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June 29, 2009 at 7:00 AM

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Grameen Foundation and Google create mobile apps for Africa

Posted by Kristi Heim

Real time information about farming, health and trading will be available to mobile phone users in Uganda with new technology services developed by the Grameen Foundation, Google and telecom operator MTN Uganda.


Saurin Nanavati (left), a consultant for the AppLab project, explains how to use the new mobile applications to users in Uganda. AppLab aims to help Ugandans get health, agriculture and trading data on their mobile phones.

The Grameen Foundation saw the proliferation of mobile phones in Africa as a way to get information and services to poor communities in Uganda without Internet access. About 18 months ago it started a project called the Application Laboratory (AppLab), with much of the early work being done in Seattle through the Grameen Foundation's Technology Center. The first suite of those applications is being launched today.

Peter Bladin, Grameen Foundation executive vice president, said AppLab builds on the success of an earlier project, Village Phone, in which local entrepreneurs rent cell phone use to villagers for pennies a call. Uganda now has 50,000 Village Phone and pay phone operators and nine million cell phone subscribers.

Bladin said he sought out Google and MTN Uganda to help scale up the applications and roll them out to other parts of Africa, where Google has seven offices.

The new services can be accessed by existing Village phone operators, as well as by people with their own phones. They are SMS services that work on any phone capable of sending or receiving SMS messages, said Joseph Mucheru, Google's director of sub-Saharan Africa business. In Uganda almost all phones will be able to use the services, he said.

The five applications use Google SMS Search technology and MTN's telecom network. They include Farmer's Friend, a searchable database with agricultural advice and weather forecasts; Health Tips with sexual and reproductive health information, paired with Clinic Finder, to locate nearby health clinics; and Google Trader, which matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce, commodities and other products.

Local partners helped provide the content. The Busoga Rural Open Source Development Initiative (BRODSI) provides agricultural information created and tested by small-holder farmers, and Marie Stopes Uganda and the Straight Talk Foundation provide health information.

For the Google Trader application, AppLab worked with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, TechnoServe and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation to hone the concept with banana farmers and traders in Uganda.

Mobile phone users send an SMS query and receive an automatic answer back from the database. A farmer could ask a question about why the leaves on a tree are starting to wilt, or a mother could ask when her child needs a vaccine. Uganda has about 30 million people with an adult literacy rate of about 74 percent, according to the UN.

Prices for the services are 110 Uganda shillings per request (about 5 cents), on par with sending a text message to a friend in the country. Prices for requests to the trading marketplace are double, at 220 shillings per request.

Grameen Foundation President Alex Counts called the applications "a great example of innovation from and for the base of the pyramid," the billions of people who are at the bottom of the world's socio-economic hierarchy.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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