These days, smart phones run our lives! We can see where we have been and plan where we are going. We can shop on them, track our fitness,discover new music, watch movies, communicate across continents, control out money and even control the lights and heating in our houses. In Africa smart phone prices are coming down, but most still do not have access to them, and if they do, they must use their data very carefully. That is why it is important for developers to develop usability into ‘old fashioned’ mobile devices, that do not require GPS or Internet. Text based apps, which are run by just sending and receiving messages cater to the needs to small business owners, farmers, traders, and individual interests.
MLouma, from Senegal, is a marketplace for farmers to sell their agricultural produce. It works by using text message and voice to show the quantity and price of products. Farmers are able to send their information regarding their products via text message, which will then appear on the website, available to a larger potential purchasers. Agriculture is the heart of the African economy and it is lagging behind its potential. There is often not an incentive for a farmer to become more efficient, because he is not able to sell the entire crop and much of it goes to waste because of poor storage capability. Giving access to a wider market place to farmers with no access to smart technology will hopefully increase efficiency and productivity.
iCow is another text and phone based scheme that helps farmers, but, as the name suggests, this time it is cattle farmers that are receiving the benefits. (For more Cow based innovations see here) iCow started as a gestation calendar and also to give farmers access to vets. They then were able to develop solutions to cow farmers needs and farmers are able to sign up to a service providing them advice regarding their cow farming practices. They are also able to use the service to get answers to their own questions. Sharing knowledge is very important, especially as many African farming practices are outdated. Technology now enables farmers to share their knowledge and experience and essentially create their own solutions. We Farm, mentioned in a recent post, are another great example of how SMS can be used to help farmers develop.
Another scheme is has been set up between Novartis AG. SMS for Life tracks stock levels at public health facilities. By tracking medicine and medical equipment stocks they are able to reduce the amount of times health centres run out of stock by enabling better planning, and also encourage sick individuals to different health centres that have the stock. They suggest that this will reduce the number of deaths from malaria and other sicknesses. With the amount of data they are collecting, they will be able to make fact based decisions with regards to supplies and even training, depending on the spread of a particular sickness.
Hopefully, this means that they will also be able to track the spread of diseases such as Ebola in real time, aiding the fight against them. Currently, there is a Yellow Fever outbreak in Congo and Angola, and technology like this could really help with the immunisation process.
Also in the health sector is TotoHealth. This service uses text messages to reach its users, pregnant women and parents with young children. The service offers personalised messages timed depending on the stage of pregnancy or age of the child. They are designed to highlight any warning signs in a child’s health or development as well as teach parents about nutrition, reproductive health and developmental stimulation.
Banking is also now possible using text message. Many of us outside of Africa access our accounts and make transactions using our mobiles. These services are available in Africa, but not accessible by most. So much is written about M-Pesa; many must be bored of hearing about them, but they lead an industry that enables people to bank and transact without a bank, bank card or the internet! They are able to deposit money on the service at many available vendors and can then make payments via secure SMS. A system enabling the normal Kenyan to save and plan their budget and make efficient transactions without the need to carry cash everywhere.
Many of us look back and chuckle when we think about our old mobile phones, which we could just call, text or play snake on. Many people still use phones that are not smart, but they can still get value added services that make their lives easier, safer, or richer. Do you know of any other text based systems that improve the lives of those without smartphones?
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