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.
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
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.
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