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Google, MTN, Grameen improve local content in Uganda

o Rebecca Wanjiku
09.07.2009 kl 20:55 |

When Google set up its sub-Saharan Africa offices two years ago, many people wondered about their role -- some thought they were going to donate to projects, pay for content, employ a lot of people -- and many did not understand what the big deal was about the tech giant entering the region.

 

When Google set up its sub-Saharan Africa offices two years ago, many people wondered about their role -- some thought they were going to donate to projects, pay for content, employ a lot of people -- and many did not understand what the big deal was about the tech giant entering the region.

For the huge number of people living in rural areas, with no electricity or Internet access and unaware of the world of "Google search," the excitement seemed too much. But today, Google's weight and ability to pull other heavyweight companies to rural areas is being felt.

Uganda is the first beneficiary of a project that combines the resources of MTN, the Grameen Foundation and Google to deliver real-time information in agriculture and health, and a virtual marketplace for buying and selling goods and services powered by Google SMS search. After 18 months of development and testing, the partners have provided five applications that are expected to change the way rural areas access information and do business. The applications were developed through the Grameen Foundation AppLab.

The suite of five mobile applications includes Farmer's Friend, a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts; Health Tips, which provides timely, relevant information on sexual and reproductive health, paired with a Clinic Directory, which enables people to locate nearby clinics; and Google Trader, which matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products.  

"MTN, Grameen Foundation and Google have been energized by the fact that Uganda is a fast-growing economy. My trust is that the people of Uganda shall emulate their example and come up with even better ideas," said Aggrey Awori, Uganda's ICT minister.

 

For a long time, rural farmers have been exploited by middlemen and brokers who lie about market information, while hospitals are long distances away and access to basic health information is lacking.

"Uganda is hungry for products that empower individuals, and key areas like agriculture, trade and health are reason enough for all to embrace this product," said Themba Khumalo, MTN Uganda CEO.

Uganda is one of the first countries in Africa to embrace mobile phones -- at the time that Kenya was inviting tenders for a second mobile operator, Uganda was seeking a third company. The services are based on short message service and designed to work with basic mobile phones to reach the broadest possible audience. 

"AppLab is a great example of innovation from and for the base of the pyramid, bringing relevant, actionable information to communities where the Internet is unknown," said Alex Counts, president of the Grameen Foundation. 

 

The Grameen Foundation's Technology Center is seeking to replicate its success in Bangladesh and provide more solutions to Africa. The tech center focuses on creating opportunities for poor people to share and access essential information through innovative uses of mobile phones, which are in the hands of nearly 4 billion people around the world. 

The new services in Uganda can be accessed by existing village phone operators (VPOs), which extend service to people without mobile phones, as well as by people who have their own phones. VPOs and other trusted intermediaries serve as a bridge between communities lacking access to essential information and the sources that can provide it.

"These sustainable and scalable models put critical information and knowledge directly into the hands of poor people with access to mobile devices in an effort to further alleviate poverty," said Joseph Mucheru, Google's lead for sub-Saharan Africa. "This work has significance to both individuals and to the broader economy of this emerging region." 

 

The collaborative effort is seeking to answer the call for increased local content and demand for technology services as the East Africa region embraces cheap bandwidth.

"As the East African fiber-optic cables begin to connect Uganda to the global Internet community, it is vital that the foundation for a thriving Internet economy be established. Many impressive organizations are focused on this goal, and we hope to enhance these efforts as much as possible," said Rachel Payne, Google Uganda country manager.

The information in the applications was developed in collaboration with key local partners. The Uganda Department of Meteorology provides daily updates for the weather application. The Busoga Rural Open Source Development Initiative (BRODSI) provides locally relevant and actionable agricultural information, created and tested by small-holder farmers and designed to meet their needs. For the health application, AppLab works with Marie Stopes Uganda, the local affiliate of a leading service provider for sexual and reproductive health, and Straight Talk Foundation, a Ugandan NGO that specializes in health communication. 

Keywords: Internet  Industry Verticals  
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