Innovation of the Week: Open Source Software for Agriculture and Nutrition

By Mara Schechter

Communication and information technology (ICT) are helping farmers access information about market prices and weather through text messaging, or SMS, on their cell phones. And a newer trend, open source technology, provides tools for organizations to take advantage of and scale up this technology.

Freely available, open source platforms like these are helping organizations spread messages, connect farmers to one another, track trends, and effect change. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Open source (meaning the source code is publicly available for free) software is helping organizations reach small farmers and rural communities. NGOs can do this at low cost, on a large scale, and without an Internet connection. More people in the developing world have access to their cell phones than to the Internet, making cell phones an important information tool.

Created to help NGOs working in developing countries, FrontlineSMS enables users to send out and collect messages to and from groups of people, with only a laptop with a cell phone plugged in. Organizations can use this software not only to get in touch with people in need in places without Internet access, but also to take surveys, hold competitions, coordinate with other staff members, and run campaigns.

Ken Banks created the software, along with other initiatives under the umbrella of kiwanja.net, which focuses on “empower[ing] local, national and international non-profit organizations to make better use of information and communications technology in their work.” Many case studies demonstrate how organizations have used FrontlineSMS for all kinds of purposes, including monitoring elections, but most relevant here are the agricultural and health projects that the software has helped to run.

Dr. Robert Fitzgerald, Associate Dean of Research at the University of Canberra in Australia, found that small farmers in Cambodia lacked access to market prices, and wanted to help them be “in a stronger position to negotiate the sale of their crop.” He has developed two programs in Cambodia where small farmers can text a main server to find out information about crops, pest warnings, market prices, weather, and meetings.

Fitzgerald chose FrontlineSMS as a messaging system because it ensured that the project could be self-sustaining. He explained, “Because the project is working with two NGOs based in western Cambodia, it was imperative that we implemented a cost-effective solution that could be managed by local staff.” He found that FrontlineSMS was “simple to install and maintain.”

In Kenya, KickStart, which produces manually operated pumps for small farmers to irrigate their farms efficiently, also uses FrontlineSMS. KickStart uses the program to keep in contact with farmers and to reach out to prospective consumers of the pumps, who have already expressed interest at stores selling the products.

Also in Kenya, two radio stations have begun using FrontlineSMS to reach out to listeners. John Cheburet, the radio producer for The Organic Farmer, a Kenyan magazine that has started two radio shows, wanted his radio shows to involve a two-way dialogue among his audience of small farmers. Radio is still the best way to get in touch with the most people in Africa; up to 90 percent of households own a radio. Yet with mobile phone use rapidly growing, Cheburet has used FrontlineSMS to answer questions he gets from text messages while on the show, which has helped farmers identify common livestock problems and work together to solve them.

And Winrock International has incorporated FrontlineSMS into its Farmer to Farmer program in El Salvador. It works with a local nonprofit, FIAGRO, the Agricultural Technology Innovation Foundation, which has begun using the software to link farmers directly to buyers and get better prices for their crops.

UNICEF Innovation has created a similar open source platform called RapidSMS. The program is part of the Open Mobile Consortium, which provides multiple technologies aimed at helping NGOs and nonprofits. RapidSMS currently requires a computer with a certain kind of hardware installed and a landline. So far, UNICEF has used RapidSMS to monitor food distribution after droughts in Ethiopia and to help improve the process of tracking the nutritional trends of Malawian children.

Freely available, open source platforms like these are helping organizations spread messages, connect farmers to one another, track trends, and effect change. Can you think of other similar innovations? Let us know in the comments section!

Mara Schechter is a media and communications intern for the Nourishing the Planet project.

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