What does mobile phone technology have to do with farmers in Uganda? According to Karl Muth, an economist from The London School of Economics working with Grameen Foundation, the answer is simple -- mobile technology is a key ingredient in building and managing the financial products farmers need in Uganda. Muth began with the idea of working with Grameen as a Bankers Without Borders volunteer, along with his friend and colleague, Jennifer F. Helgeson. What began as donating a few hours of consulting work as an economist here or there developed into a full-time job. Muth has flown more air miles between London-Heathrow and Entebbe in 2011 than on any other route.
I recently traveled with Muth to the heart of Uganda, a country whose very mention conjures images from its recent war torn past to learn about his innovative research project that already has local farmers I spoke with praising him as "someone who will be remembered as a hero." According to Muth, "Uganda used to be a food exporter producing more food than it could consume. Today Uganda is a food importer and our goal is also to reverse that again."
Muth and Jennifer F. Helgeson, an Oxford-educated economist now at the The London School of Economics and The Grantham Institute for Climate Change, set out to design and implement a survey tool that would allow for the largest study of farming in sub-Saharan Africa in over 20 years, a study that Muth estimates would have taken over 15 years and $1 million U.S. to complete without the use of mobile technology.
"We have over 130 people equipped with smart phones with a special application. These Community Knowledge Workers physically visit over 5000 Ugandan farms and measure farmers' behaviors and attitudes regarding risk. This is the largest study of Ugandan farms since 1991 and the first study to use this methodology to examine how farmers make choices on which crops to grow and where to invest their money on the farm," added Muth.
While completing his masters degree with a concentration in economics at the University of Chicago, Muth began studying study microinsurance -- very small insurance policies meant to guard poor, small-plot farmers against threats such as drought. In a recent article he writes, "I began to realize that few, if any, large-scale studies had been completed on the actual risk behaviors of these farmers. Without knowing how farmers make decisions and try to avoid or mitigate risk to their farms, it's nearly impossible to understand how insurance products might be built to protect these farmers."
This realization sparked Muth's interest in developing a tool that would allow researchers to assess over 50 factors in the life of the Ugandan farmer. Equatorial farmers often face tremendous difficulties due to seasonal drought every one out of two or three years and erratic weather patterns such as the hailstorm that wiped out nearly 100 percent of crops two years ago in the north-central District of Oyam. Muth and Helgeson worked with Grameen Foundation to turn their list of questions and research methodologies, known as the Muth-Helgeson Survey Tool (MHST), into a mobile survey using AppLab's software as a service platform.
The MHST is deployed through the Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) network, a web of hundreds of people throughout Uganda equipped with smartphones. The program also created an alliance with MTN Uganda, the country's dominant mobile operator, and uses Android-based HTC handsets that run advanced apps, including the MHST. According to Muth:
"Without the MHST, many of these farmers would never have been able to tell their stories or inﬂuence the engineering of ﬁnancial products - now, they have a voice in the design of a generation of new insurance products that may protect them from the next drought, ﬂood, or disease. An application that would have cost millions to develop only a few years ago can now be built on a small budget in an ofﬁce building in Kampala and nearly instantly downloaded and installed on over one hundred phones, many of them in villages without single paved road, traffic light, or electrical outlet. This project has the potential to revolutionize how mobile technology is used to understand the developing world."
During our trip we traveled to Oyam District to meet with local Community Knowledge Workers ("CKWs"), visit farm areas, and attend a local village market day. Local farmer and CKW, Willy Okello, known to locals as "Willy OK," has been working closely with Muth since the project first came to Oyam. Unlike the vast majority of Ugandans, Okello was able to attend university. After studying in the capital, Kampala, he made the unusual decision to return to his hometown in order to tend to his farm and help create a future of sustainable agriculture for his family and future generations. According to Okello:
"Often times, Uganda farmers do not have the information needed in order to make informed decisions in various important areas. The CKW Search application allows farmers to upload, search and share information on subjects from animal disease to crop failures. We receive the information from the phone and are able to then warn other farmers so that they make take necessary precautions on their own farms."
CKW Search, a tool available to CKWs thanks to Grameen Foundation's AppLab Uganda team, allows a farmer to detect the signs of agricultural pests or understand livestock illness symptoms using a smartphone, thereby giving a farmer access to a pool of knowledge that may not be available in the local community.
Concluded Muth, "By using local people, local social networks, locally-built software, and local languages, I believe we'll learn far more about these farmers' lives than ever would have been possible with just an economist from London." Muth and Helgeson both divide their time between London and northern Uganda and expect to continue their work for Grameen Foundation in Uganda for months to come. Muth acknowledges the work he and Helgeson are engaged in today is only the first step:
"We first need to understand the problem, use that understanding to engineer the financial products people need, and then operate a credible, sustainable business around that portfolio of products. Clearly, we're only at the beginning of that process, but it's an exciting start."