Thank You for Choosing MTN

We have been having fun finding ways to get connected to the ‘net in preparation for our field work far from Kampala. We have been using tethered cell phones as modems, and today we created a local wifi network from a mobile broadband connected laptop (I called it “BeckyLovesMatooke”). By the way, MTN (Uganda’s major mobile provider, and Grameen partner) gave me this awesome message after I made a call yesterday:

Thank you for using MTN

week 1 recap

Busy first week in Kigali… this city seems to be the nexus of the world’s development organizations, which makes it easy to meet a lot of people in a short amount of time.  I had ten responses in an earlier post I made in search of housing; seven of the responders were from NGO’s, four of them were relevant to my research…  Here’s a quick recap:

The kind people at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) have agreed to let me use one of their classrooms for the month, and the head of their ICT training program helped pick out 6 of their top students, all of whom were interested in working as RAs with me this month.  In the end, I hired two: together they’ll help me coordinate the phone survey I’ll be running over the next few weeks, and will also serve as impromptu translators and helpers with the random things that come up.  This coming week we’ll start piloting the survey, and hiring a handful of other students to work as surveyors.

Also in the mix was a bunch of meetings with people from various ministries.  The Rwanda Information Technology Authority has about 100 employees, and coordinates all the government-related ICT deployments.  Worth following up with them on an SMS-based system to collect commodity prices, due to launch next month, in cooperation with Voxiva.  Also met with a woman from the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, who will hopefully be able to help me write my survey in an intelligent way, and connect me to people at the Ministry of Agriculture.  Lastly, I met with a contractor at RITA who, with his kid brother, are about to start a company that uses ICT’s to collect and resell milk in the eastern district of Gatsibo.  Am hoping to go visit their dairy farm of 80 cows at some point.

Less formally, I went to an ex-pat pig roast that was completely overrun with young ngo workers.  The regional director of technoserve was there with a group of his employees, whom I will hopefully soon have a chance to talk to when everyone is more sober.  A great group of people was also there from the One Acre Fund.  OAF work with 5,000 farmers in the far western district of Nyamasheke (and also have operations in Kenya and somewhere else).  They work with smallholder farmers to get them high quality seed and fertilizer, using a joint-liability lending model.  Though it’s unclear whether they have much use for ICT’s at this point, I’ll probably make the trip out there next week to shadow one of the guys as he makes the rounds with a set of bean farmers.

Finally, there were some fun things.  I put some youtube videos up of this weird moto-polo thing that the expats do here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfCmpP5VFGQ  I also happened to be around for the 15th anniversary of the end of the Genocide, at which Kagame, Museveni, and some others spoke.  The crowd was enthusiastic (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJsYeCYknlc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAji4XxMEnw).

Guess that’s it.  Looking ahead, this week my collaborator from SFI will be in town, I’m going to try to get the pilot underway, and also talk to the people from SIMTEL and George’s from from Voxiva.  And again, if anyone out there wants a short break, Kigali is a beautiful, friendly city.

Uganda: No Farmer Left Behind

Today in Uganda, newspapers announced that the current president, Museveni (abbreviated in the press as “M7”), aims to stay in power until 2021. It’s an interesting move: a political leader to declare his presidential intentions an entire decade ahead of schedule… it seems to indicate that the leader has lost the confidence to carry the electorate over the next few elections. Our host in Kamapla claims that M7’s growing unpopularity in Kampala is tempered by popular support in rural areas. It seems that Museveni’s political strategy is to woo the rural vote by providing farmers with, among other things,  agricultural inputs. A recently launched agricultural program (whose name elicited eye rolls from one of our recent interviewees) is the poorly named “Prosperity for All,” which attempts to provide a select group of agricultural industries with agriculture extension aid. I didn’t find it easy to find good media coverage – here is a brief Guardian UK post mentioning it, and here is a Ugandan editorial about the program.

It is clear that one challenge Becky, Charlene and I will have to undertake is the unpacking of the roles of each ingredient in the Ugandan agriculture extension alphabet soup. Some groups, like NAADS and NARO, are government run, but appear to be funded in part by international aid. Thus, when outside funding dries up due to recession, these agencies face the possibility of losing influence and momentum. Other players, like USAID, may possibly provide stable program funding, but may also prioritize American economic interests above the interests of small scale farmers. We have many questions to explore, as we begin to dig through the role of various nodes in the Ugandan agricultural network.

So what does this mean for our project? Primarily, it informs our group about the need to take into account unpredictable political forces that assert pressure outside the market. For example, if external inputs are being provided to a selection of farmers simply for political reasons, the scalability of an ICT innovation might be effected.

Arrived in Kigali

40 hours and one lost suitcase later, I’m set up in my rented house in Kacyiru, Kigali. My phone number her is (+250) 0785-144007. I’m on skype as jblumenstock and gtalk as moc.liamgnull@kcotsnemulbj. I’ll have reliable internet for the next month, a car from time to time, and potentially an extra bedroom if someone wants to visit 🙂

Team Uganda has arrived in Kampala!

After spending three months working in Gabon and Ghana last summer, I always knew that I would want to return to the continent, but preferably, to East Africa. Naturally, I was thrilled when I received the opportunity to spend six weeks in Uganda on a research project through UC Berkeley, but funded by the Gates Foundation. Our objective is to identify a few of the most promising ways to improve the livelihood of smallholder farmers through ICT (Information and Communications Technology) applications. In preparing for this trip, we have already discovered a large number of exciting initiatives, ranging from radio talk shows and videos showing innovative farming techniques, to mobile apps that provide access to market prices and weather forecasts. Speaking of mobile apps, we will be working closely with Grameen’s AppLab in Uganda, and they just launched (with Google and MTN Uganda) a suite of mobile apps such as:

  • Farmer’s Friend – provides both agricultural tips and weather forecasts
  • Health Tips – provides sexual and reproductive health information
  • Clinic Finder – helps user to locate nearby health clinics
  • Google Trader – matches buyers and sellers of agricultural products and even livestock!

Anyway, after about 24 hours of traveling, Becky, Michael and I arrived safely in Kampala late last night. We are staying in Ntinda with a kind man named Grace, who is the Managing Director of the Farmer’s Media Newspaper, which is distributed to farmers all over Uganda. Grace and his colleague Peter have been incredibly hospitable, and spent all day today showing us around Kampala, which reminds me a lot of Accra, but much more crowded. As we explored the city, there were multiple times when I thought I was going to get hit by a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi). Armed with MTN Uganda SIM cards, a bunch of Ugandan shillings, and a day’s worth of experience taking matatus (taxi buses), we’re excited for Day 2. In the morning, we will meet one of our Grameen contacts and in the afternoon, with the CEO of Appfrica Labs, a software development firm/incubator based in Kampala whose mission is to provide mentorship and work opportunities to East African software entrepreneurs.