Innovation of the Week: Cell Phone App—Applications of Local Knowledge

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By Mara Schechter

For smallholder farmers, every little bit counts when it comes to how much money they get for their crops. Amos Gichamba, 26, grew up on a dairy farm in central Kenya, where he saw middlemen take advantage of farmers who lacked information about how much they could charge for milk. Rural African farmers often don’t know how much prices should be, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and loss of income.

Many African cell phone app developers have created cell phone apps for social change. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In April 2010, Gichamba created a cell phone application, or app, called M-Kulima, which farmers can use to text questions about local dairy markets to a computer database and receive replies. Africa has the highest growth rate in cell phone usage, making this an effective way to connect people to information. According to the International Telecommunication Union, almost 30 percent of Africans have a cell phone subscription, compared to only 5 percent of Africans who use the Internet.

Many African cell phone app developers have created cell phone apps for social change. These apps help people transfer money, get aid after disasters, map their land and farms, and learn market conditions and prices. According to Gichamba, “As Africans, we are the ones who understand Africa the best… We are involved with what’s happening. So, when we are coming up with solutions, we come up with solutions for problems we know.”

Gichamba first learned about how to spread local knowledge through mobile technology at a Mobile Boot Camp, started by Jessica Colaco, a researcher at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya. She began the boot camp not only to help people who want to become app developers, but also to encourage students to work on local solutions to local problems. She explained to CNN, “People in the environment know exactly what they need.”