While the use of mobile phones is rapidly surging across Africa, access gaps persist between urban and rural users. But a new generation of social entrepreneurs is remedying this problem by combining new and old media to reach rural populations.
Twenty-nine-year-old Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu is one of such entrepreneurs who sees the mobile telephony gap as a call to innovate. His organization connects rural farmers with the information they need through a combination of mobile telephony and radio, which is widely used in rural areas.
"Where the four-wheel vehicle stops, that's where the radio wave starts," said Ikegwuonu.
A Rolex Laureate and an Ashoka Fellow, Ikegwuonu is founder of the Smallholders Foundation, a multi-technology platform that promotes environmentally sustainable agricultural activity in rural parts of Imo State, Nigeria. The foundation primarily runs a radio station that broadcasts daily programs on agricultural and environmental management, market information, financial planning and business skills to over 250,000 small farmers 10 hours a day. The foundation collects daily commodity prices from the major markets in and out of Imo State and makes this information available to farmers.
"We tell them, for example, 'If you take this bag of garri (a popular staple food) about 10 to 15 kilometers out of this village, you are going to sell it for 6,000 naira. In their village a bag of garri is 2,000 naira, so they have the opportunity to make 4,000-naira profit," Ikegwuonu said. "We also advise them on actual agricultural activity: how to grow plantain, the market availability of plantain, where to obtain seedlings to grow cocoyam, and so forth."
The Smallholders Foundation's technology platform uses mobile technology to allow rural radio listeners, particularly small farmers, to participate in the foundation's agricultural radio programming.
"I wanted to develop an innovative and interactive platform," said Ikegwuonu, referring to the rural farmers' need not only for feedback, but also for the kind of feedback that is timely, relevant and well adapted to the content being broadcasted. Ikegwuonu worked alongside researchers and developers at the University of Colorado in Boulder in the United States to introduce a system called Advancement Through Interactive Radio (AIR) to rural communities in Imo State. The mobile device, a solar-powered handset, allows smallholder farmers to participate in the radio discussions using its push-to-talk function.
"The farmers' contributions are transmitted to us via a Wi-Fi connection. We receive tons of messages. But we first have to listen to the messages to ensure that they are relevant," Ikegwuonu said. "For example, farmers can call in to ask questions when we have guests in the studio like an agriculture professor or an agricultural engineer." The foundation is also working on voice software that allows General Packet Radio Service (GPRS)-enabled phones within the radio station's coverage area to be used to participate in the radio discussions free of charge.
Ikegwuonu foresees more integration between mobile phones and radio. "Where there is no electricity, people can get batteries for radio," Ikegwuonu said, implying that radio remains the most effective medium of mass communication in rural Nigeria.
Based on an impact measurement survey conducted by the foundation, members of the Smallholders listening club have increased their farm yields by an average of 50 percent and increased their household income by 45 percent. "We're working with a group of people that earned about less than U.S. $.50 a day," said Ikegwuonu. "Today most of them are earning $.80 to $1 a day because we're working with them. It's a long process. But it gradually comes together."
ICT organizations working predominantly in communities with low literacy rates face huge challenges. "Training rural people to use new versions of the mobile phone is a little bit tricky," Ikegwuonu said. "They are very comfortable with the old mobile phones like the Nokia 3310; however, for us, we're using a new device that is much simpler in design."
Electricity is another challenge. The Smallholders Foundation runs 15 hours a day on diesel generators. "We make money, but spend about 70 percent to buy fuel, and the remaining 30 percent [goes] for salaries and administrative expenses. We realize that we could be way more profitable if we didn't spend so much on fuel and electricity supply," said Ikegwuonu.
World Bank Study
A recent World Bank Group (WBG) study on the expansion of information and communications technology (ICT) shows that while there remain access chasms between developed and developing countries in Internet and broadband connectivity, the gap in the number of mobile phone users is rapidly closing as a result of private sector investment and policy reforms.
The WBG, which has committed a total of $4.2 billion to expansion, supports the ICT sector through lending, policy advice, investment in private projects, and political risk guarantees.
Last year, 3.9 billion people in the developing world used mobile phones, equivalent to a 68-percent penetration rate. In Africa, the surge in mobile phone use has been rapid. There were 230 million mobile phone subscribers in 2007; today half of the continent's one billion population owns a mobile phone, making the continent the fastest-growing mobile market in the world, according to the study.
Driven largely by the private sector, mobile expansion in Africa has been skewed toward urban areas, with limited access in rural areas. "There is a certain frontier that the private sector wouldn't go even if the regulatory environment and competition is perfect," said Stephan Wegner, one of the senior evaluation officers at the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) who authored the recently released report. He added, "These are the very rural areas where access to the poorest of the poor is needed, and where it wouldn't be viable for private sector companies to provide coverage."
The surge in mobile telephony has created new opportunities for entrepreneurship and development in sectors such as banking, education, health care and agriculture. However, the urban-rural gap makes it difficult for ventures utilizing ICT to have optimal impact. Often superseded by the needs of the urban markets, the World Bank has been largely unsuccessful in targeted efforts to improve access in rural areas.
Ikegwuonu said that he understands how the shifting ICT landscape has influenced a large section of the development community to move into new media. However, he adds, "When we want to do some good and make some money in rural parts of Africa using communication systems, we must utilize the already-established old media like radio as we work to introduce new media like the mobile phone."