When the mobile-phones outnumbered the light-bulbs

Photo credit: Libby Hayward

Back in 2009 the phrase “there are more mobile phones in Uganda than light bulbs” became famous. The statement was based on projected growth for both devices and may not reflect the reality nowadays, but it pictures in a sentence a breathtaking reality: “by the end of 2013 the number of mobile subscriptions in developing countries will exceed 89 percent of the total population.”

This phenomenon has led many development organisations, private enterprises and governments around the world to integrate the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) into their development work. There are currently over 1500 ICTs for Development initiatives, covering from disaster response services to health and education; and over 100 initiatives in the space of Mobiles for Agriculture, offering information services (e.g., weather and prices), value chain connections (e.g., virtual markets that connect sellers to buyers), and financial services (e.g. mobile-facilitated payment systems, and weather index crop insurance).

My name is Alvaro Valverde and I have been working and conducting research in the field of ICTs for Development and Mobiles for Agriculture over the past 4 years in countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Cambodia. As Private Sector Advisor at Oxfam GB, I support country and regional staff in establishing new partnerships with private sector companies to incorporate mobiles into Oxfam’s livelihoods programmes.  Though a number of pilots and projects have emerged at Oxfam over the last few years (ranging from monitoring water points to providing cash transfers with mobiles during an emergency), Oxfam has only recently started to embrace mobiles for strengthening sustainable market-based livelihoods, particularly in agriculture.  Over the last 4 months, I have been working with Jo Zaremba, Lucas Chacha, Mulu Tesfaye, and Dawit Derbew in the HECA region to explore potential opportunities to use ICTs in our livelihoods programs at the national and regional levels.

Meeting with SHG from the EDP Honey Programme in Amhara Region, Ethiopia

Here is a glimpse of some of the exciting, innovative partnerships that the HECA and country teams are exploring. Some partnerships aim to link an existing service offering in mobile agriculture with Oxfam’s livelihoods programme, while others aim to improve an existing service offering, or design and implement new services altogether through private public partnerships to address gaps.

Linking existing service offerings

In Ethiopia, Mulu Tesfaye, and Dawit Derbew from the EDP honey program are working to connect programme beneficiaries and partners with a new information service currently being provided by Ethio Telecom, the main mobile network operator in Ethiopia. The service consists of three call centres that provide free of charge information to any caller on the following topics: agriculture, weather, prices, transport, education and health. This service will allow over 600 women and 32 Self Help Groups (SHGs) from Zembaba Union in the Amhara region to access information on weather forecasts, production and processing practices, and market prices that will help them increase the productivity, quality of their production and bargaining power.

In parallel, M-Birr is going to launch the first mobile money service in Ethiopia, which will open up the Ethiopian market to electronic payments and remittances for the first time. Mulu Tesfaye and I from Oxfam GB met with Oxfam America (OA) followed by a meeting with M-Birr to identify potential applications for OGB’s livelihoods work and OA’s R4 Rural Resilience Initiative. Other applications may include linking the SHGs of the EDP honey program to financial services like saving schemes and credit, which would contribute to improved levels of security and women empowerment.

Improving service offerings

In Kenya Jo Zaremba, Lucas Chacha and I met with mobile network operators (Safaricom and Airtel), NGOs (TechnoServe and MFarm), donors (GSMA), and think tanks (iHub and Research Solutions Africa) to identify how to best use mobile phones to disseminate information about market prices and promote value chain connections in two programmes: fish in lake Turkana and livestock in the dry lands. We are currently working on a concept note for Airtel Kenya to expand their existing service offering in agriculture and cover the information needs identified by Oxfam in the fish and livestock value chains.

Designing and implementing new services through private public partnerships

However, in some occasions the needs of the beneficiaries of our programmes are not addressed by the existing mobile service offering, or the key stakeholders do not find the right motivation to expand their existing services to better address the information or financial needs of our programmes. In those cases Oxfam can explore how to design new services through public private partnerships.

At regional level, Oxfam identified some priority countries for Airtel where they would like to develop new and innovative mobile services for agriculture. Oxfam aims to identify concrete opportunities in our livelihoods programmes in Tanzania, DRC and Rwanda that could be of interest to Airtel.

Interested in knowing more about Mobiles for Agriculture?

There are a number of countries where Mobiles for Agriculture services are already being provided. These include India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines, Somalia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Chile and Mexico among many others. If you work in any of these countries, or want to consider exploring new private public partnerships to bring service offerings to your country, do not hesitate to contact me.  You can also refer to the new guidance that I have developed for incorporating ICTs into Oxfam’s livelihoods programming.   If you are attending the Livelihoods and Food Security event in Tanzania in November, we can meet in person! I will also be organizing Online Help Desk Sessions / Online Discussions on ICTs on Grow. Sell. Thrive. in the near future - so stay tuned!


Add your comments below, or contact Alvaro Valverde, Private Sector Adviser at Oxfam GB, Oxford.


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Comment by Alvaro Valverde on January 31, 2014 at 12:21

Bernard, Ethio Telecom is owned by the Ethiopian Government. So, the government is financing the service and paying for staff from 8 different Ministries to be in each of the call centers replying to the questions for free.

The Ethiopian case is quite unique and difficult to replicate. However, it highlights the importance of engaging with governments to achieve Systemic Sustainability, particularly for those services where Financial Sustainability may be harder to achieve (SH farmers' low willingness to pay for only information services)

Comment by Bernard Gouw on January 31, 2014 at 7:19

Interesting piece, thanks Alvaro. Does Ethio Telecom finance that free service, or does the government finance it for example? What's the incentive for them to provide this service for free?


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