How Mobile Phones are The Farmer’s New Tools

Africa is a continent that seems to be skipping the desktop computing phase and transitioning directly to smartphones.  Even in communities without access to smarter phones, information gateways can deliver vital services to  'dumb' feature-phones.

How does this type of information access affect farmers?  It turns their phone into one of the most important farming tools they have, with which they can access important market information, see weather forecasts, receive crop- and location- specific farming tips (e.g. 'fertilize now' or 'don't water, rain expected this week'), and have access to banking services and credit.

The Gates foundation has an excellent video explaining how this future pans out.  Take a look!


Attracting and supporting the next generation of farming with IT tools.

In many developing countries, the younger generations frequently turn away from the farming careers of their families, opting instead to seek out other careers, frequently in cities. Farming is unattractive due to the difficult labor involved and the all-too-common inability of farmers to earn a good income for their efforts.  The disappearance of an entire generation of farmers will certainly have a long term effect on global food stability, in addition to losing many generations of local farming know-how and culture.

Ironically the next generation frequently possesses skills which can improve the economics behind farming in their area.  They are usually more exposed to, experienced in, and willing to experiment with technology.  IT based farm management tools and online resources for farmers enable them to increase yields, reduce resource usage (water, pesticides, fertilizer), experiment with different strategies and monitor those experiments, and be better connected to markets to sell more effectively.

IICD has a nice video explaining how IT tools can attract young farmers back to the fields, and provide them the means to earn a viable income for their efforts.

Defending the Keepod

There's a crowdfunding project on Indiegogo called Keepod Unite which is hoping to deliver $7 Thumbdrives loaded with a secure, user-friendly Linux distro to a slum in Nairobi, in partnership with the local NGO LiveInSlums.  The Keepod idea is a bit broader than this project, with the mission to

"[...] bridge the Digital Divide and provide Personal Computing to 5 Billion people all over the World."

The project is taking a beating in the comments over at HN, mostly due to the fact that it is 'not a PC' (it relies on throwaway systems), there's no supporting infrastructure, etc.  While this is true that the projet is making some big claims, I'm willing to defend the need for a platform like Keepod.

I've worked for non-profits doing development work in hostile, poor areas.  The key for a lot of these projects is training and facilitating local staff to do tasks that, in other parts of the world, are done by people with a lifetime of exposure to education and technology.   Recording, testing, treating, and monitoring HIV/AIDS is a task normally reserved for nurses, but is accomplished with quickly trained local staff by organizations like Aids Healthcare Foundation.  Other organizations are focusing on logging and monitoring environmental damage, or empowering small-scale farmers with tools to record and improve their yields and resource usage.  Many of the initiative can (and do) benefit by including digital tools in the project.

Unfortunately, I'm still waiting for a cheap tablet with intuitive custom apps and magic mesh-network enabled internet access. In the meantime, a frequent scenario is that a laptop is delivered, trainings are given, things enthusiastically move along, and then...  the device is stolen, the screen broke, someone broke the Windows installation, etc.  Or worse... people are put in harms way simply by having the tech on them (a research to bring technology to rural farmers recently generated the following gem: "If you give someone in rural Honduras a tablet, you should also supply a gun").

While I don't see USB sticks and recycled laptops as the revolution that will bring the fruits of technology to the word's poor, I do see a lot of advantages of Keepod as a platform in developing countries.

In many areas, the challenge of arranging access a computer is not the biggest one; keeping it working is.  A well-engineered linux thumbdrive lets someone switch systems when there's an issue, eliminates the painful Windows firefighting, and allows users to keep their own OS and data separate from everyone else's.

Traveling with your data no longer means putting your PC (or yourself) in danger.  It can be left at home, on the farm, or in the internet cafe.  The data is secure, even in the event that the device is lost, which is key if the device contains medical data, financial information, or records relating to human rights.  In the areas that Dropbox has yet to reach, getting data back home securely can be as simple as mailing your USB drive.

But for me the main takeaway was the following,

"NGOs can tailor the OS according to their communities needs and deploy it to many devices simultaneously."

Non-profit organizations can disseminate interactive USB keys for educational purposes, with all of the nice side-effects that come with the Keepod distro.  Locally hosted apps and websites for expectant mothers, farmers who wish to know how to treat a particular crop ailment, or learning games for kids.  They can safely plug their key into any available semi-functioning system, and not have to worry about affecting the underlying system at a shared computer location.

While it's true that bootable USB keys are not exactly new tech, I applaud Keepod for trying something to enhance what little access to technology may be available.  Until every kid has a laptop, it's a start.

The Beehive: One part tractor, one part bus, two parts tiller and electricity generator... One cool machine for rural farmers.

This innovative tractor is designer JJ Hwang's concept of how modular vehicles could solve several problems at once for rural farmers.

His goals were to make something versatile, which would address transport needs of farm workers (over bad roads), serve as a platform for efficiently moving materials of varying size and weight, serve as a normal and walking tractor/tiller, and also provide a source of power generation for remote water pumping or household use when the electricity drops out.

It's a pretty neat concept, I'd be interested to see if something like this could be made affordably for rural farmers in developing countries...

Google One Today


Google is piloting an Android app called “One Today” where users can learn about new non-profits and directly make a donation.

One Today is a new mobile app available through a limited pilot to Android users in the U.S. that lets people learn about different nonprofits every day, donate to projects that inspire them, and amplify their impact by matching their friends’ donations.

Users of the app can only donate $1 per day, but they can increase support for the cause by challenging friends to match their donation.  According to their FAQ, the app will make new donation recommendations based on your past donation history, helping to expose users to non-profits they may not have known about.

It’s a bit unclear exactly which nonprofits will be featured in the app, but it seems limited to organisations participating in the Google for Nonprofits products (a sponsorship-in-kind and grant program).

Watsi - Crowdfunding for those in need.

I recently found out about Watsi, a nonprofit startup which seeks to connect those in need of basic medical care (in developing countries) with donors.

The idea came to a Peace Corps volunteer who was approached by what he thought was a salesperson on a local bus in Watsi, an indigenous village in Costa Rica. Except, in this case, the people on the bus seemed to be especially generous…

The instant she opened the folder everything came together. There was a full-sized photograph paper clipped to the inside left cover and a document stapled to the right. The photograph showed a young boy with an incision across the width of his iodine-stained chest. The document to the right outlined the patient’s medical condition. The young boy was her son.

In that moment I had what can only be described as an epiphany. If I could somehow connect this woman with my friends and family back home, she would have her son’s medical treatment funded within the day.

With this idea the volunteer founded a non-profit which does just that. At you can read several profiles of people in need of care, and immediately make a paypal donation which will benefit that person.

They are apparently doing this on a volunteer basis, allowing almost 100% of the donations to go to the person in need (minus PayPal fees).

It’s an inspiring idea, and makes me wonder what other ‘disruptive’ concepts can be borrowed from the .com startup space and be put to work for social good. Incubator for .org startups, anyone?

UTZ Certified: Celebrating 10 Years

Last week UTZ celebrated it’s 10th anniversary with a gathering of all international employees, many UTZ partners, some excellent guest speakers, and exciting discussions.

One highlight of the celebrations was an inspiring video showcasing our producers, displaying some awesome statistics, and just generally showing how far we’ve come over the past 10 years.

Grab some popcorn and check it out:

The largest payment platform on Earth can reach 2 billion people - so why haven’t you heard of it?

Jana, a cell-phone payment service which is very popular in the developing world, allows you to remotely top off a particular user’s prepaid phone credit.  This works on all prepaid carriers who are tied into the platform, which at recent count equals ~2 billion people.

Map of Jana Reach

Why would you want to top off someone else’s cell credits?  Well in addition to being a really nice guy, maybe you are interested in performing marketing research on users in a particular country?  Or by directly giving them a ‘discount’ when they buy your product in a store (the store will issue a Jana ID on the receipt which can be redeemed for credit).

His ultimate goal for Jana, he says, is to divert a significant chunk of the $200 billion that consumer-goods companies spend on market research in the developing world into consumers’ pockets. These firms are betting that a consumer just coming into the middle class is going to be worth a lot of money over the course of her lifetime. Companies like Unilever, which makes most of its money in emerging markets, want a service that can connect them with customers all the way from asking them questions in marketing surveys to giving them coupons to following up with them after they buy.

“We have built a technology that can add value to lives and increase disposable income, and ultimately the goal is to have users cut their mobile spend in half,” says Eagle. For people in the developing world who are spending a tenth of their income on mobile service, that represents a 5% raise—good both for them, and for the companies that sell to them.

Jana’s obvious (and touted) angle is marketing research (they talk a lot about targeting your product the fast-growing middle class)… but I’m more interested in how this platform could be leveraged by NGOs and other development organisations to look at all social groups, including the less-privileged. 

Cell phones in developing countries often reach a lot farther than other services, like water, sanitation, health care, access to banking, etc.  I could imagine NGOs running surveys on any number of topics to gauge the need or impact of a particular project.  Running incentivized education campaigns could also be very interesting (e.g. learn about malaria prevention and earn a free jana credit).

Fascinating stuff…

Read the full article over at Quartz.

Silicon Canals

It’s fairly rare you find a good article in an in-flight magazine, but the Holland Herald (from KLM) just had a great peice entitled Silicon Canals, the ‘grass-roots’ movement started by entrepreneur Mike Lee to create a hub focussed on app development.

Lee, also a US expat, has some familiar reasoning as to why he chose to relocate to Amsterdam instead of staying in Silicon Vally:

As an app builder, it’s true that you can theoretically do what you do from anywhere. So why stay in the place that your parents, or your last boss, decided you should live? I wanted to know which place on the planet had the best quality of life versus cost of living.

Of course, Amsterdam is not the only place which is trying to profile itself as a new Silicon Valley.  London, New York, Belfast, even Mumbai are all trying to attract app developers in a serious way.  The difference?

They’re all trying to attract people using money. The problem is, the only people you’ll attract that way are people who are motivated by money. What you really need are people who are driven by passion – an organic, grass roots movement building a community that supports itself and isn’t just there to collect tax credits from the government.

Turns out he’s set up a weekly ‘Appsterdam’ meetup at a cafe around the corner… can’t wait to check it out!

WWF Video on the RSPO

For me a large part of the past year here at UTZ has been involved with launching a new traceability system for the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

This excellent video from the WWF does an great job of explaining what the RSPO is, what it does, and why it’s so important.

It’s cool to think that a significant portion of the world’s sustainable palm oil “flows” through my systems.