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Building mobile software to support rural cooperatives

Working with a farming co-operative in India, the Rural e-Services project developed new ways of designing and developing software to create mobile phone system Kheti, which provides on-the-spot and locally relevant agricultural advice. In trials, Kheti handled queries from over 100 different farmers, helping to avoid critical threats to their crops and livelihoods. The software design approach has since been adapted and used to create new technologies for micro finance and supply chain management projects in India, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

The research

Professor Andy Dearden, Principal Investigator and co-ordinator, undertook action research with a co-operative of small farmers in Madhya Pradesh, India. Under guidance and supervision from Dearden, research associate Haider Rizvi collaborated with Safal Solutions to conduct the fieldwork and design and build the software. Safal Solutions is a small Indian software development company specialised in working with development NGOs. Other collaborators included researchers from University of Oxford and University of the West of England.

The design of Kheti was guided by the priorities of the co-op members themselves. The Kheti software running on mobile phones allows farmers (with limited literacy) to create multimedia messages incorporating images and audio and send them to a web portal that can be accessed later by the agricultural advisor for the co-operative.

Important advances were made regarding software design methods for Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) during the project. Researchers identified the importance of a sustained relationship between software providers and the communities they are working to help. Second, Rural e-Services shows how agile software development methodologies need to be adjusted in order to address the needs of rural development.

The project also identified a new team structure for these community software projects. They require a local development project manager to focus on community change but understand technical possibilities, and software developers who have an awareness of the community but remain technically focused.

The impact

The Kheti technology provided farmers living in remote villages with locally relevant, accurate and timely advice from the co-operative’s agricultural advisor. Farmers who used photographs and audio to communicate the problem typically experienced a turnaround time from query to response of between 12 and 48 hours. Prior to Kheti, the agricultural advisor would have needed to visit each village involving a half or whole day’s journey over dirt roads.

In field trials, over 200 messages were exchanged in 3 months, with over 100 different farmers using the service. This helped farmers in identifying and eradicating crop pests, poor crop development, and crop disease symptoms were discussed.

Collaborators Safal Solutions has revised its software development processes based on the project, focusing on management information systems (MIS) for institutions associated with both microfinance and primary agricultural co-operatives (PACS). They have built systems to allow the Centre for People’s Forestry and their partners to provide valuable agricultural information, advice and business credit lines to over 10,000 people in Andhra Pradesh. Their development model has also helped microfinance NGOs to enable some of the poorest members of Indian society to access banking services. The approach has been used by NGOs across India to reach over 1 million women and 300,000 families.

Dearden also used key findings from the Rural e-Services study to advise the research division of SAP, the world’s third largest software company, in creating a methodology called DRAMATICS. At the core of the DRAMATICS methodology is a clear definition of roles, including internal and external software developers and a locally based ‘change manager’. SAP Research has adapted this model to develop novel software using mobile phones to allow co-operatives of Cashew farmers and Shea Nut collectors in Ghana and Burkina Faso to trace their produce from the farmer to the customer. The software enables the cooperatives to qualify for Fair Trade premiums, increasing the incomes of over 8000 farmers in West Africa, with plans to extend the work to support 10,000 cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast for the 2013 harvest.

The Rural e-Services project was used to underpin an 18-month British Council-funded Education Partnership with Africa between Sheffield Hallam and Makerere University, Uganda. As a result of the partnership, 50 students at Makerere have been supported in developing innovative mobile applications including an SMS query routing system to enable a community of farmers to share knowledge with each other, a way to collect water and power meter readings using mobile phones; and an SMS-based recommendation system for restaurants and hotels in Uganda.

Links for further information

Award

Won Manthan award for best practice in digital inclusion 2009

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