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Cell Phone Projects to Use Technology to Boost Health Care, Food Production in Africa


A financial services and technology institution dedicated to helping poor people around the world has introduced new initiatives to improve healthcare delivery in Ghana and strengthen rural agriculture in Uganda. With grants totaling more than $4.7 million, the Grameen Foundation, with help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, will enable nurses in Ghana to collect and transmit medical data through their cell phones. A second project will create a network of so-called Community Knowledge Workers who use cell phones to disseminate critical agricultural data to farmers to help them improve crop yields and find suitable markets for their produce. Grameen president and CEO Alex Counts says that basic mobile phones are useful and readily available for people in disadvantaged areas.

“With the proliferation of these phones in a lot of these countries, where a lot of the time there are more cell phones than there are landline phones, they are also not that expensive. So it’s something with the reach of a poor woman or a frontline healthcare worker to have, but particularly if they can get a microfinance loan. What it allows the poor woman to do, as we’ve learned through our initial program, is to become a ‘human pay phone,’ or someone that the whole village can go to. No one in the village might be able to afford their own phone, but they can all pay on a single use basis for hers,” he notes.

In Ghana, one grant will teach nurses to transition from entering medical data on patients electronically, giving them more time to spend directly with patients and providing more timely and accurate statistics to Ghanaian medical authorities. Counts says the transition is well worth it.

“Just to give the people the training to convert from the pencil-and-paper approach to the digitized approach, that’s going to take some figuring out how to culturally make that as easy for the nurse or even easier than doing it the way she’s used to. Once we see that, then there’s all manner of information right now that’s collected by nonprofit groups, government officials that isn’t being aggregated and used to make good decisions,” said Counts.

He notes that with cell phone towers readily set up all across the developing world, Africa is ready to begin reaping the benefits of a strong development tool. Within two years, he hopes a neighboring country like Nigeria will also be able to enact the nursing program technology.

“Grameen Foundation has a longstanding involvement in microfinance in Nigeria working with a group called LAPO, or Lift Above Poverty Organization, one of the leading organizations there, and as Africa’s most populous country, whenever we develop some sort of breakthrough application, we always do it with the mind, can we scale up? Can it be successful in the big African countries – Nigeria, Ethiopia? So that would be one of our first priorities if we could get this Community Knowledge Worker model right in Uganda, if we could get the Health Information Worker systems working in Ghana, then bring it to Nigeria would be one of our first priorities, and I could see this happening in the next two to three years, and sooner if we are able to approve the concept successfully,” he pledged.

What Grameen is trying to do in Uganda with funding from the Gates Foundation is to have Community Knowledge Workers transmit essential conditions and statistics that will enhance farmer decision making and planning in ways that will boost food production, alleviate food shortages, and make rural agricultural a profitable enterprise. Alex Counts says Ugandan farmers were an ideal choice for launching this project because of a local neighborhood structure that lends itself to telephone communication.

“This was the first country where we have in Africa an extensive nationwide network of village phone operators, of microfinance clients, mostly who have taken a loan and become pay phone owners. So we already had that infrastructure, and converting them from a human pay phone to a Community Knowledge Worker is relatively easy. And that network is across the nation. We are now looking at where we want to pilot it. But once we get that model down, of building new applications on top of just a voice transmission, we’ll build a scale nationally fairly quickly,” he promised.

Counts says that productivity and profitability are two goals of the Uganda rural farm project.

“Certainly we want small farmers to produce more, to also have more profit at the end of the cycle, which will help them invest in future crops and in things that will make them invest in land even more productive, environmentally protected,” he says.

Beyond that, Counts notes, the project wants to inject a new level of information flow that will give farmers the answers they need to gain a better grasp of natural forces that often prevent them from meeting their food producing goals.

“What we’re learning is that a lot of farmers make less than ideal decisions based on their lack of access to information which is available on the internet, in weather reports that don’t reach them. They rely sometimes on what is thought in the community about how to treat a certain pest that might be infesting their crops. Sometimes, that local knowledge is correct. Sometimes it’s incorrect, so we see that access to modern agricultural methods and information and especially weather reports and knowledge of when certain fertilizers may be available from government dispensaries. All of this information will help them make better decisions as farmers, will allow them to deal particularly with the food crisis that we have, will allow them to address this food crisis that emerged last year, however it’s manifested in their country, and then lastly, to have more surplus with which to invest in more intensive cultivation in the next cycle,” he added.

Making creative use of technology and microfinance together, the Grameen and Gates Foundations are hopeful their Africa projects will lead to significant economic improvements in agriculture and healthcare delivery all over the continent some day soon.

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