A Quick Win: Community Knowledge Workers in Uganda
AGCommons, the newly funded project coordinated by the CGIAR, is about getting the right farm information to the right person in the right place at the right time.
To jumpstart the effort, in December 2008 AGCommons challenged organizations to come up with a “Quick Win”: a product that would have real impact on the ground, useable within six to nine months.
The Grameen Technology Center, an initiative of the Grameen Foundation, is one of 5 recently announced winners out of 40 entries. Known for supporting microfinance programs across the world, Grameen Foundation also sponsors other wealth-creation ideas, including “Village Phone”. For this micro-enterprise, a villager takes out a loan, buys a phone, or rather a “business in a box”—and then allows everyone in the village to use the mobile for a small fee
“ Village Phone worked really well in 2001 when we started it, but began losing competitiveness as the cost of mobile phones dropped,” says Whitney Gantt, a Program Officer working with Grameen Technology Center. “But mobiles have much more potential for rural dwellers than just phone calls….”
Enter Grameen’s Quick Win solution. First, Grameen is creating a network of Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs). They will be the information “hubs” who connect agricultural and research institutions with farmers, and vice versa. They’ll have a mobile phone with either a camera or a camera and GPS.
Next comes figuring out the exact types of information farmers need—and how to collect, package, and deliver it through the CKW’s mobile devices. So, for instance, instead of calling an uncle in Kampala to ask about fertilizers, a farmer could ask a CKW, who would connect to the right data source and a have a site-specific answer.
One use of the CKW setup would be an early warning system for crop diseases. Banana diseases, for instance, create a huge drain on farmer income in Uganda, where bananas are a staple crop.
A farmer could call the CKW: “There’s a disease on my bananas.” The CKW motors or bikes to the farm, snaps a photo of the infected plant, and debriefs the farmer with a structured survey, already installed in the mobile. A few clicks send that info plus the exact location (in GPS coordinates) directly to the computers housing the database. As more surveys come in, an analysis of the disease’s whereabouts and progression comes back to the CKWs to distribute to the farmers—along with treatment or preventive actions to take.
And there’s more. “We want to create a suite of information products that CKWs can access and pass along to farmers,” says Whitney. These might include:
Real-time information on markets and prices
Where to buy high-quality seed and chemicals—plus information on improved seeds and how to use them
A farmer hotline. Operators at a call center would answer technical questions using a database, or search on the internet—even connect directly to an expert if necessary. The call-center pilot will begin in early April
A way for institutions and innovators to get news to farmers, e.g. on a new technique for growing organic coffee, or improved, drought-resistant seeds.
“My dream vision,” says Whitney, “is to see this network scaled up—one community knowledge worker per parish. And all functioning as a two-way info channel. Then farmers can overcome info barriers, increase productivity, get higher prices….
“One big challenge is gender. We have about one third women. But it’s not easy to find women to participate. They can get stuck on the farm with their duties. Or prevented by family members from attending meetings or trainings. How to ensure that this includes women and doesn’t exacerbate gender imbalances is a priority.
“I like how dynamic this is. There are a lot of different opportunities to create value with the farmers and CKWs. It’s not just one mobile application focused on markets. You have a system you can plug ideas into and test. If they work, great. If not, you move on to the next thing.”