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Can the Mobile Phone Help Uganda Farmers?

As we all know, it’s the farmer who makes the world go round. Farmers have been enjoying the benefits of mobile money, and now were using mobile money to do property transfers. What would we be seeing next in the sphere of mobile apps? How about mobile agriculture?

In some parts of Uganda, farmers without phones are provided with their own SIM cards to be used in others’ phones. Think about the implications. For one thing, if you have a SIM you also have an e-wallet.

Then there is Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Workers CKW scheme which is using mobile phone applications to enlighten farmers about crop prices. Do you have any idea how the recent changing weather patterns are wreaking havoc on the farmers? You’ve heard about risk management, but can you appreciate how chaotic weather impacts a farmer or a nation’s food security as a whole? Is it any wonder that, under such circumstances, the weatherman sometimes gets it terribly wrong?

Imagine the embarrassment of officials from a certain government authority who had announced a short time back that the dry season was expected to be overly long, and therefore urged that the storage of dried foods would be a high priority, and that farmers should be cautious not to plant too early. You guessed it; the rains actually came on time, and farmers who heeded the government warning were caught out, and missed early planting opportunities.

Such mistakes can be extremely costly to the farmer and ultimately to us all. How did this happen, and how can we rectify this problem? For a start there are far too few weather data collection centres in this country, perhaps only a dozen, which, if the figures are accurate, might go some way to explain the chagrin of the poor weathermen who got it so wrong recently. Because of the poor quality of the meteorological information collected on the ground, they would have had to rely almost solely on satellite data. On-the-ground terrestrial info, so crucial for local forecasting, is almost non-existent.

One official had opined that one cannot predict the weather because we are in the tropics. But isn’t this a symptom of complacency, even blatant defeatism; yet another myth to be debunked? If, as was suggested, the meteorological stations are lacking in well maintained modern equipment, then the accuracy of predictions we receive, even from the most up-to-date digital weather portal, will be in doubt.

It’s back to the ole GIGO dictum, garbage in garbage out. Yet if we have a mind to knuckle down and get to work to fix the problem, the problem could be fixed.
Actually prospects look bright for greatly improved weather data collection. Consider that unbeknown to us there may be some little known data collection and information processing network already in place being used for other purposes that could be used for meteorological applications with only a modest investment in man hours and money.

I heard that some 70 percent of Ugandan farmers interviewed for one project said they would be willing to pay for quality weather information, so they could know when to plant, and probably, as importantly, when to harvest. Mobile apps that provide this very information are being developed as I write.

And then there is cross border trade in food commodities, between, say, Uganda and Tanzania, where customs officials have minimal resources for inspecting and controlling for pests or disease and therefore sometimes have to rely upon demographic data that may not be up-to-date. Newly developed mobile phone apps offer real-time monitoring with GIS (geographical information system) data that allows for timely targeted interventions (pesticide use for example) and logistical coordination (more accurate demand and supply planning).

Mobile phone technology is dramatically reducing the cost of information collection and distribution, compared to pen and paper methods. Let me give you an example. A World Bank funded project to survey watershed distribution with the aim of protecting those watersheds critical to agricultural productivity was able, thanks to GIS mobile apps and taking advantage of mobile phone GPS functionality, to conduct 800 surveys in only a month, an otherwise impossible task. It provided critical information to allow for cost-effective, timely decisions to be made by development organizations in relation to water resource management.

Small-scale farmers, by benefitting from efficiencies enjoyed through the use of mobile apps, could enjoy higher prices, higher yields and better terms, indeed greater prosperity? There’s food for thought.

Mobile Monday Kampala will be discussing Mobile Agriculture on Monday 18 July 2011. Visit momokla.ug for more information.

By Daniel Stern

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