Google has launched its SMS service and a new SMS-based classifieds system in Uganda, in collaboration with the Grameen Foundation and mobile operator MTN Uganda.
The offerings are aimed at helping poor farmers and other underserved communities access information using mobile phones, which they may own or borrow from small businesses that sell phone use.
The SMS service lets people send text messages with certain keywords to get information in a number of categories. Farmer's Friend offers agricultural advice and weather forecasts. In a video posted on the Google.org blog, one farmer used the service to discover that rather than pay for a pesticide for his tomatoes, he could use materials that he already had on hand in excess. He says he used the money he saved to buy more land.
Health Tips and Clinic Finder are two other SMS services that let people find sexual and reproductive health information and find nearby clinics.
People use the service by texting a keyword like "weather" or "clinic" followed by the city. They get the information they request by return SMS.
The Google Trader service lets people sell or buy crops or other items. For example, a user would text "BUY Toyota Kampala" to receive a list of Toyotas for sale within 50 kilometers of Kampala, Uganda.
The services don't come with additional fees beyond standard text messaging rates.
The Grameen Foundation, started by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who created the Village Phone project in Bangladesh, spearheaded the text service as a way to deliver information to people who live in remote areas. Village Phone is the project that turns primarily poor women in developing countries into entrepreneurs by offering them micro-loans to buy a cell phone that they let other villagers use for a fee.
Those operators in Uganda have been trained to use the new SMS service, so they can sell it to their customers.
Grameen set out to develop a way to offer people in remote areas access to information that many people in the developed world take for granted. "There's this great idea of rolling out a lot of computers, but it's hard to figure out a business model and how to keep those devices charged when they're off the grid," said Peter Bladin, founding director of the Grameen Technology Center and executive vice president for programs and regions at the Grameen Foundation, in a recent interview. "But the mobile phone is one device that already has incredible penetration."
However, most phones used in the developing world don't have the capability to surf the Internet, and the networks they run on don't support Internet access either. As a result, Grameen began investigating ways to let people use SMS, which is available on even the lowest-cost phones and the oldest mobile-phone networks, to access information.
Bladin has high hopes for the initiative. "Devices or technology can shorten that gap between where the information exists and where people who need it are. That's really a great empowerment," he said.
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