17 February 2013

Rwanda: e-Soko, Great Potential but Yet to Be Exploited

In the past, the ministry of agriculture found it a challenge to monitor the price level of various commodities. The whole process was conducted manually with employees going around the country gathering prices on the markets that would ultimately be published in newspapers.

This usually took the period of one month, and it has never been helpful as it was intended to. One of the biggest challenges was one of middlemen who dictated prices to the farmers telling them to either increase or decrease, citing price disparities between their local markets and urban ones -- the latter usually being higher.

"That's when the Rwanda Development Board came in and helped develop the e-Soko system," says Wilson Musonera, e-Soko project coordinator and system administrator. "The system is based mainly on a mobile application but also a web interface."

e-Soko is an ICT project aimed to update the public on commodity price levels and at the same time facilitating farmers to market their products. The project, set up in 2010 with the support of RDB through e-Rwanda, is based in Minagri.

For several years now, the government has encouraged people working in agriculture to form or join cooperatives with the aim of increasing productivity. While that is fine, it is rather useless when the farmers can't find a market for their harvest. On the other side, there are clients who don't have a clue where they can purchase a certain volume of products. This is where e-Soko comes in -- to link buyers and sellers.

The application is used to collect information directly at the markets via mobile phones that were given to market agents. The prices are set by the sellers themselves, where the role of the ministry is to use that technology to update the public about the status of commodities for a specific market and day.

For the public to know the prices, one simply uses the name of the market and commodity. The system currently has 78 commodities and 62 markets (those considered as the biggest ones in the districts).

"The number of e-Soko users is still relatively low; we have only 150 for the moment. We are still in the first phase of the project," Musonera explains. "But as time goes by, we are adding more markets, and also expanding at the same time. We are adding more features to the upcoming second phase."

Before 2010, e-Soko application was connected to only 33 markets.

The conspicuous missing features, and the fact that e-Soko is currently only available on the MTN network, are the main reasons why more efforts haven't been made to raise awareness.

"We are currently in the process of starting the second phase of the project that will bring in customers of Tigo and Airtel," Musonera says, adding that the e-Soko application, currently hosted at MTN Rwanda, is also being moved to the National Data Center.

Rwanda's economy is still mostly based on agriculture. There are 5,690,751 (53.1%) active mobile subscribers (December 2012) whereas the numbers of e-Soko SMS-based and web-based transactions were 48,600 and 6,717 respectively in 2012.

e-Soko is a solution to take the economy on the next level. Some organizations like the World Food Program and companies are already consulting e-Soko platform as their negotiation line. With the second phase of the project, hopefully the rest of the country will follow.

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