First Village Phone Operator graduates from AppLab Indonesia Solutions for the Poorest program

May 23rd, 2011

Grameen Foundation’s AppLab Indonesia, in partnership with Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach initiative, and social business PT Ruma, operate a mobile microfranchising program to provide the poor and poorest with business opportunities based on the mobile phone.  Currently the micro franchisees sell mobile phone airtime credits to their customers.  Most poor people start their micro-franchise with $11 for working capital.  For the poorest of the poor this can present a challenge.  Grameen Foundation designed a program to enable the poorest to participate in the mobile microfranchising program.  It consists of a working capital loan of $11 and intensive support from our field officers on setting up and running the business.  Micro-franchisees in the program graduate when they have paid back the working capital loan.

Suwadih (L) and Ibu Hanifa (R sitting)

Ibu Hanifa, 30, recently became the first micro franchisee to graduate from our Solutions for the Poorest program.  Along with her husband Suwadih, she is the parent of two, a 4th grader and a 8 month old.  They live together in the same house with Suwadih’s parents and his brother and family  in Kuniceran (on the western outskirts of Jakarta).   Ibu Hanifa’s income from reselling mobile airtime supplements Suwadih’s home based electronic repair business.  Ibu Hanifa is our best airtime reseller, with around 10 daily transactions. We are very proud of the hard work that she has done and we look forward to more members of our Solutions for the Poorest program graduating.

Congrats to OpenIDEO challenge winners using MOTECH!

May 13th, 2011

OpenIDEO along with Nokia and Oxfam recently ran a challenge on maternal health entitled “How might we improve maternal health with mobile technologies for low income countries?”  The challenge brief was:

OpenIDEO has partnered with Oxfam and Nokia to explore how mobile technologies can be used to improve maternal health (particularly in pregnancy and childbirth). We’re asking you, the OpenIDEO community, to come up with inspirations and concepts around improving the knowledge and access to maternal health services, specifically where mobile technologies can be used as a tool to aid this. We’re focusing our solutions in low-income countries, such as Burkina Faso and Bangladesh. In many such countries fees for health care prevent millions of mothers from seeking the professional care they need or where under-investment means health works or medicines are unavailable.

Free Maternity Camps

Free Maternity Camps

There were many great responses and we’re glad that two of them, Free Maternity Camps and CareGiver Solution for Midwives, were both based on Grameen Foundation’s Mobile Technology for Community Health (MOTECH) platform.  Free Maternity Camps would “send medical teams from a base hospital to remote areas where moms-to-be will be examined by doctors. The concept of the maternity camps is inspired by Aravind’s free eye camps in India.”  The CareGiver Solution for Midwives would “help midwives/HCW monitor expecting mothers, identify risk pregnancies and involve a doctor when required.”

Congrats to Krassimira Iordanova who submitted these winning concepts.  We’re looking forward to learning how they turn out.

Building a Power Company that Serves the Rural Poor

April 27th, 2011

Sean Krepp, Country Director Grameen Foundation Uganda

ReadySet™ Charging Phones

Building a power company that serves the rural Ugandan poor is a tall order.  Rural small holder farmers may live miles from the nearest road or power line.  Access to steady power, something we take for granted, is a fundamental concern for the rural poor as they seek to charge their phones or study at night.  Recently we’ve been fortunate to work with Mike Lin, an American entrepreneur and founder of the renewable energy company Fenix International. Fenix is a different kind of power company. It doesn’t build grids or power plants, but instead they manufacture a “power hub” that is charged by solar, mains power, or even a bicycle.  The power hub, called a ReadySet™, empowers an individual to become a micro-utilities provider by recharging phones, running lights at night, or even powering electric clippers for the village barber.

The ReadySet™ is particularly useful for our Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) as they have a steady demand for power to charge the smartphones they use to dispense agricultural information to their neighbors.  In the past, we had equipped CKWs with car batteries to use as recharging stations.  These batteries were limited in the amount of recharges they provided and their constant need for maintenance.  The ReadySet™ solves both of these problems – in fact one of our CKWs who tested the ReadySet™ reported he went from charging five phones per week (including his own) to 25 phones per week. At 500 Uganda Shillings per charge, this 5x increase represents a substantial new income stream for him and more dependable provision of his services to farmers for us.

The 15W solar panel charges the ReadySet in approximately 6hrs of full sunlight.

The spirit of empowering entrepreneurship is also reflected in the origins of Fenix Intl and the ReadySet™ unit.  Mike came to us as a volunteer in the early days of Grameen Foundation’s AppLab Uganda when we were predominately working with SMS but had begun to discuss using smartphones.  He was immediately struck by the power problem.

“When we were testing the first Android G1s, we struggled to keep the phones charged”, recalls Mike. “This challenge sparked the idea that an entrepreneur could create a sustainable business by charging phones and providing power to their communities.”

After his volunteer commitment was up he continued to work on the problem, developed prototypes, and returned several times to AppLab Uganda to test his work.  We’re glad that the ReadySet™ is now in production and that we are Fenix Intl’s first commercial customers.  Congrats Mike!