Farmerline: An app on terra firma
With up to 60 sessions and over 300 speakers, eLearning Africa 2012 will be a who’s who of the Continent’s leading ICT and education players. Young software developers who are coming up with home-grown solutions to long-term problems will be showcasing their work and sharing their ideas in Cotonou. We take a sneak peak at a down-to-earth app that aims to fly high.
Winning $3000 and third place in the West African heat of the recent Apps4Africa Climate Challenge is no mean feat at a time when young Africans are embracing eLearning en masse and coming up with sophisticated technologies to address problems in all economic sectors. Alloysius Attah’s portfolio as an application developer has earned him a level of respect that belies his mere 22 years of age. Working with Emmanuel Owusu Addai, a fellow student at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Attah cofounded Farmerline, a mobile and web-based system that provides farmers and investors with information to boost productivity and increase income. Since agriculture accounts for 30% of Ghana’s GDP and over 50% of formal and informal employment, it was natural for the young team to want to channel their creative energies into developing an application for farming.
“Farmers in Ghana’s rural communities struggle to get information about best practice guidelines for agriculture due to an inadequate provision of extension officers and poor transport and communication channels,” says Attah. Farmerline will hopefully bridge the information gap through its toll-free helpline that will give farmers a direct line to agricultural extension officers who will then use a web interface to send voice sms responses to a range of farmers’ questions on best-practice for farming, a nifty plan since illiteracy is very much a reality in Ghana’s rural areas. One aspect of the app has already been launched: the sms alerts. These alerts provide information on tackling pests, the optimum times for planting different crops, farming subsidies on offer, weather forecasts, local produce fairs and crop prices. A prototype is already in use with further testing underway whereby a focus group of 150 extension officers are addressing the needs of around 150 smallholder farmers. Although the voice platform provision is a work in progress yet to be released for piloting later this year, Attah says that overall, the app is already yielding a bumper harvest not only through the advice it has disbursed via the sms alerts, but because of the amount of data they have managed to collect. “By analysing the queries, agriculture specialists and researchers are able to build an accurate picture of the challenges rural people face and the trends in agriculture,” explains Attah.
Attah and his partner in creativity Addai honed their skills at the World Wide Web Foundation’s Mobile Entrepreneurship in Ghana three-week training course in September 2011. The pair is also active at the KNUST-based mFriday technology hub headed by Bobby Okine. Okine says, “Our approach is to partner with academia in developing apps for solving pertinent problems in society mostly via the common denominator: the mobile phone.” The young Ghanaians are trying to ground their work in solid research in order to focus on applications that are sustainable in the long-term, an ideology that ties in neatly with eLearning Africa’s 2012 overall theme of eLearning and Sustainability. Okine explains, “Our work at mFriday brings together teams of talented ICT developers and business school students from the public and private universities to identify challenges and opportunities, to create appropriate projects and to launch successful companies for economic growth and sustainable jobs in Ghana.” eLearning in Africa has come a long way, and the arguments about what is possible are increasingly being replaced by propositions that merely need a bit of financial backing to take root.
“An entrepreneur in Accra, Ghana is equally capable of producing software that can compete globally with that produced by someone in Silicon Valley,” says Attah. “Anything your mind conceives, you can achieve. The barriers to starting your own software company that once existed have been reduced by the resources that the Internet provides. In every challenge, there lies a big untapped opportunity. All we need is a sense of responsibility, passion, creativity and innovation, and then the sky is the starting point for us all.”