Posts Tagged ‘Uganda’

A Weekend with Simon Obwoya, Community Knowledge Worker

Saturday, 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.

Building a Power Company that Serves the Rural Poor

Wednesday, 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!

The Community Knowledge Worker Platform

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

For those of you who are frequent readers of the AppLab blog you will have seen quite a few references to the Community Knowledge Worker program.  We think of the CKW program as providing a human, technology and data analytics platform for socially minded organizations seeking to reach small holder farmers.  Heather Thorne, Director of ICT Innovation and Applab, breaks down how CKW provides each platform:

  • First, it offers a human platform, introducing known, trusted points-of-presence in the village who serve as a two-way distribution channel for information, services, and potentially goods.   This network of ‘trusted intermediaries’ is carefully selected, extensively trained, and the CKW incentive model is constantly honed to ensure it results in desired priorities and performance related to information dissemination to poor farmers.
  • Second, it offers a technology platform, designed to enable delivery of Software as a Service (SaaS), which allows any organization seeking to provide information to, or collect information from, the rural poor in areas covered by a CKW, to “rent” access to that platform and the many different capabilities it offers—some off-the-shelf, and others customizable.   Core elements of that platform include field-facing mobile information services, customizable and self-service mobile surveys, CRM system tracking every farmer and the CKW and interactions with each (, and a Content Management System.  A Voice Information Fulfillment Center to offer voice-based recommendations is also planned for implementation later this year.  The ability of organizations to utilize this platform prevents them from having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop similar systems of their own.
  • Finally, CKW offers a data and analytics platform containing datasets of individual farmers and farmer interactions from within the CKW program.  It presents a powerful tool for operational monitoring, tracking services received by farmers, and longitudinally tracking farmer attitudes and behavior, tracking progress out of poverty over time (using the BRAC scorecard or Progress Out of Poverty Index), and, in combination with the results of impact studies, assessing effectiveness of various types of information or approaches for encouraging adoption or behavior change.

How else do you think we could use this platform?  Let us know in the comments section below.

The difference a CKW makes

Saturday, March 19th, 2011

Lydia Namubiru is a Partnership Analyst working with Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker program in Uganda.

Charles Mukonyi

Charles Mukonyi

For a long time, Charles Mukonyi of Gamatui parish in Kapchorwa had a problem with his chickens – the hens died off soon after hatching new ones. Three months ago, he was visited by his neighbor Tabitha Salimo who told him that she had a phone that has huge amounts of agricultural knowledge to answer many of the problems farmers face. Naturally, the first thing Charles asked about was the hen problem. Tabitha checked her phone and informed Charles that his hens were likely to be catching diseases from their predecessors by sitting on the same hay when incubating eggs. She advised him change the hay for every newly incubating hen. He saw the wisdom of that and adopted the practice. He has not lost a hen since!

Around the same time, in Kapwata parish, about 60km away from Charles’ home into the slopes of mountain Elgon, another farmer faced a big eminent loss. One of Saulo Mwanga’s goats developed a disease he had not seen before - boils on the skin. He feared he would lose it. A very unfortunate possibility because, like he says, “when you lose one goat, you have lost about sh100,000” (or $50USD). Fortunately, he had an idea about where he could get help. He had been consulting Alfred Chepsikor, his area Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) for routine farming information like market prices and weather forecasts. He knew he might have an answer for the goat problem. Indeed the CKW did. Chepsikor searched his phone and saw the same symptoms described in a piece of informa­tion about goat diseases. With the symptoms’ description was a sugges­tion on what drugs the farmer could use to treat the goat. Neither of the farmers knew the drug but they wrote it down on a piece of paper which Mwanga went with to agricultural input stores. So important was saving his goat that Mwanga went across the border to near-by Kenya to find the drug he had been advised to use. The goat is completely healed now.

Caroline Chelangat with her children

Caroline Chelangat with her children

As one traverses Kapchorwa, one finds many more success sto­ries big and small. For Caroline Chelangat of Sipi, it is was a tip to add aloe vera to the water for her chicken that saved 10 of out of her flock of 20. Unfortunately at the time she consulted with the CKW, she already had lost the first ten. Aloe vera is known to have a medicinal properties including improving immunity to diseases. Albert Kibet, also of Kapkwata is hoping for better banana and cof­fee harvests this year after he started adding compost manure to his plantation on the advice of his CKW.

Asked what he would have done had the CKW information resource not existed, Mwanga says he would have just tried to guess at a solution. After all he lives 47kms uphill and away from the Kap­chorwa, the nearest township where one might expect to run into an agriculturalist of any expertise. Looking at a slowly recovering coffee plant that he had sprayed against insects with a drug advised by his CKW, Mwanga says, “I might even have sprayed the plant with a drug left over from spraying the cows just to try [a solu­tion]. If you are lucky, it works. Otherwise, you just lose it.” It is the difference a CKW makes - where farmers depended on luck in the past, they now have access to scientifically tried, proven and recommended solutions.

Simple mobile tools to combat fake agricultural inputs

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Whitney Gantt is the Partnerships Manager for Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker program in Uganda.

Poor farmers in Uganda routinely struggle with access to agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer and improved seed varieties, that would boost their crop yields.  Access to improved inputs is one of the highest impact scenarios for improving farmer productivity.  In the right context, the application of fertilizer can significantly increase  yields, by up to 300% - which means the potential to triple income.

Two of the chief constraints for a smallholder farmer to buy these inputs is lack of access to fertilizer in a quantity they can afford (inputs are often sold in large quantities priced beyond the means of a typical smallholder farmer) and lack of trust that the input is real and not a counterfeit product.  Smallholder farmers are risk averse - buying a fake product can mean financial ruin or worse so building trust in the efficacy of the inputs is extremely important.

The first constraint of high prices can be tackled through “sacheting” - the practice of breaking larger quantity products down into smaller sized or “sachets” which yields a price point that a small-holder farmer can afford.  The second constraint - knowing whether or not your seeds will sprout or the fertilizer will really work -  is a tougher problem to address.

One potential solution has previously been used to counter prescription medicine counterfeiting in West Africa.  Sproxil and mPedigree have developed a solution that uses a unique number on “real” products that can be sent via SMS text to a verification center which responds by SMS text that the product is “real”.  A client can send the SMS, or ask the seller to do it in front of him or her, to verify the medicine is real before they make the purchase.  This approach could easily be ported over to protecting agricultural inputs from counterfeiting.  At Grameen Foundation’s Uganda AppLab we are considering working with a few partners who are already planning to pilot such a program.

We would be glad to hear from you in the comments section of your opinion of this solution and any other ideas you might have to help farmers access agricultural inputs.

GF President visits CKWs in the field

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

GF President Alex Counts hears from Albert Somiko

Grameen Foundation President Alex Counts recently visited Uganda and met with several of our Community Knowledge Workers.  Here Alex (second from right) heard from CKW Albert Somiko (right) of Kamunarukut about the impact of information distributed by CKWs on banana disease control.  Later that day CKWs presented Alex with a gourd for storing milk which is a traditional gift for a warm welcome to Uganda.  We hope to publish more news from Alex’s trip to Uganda, Kenya, and Ghana after he returns.

How much can I get for my coffee?

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Jason Hahn is the Business Development Manager for ICT Innovation at Grameen Foundation.

As readers of this blog know, Grameen Foundation’s AppLab is building a network of Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs) in Uganda.  These CKW’s,  equipped with mobile phones and customized agricultural apps, bridge the last mile of agricultural extension work.  Below you will find the story of farmer Michael Kipsang’s experience working with his local CKW and we answered his coffee question. Thanks to Edward Chelangat, one of our field officers in Uganda, for passing Michael’s story along.

Micheal Kipsang

Michael is a farmer from Kapting parish, Kapwosobey village, who farms cabbage, bananas  and coffee, although he largely buys and sells coffee.  Michael went to our CKW Albert Somikwo and asked to know the price of coffee in Mbale (a larger regional town). Albert used his mobile phone to search for him and found that coffee was going for 5000 Uganda shillings (USD 2.27) in Mbale. Michael knew 5600 Uganda shillings was the price per kilogram of coffee in Kapchorwa, a town closer than Mbale. Michael decided to sell his crop in Kapchorwa because the price was higher than in Mbale, which would also require high transport costs.

How did James Amadi benefit from his local Community Knowledge Worker?

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

James Amadi with his green coffee trees

Edward Chelangat, Grameen Foundation’s Kapchorwa, Uganda based field officer, sent in the report below.  


“James Amadi is a farmer who uses CKW services.  He has benefited from coffee tips and price information.  His coffee trees are green in a dry season largely because of following CKW advice on manure application.  James also said the CKW has helped him identify diseases in his coffee plantation, for example leaf rust which he though it was coffee berry disease. He sprayed orious fungicide which cleared it off.”



A few tweaks in the CKW intervention can deliver more impact to farmers

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

A scene from the local Pabbo, Uganda market

 Lydia Namubiru is the Partnership Analyst on our Community Knowledge Worker team in Uganda.

Samuel Olara’s chickens were getting weak and sleepy. He feared they had caught something that would kill them and he didn’t know how to save them. Fortunately, he knew someone who might know. He walked 2 kms to the local CKWs’ home to consult on chicken diseases and their treatments. The CKW in turn consulted his phone and advise Olara to treat his chicken with soda ash. They quickly recovered and were doing well three weeks later when a Grameen Founda­tion team visited his home in Pabbo.

Information can indeed positively change outcomes for many a farmer. However, sometimes, the information package needs to be deeper and more varied than a single remedy or other tip. Micheal Nyeko’s experience illustrates one rea­son why. He is a regular client to the local CKW. He says that he often asks for market prices. Unfortunately, he can’t al­ways put this information to good use. “Sometimes you learn that the price is so much better in the next district. It may even be double but you can’t afford to go there. Can your organization work with organizations that provide transport so they can connect us to those markets?” Nyeko asked the Grameen Foundation staff that visited Pabbo in January. He certainly makes a sound suggestion on how to remedy the situation; albeit one that requires significant investment. The CKW team also has an idea of a technology solution that might help overcome the farmer’s problem while bypassing the logistical requirements of sending out transporters to help farmers. Once the planned mobile market place applica­tion is deployed, we will investigate how much it pulls bulk buyers to rural farm-gates and in the process saves farmers the need to transport produce to physical markets.

Sometimes it takes less than a whole new technical solution to provide information that is complete enough to be actionable for the farmer. Take Alice Aya, an elderly farmer still in Pabbo. She and her farmer group learnt of the op­portunity to sell grain directly to the World Food Program (WFP) from their CKW and have agreed to work together to raise the quantities required by the warehouses. They have since raised 80 kgs of maize amongst themselves, well below the 3000kgs minimum the Gulu warehouse will store but a good start nonetheless. Unfortunately, they have now run out of storage space. “Can you build us some stores here in the villages where we can keep the produce while we raise the big quantities?,” the elderly woman also asked the Grameen Foundation team. Such stores as she suggests in fact already exist or are being planned. Based on her feedback, the CKW team will be publishing a comprehensive directory of WFP rural satellite collection and bulking cen­ters so that farmers like Aya will know where to store and/or minimally process their bulk purchase as they prepare to engage the bigger warehouses.

The valuable insights farm visits like these give us confirm and affirm the need to stay in touch with them. As we move forward with the CKW project, we hope to even further map gaps in the intervention and information it provides as well as those in the broader agricultural system that need to be filled. We are hopeful that this work will go a long way in delivering impact to the farmer.

Engendering our Work in Uganda

Friday, January 7th, 2011
Hosea Sempa from our training team holds a mothers baby so she can participate in the training

Hosea Sempa from our training team holds a CKW's baby during a recent training

After we launched our Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) network in Uganda, I was reviewing a budget report and came across a “babysitting” entry. Thinking this must be an obvious mistake, I contacted our local finance person for an explanation. I discovered that we did pay for babysitting as some of the CKWs we were training were mothers who would not have been able to participate unless we paid for child care. It makes perfect sense now and is a good example of a practical step you can take to ensure that women and men access your programs.

At Grameen Foundation, we’ve learned first-hand the importance of doing what it takes to strive for gender equity in our work. Ensuring that women have equal access to the actionable agricultural information we provide through our CKW network is not just a “feel good” action for us. It is also one of the most practical steps we can take to achieve our goal of improving farmers’ livelihoods through access to information.

In Uganda, women do 85% of the planting, 85% of the weeding, 55% of the land preparation, and 98% of all food processing. This may explain why 90% of rural women in Uganda work in agriculture, compared to 53% of men. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women in rural areas produce at least 50% of the world’s food. While women are hard at work on farms, we also know that many women do not have access to mobile phones. According to the Women and Mobile Report by the GSMA and Cherie Blair Foundation, women are 24% less likely than men to own a mobile phone in sub-Saharan Africa, and women in rural areas and lower income brackets stand to benefit the most from closing the gender gap in mobile phone ownership.

So what does this mean for our work as an organization that is building a network of trusted farmers to provide agricultural information using mobile phones? We’re fighting the mobile phone gender gap by putting phones into the hands of our female Community Knowledge workers. We have set a goal of 35% women as CKWs in our first phase and 40% in our second phase, with women making up 50% of the farmers we reach. Currently, we are at 30% female CKWs.

We have heavily weighted the agricultural information we provide toward subjects more important to women, including the on-farm crop production cycle (preparing gardens, planting and managing soils/plants). We are also scrutinizing our results though a gender-sensitive lens. For instance, we have discovered that women are much more likely go to, and even return to, a CKW for information if this worker also happens to be a woman. Of all the farmers we served, 63% of female farmers went to a female CKW for information. In addition, we saw that those that went to a female CKW return about three times in a six-week period for more information, while those who started off going to a male CKW typically did not return! We use such results to consider changes in course and approach. This is one reason we are currently working hard to increase the percentage of women CKWs we recruit.

We also are seeking solutions that relate to literacy. CKWs must be literate, and a reason we have had difficulty recruiting females CKWs is because of lower levels of literacy amongst them, compared to men in the regions in which we work. One exciting technology we are exploring now involves the delivery of agricultural information over the mobile phone using voice commands and call centers. Because this overcomes the barriers caused by illiteracy, this tool might help us reach greater numbers of women.