Friday, 11 December 2009

Impact of climate change on Eritrean agriculture sector

As world leaders gather in Copenhagen to seal the deal on climate change, I saw, first hand, the devastating consequences of climate change on Eritrea’s agriculture and livestock sector.

Crop cultivation and animal husbandry account for 60 per cent of rural incomes in Eritrea. Recent models and estimates show that the effects of climate change have an adverse impact on the country’s agriculture and livestock sector. Decrease in rainfall and a rise in temperatures has resulted in increased dry spells and decreased soil moisture.

Water scarcity is one of the many challenges that farmers and pastoralist face in Eritrea. The country has two perennial river systems, the Setit River, which forms the country’s border with Ethiopia and drains into the Nile basin, and the Gash Barka system, which collects the run-off water from the highlands. All other rivers in the country are seasonal and carry water only after rainfall, which means that they are dry most of the year. The country has limited sources of fresh surface water, and although groundwater can be tapped, it may be s quantity and quality may be poor.

Official estimates show average annual rainfall at 400-500mm. However, for the last two years, average rainfall has not exceeded 100mm.

Investing in blue gold improves livelihoods of smallholder farmers

To counter the devastating impact of climate change and to ensure food security for its people, the government of Eritrea is investing in the agriculture sector by:

  • creating small-scale irrigation schemes
  • building ponds, reservoirs and dams
  • installing solar panels for water pumps
  • installing drip, pump and sprinkler irrigation systems

For example in Zoba Debub the livelihoods of 82% of the 750,000 people living in this zoba depends on agriculture and related activities. Farmers in Debub like in Ma’ekel and other areas of Eritrea plant cereals such as wheat, barley, sorghum, taf, millet, maize and also vegetables – tomato, onion, carrot, potato, cabbage, lettuce and pepper.

In drought-prone Eritrea, livestock is a farmer’s most valuable asset. Animal husbandry is not only one of the main sources of livelihood for farmers, but it is also a form of insurance that enables poor rural people to cope with drought and other disasters.

One of the many challenges facing Eritrean farmers and pastoralists is to find grazing land and water for their livestock. The reservoirs and the surroundings provide an invaluable source of water and grazing land for livestock.

If you’ve ever visited Eritrea, you will be familiar with its arid landscape. You can imagine my surprise when driving through zoba Ma’ekel and -zoba Debub, against an arid and dry landscape, literary out of the blue I saw a beautiful body of water surrounded by hectares of emerald green and lush vegetation. These mini-oasis which are the result of Eritrean government’s investment in agriculture are THE source of livelihoods and food security for poor rural Eritreans.

The reservoirs can hold anywhere between 50,000 to 350,000 m3 of water and serve 200 to 350 poor rural households who are now able to irrigate their 15-35 hectares of agricultural land. Furthermore, the reservoirs and dams provide a secure source of grazing and water for livestock and also source of water for domestic/washing purposes.

These secure source of blue gold allow farmers to complement their rain-fed crops - cereals, sorghum and barely - with vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, onions and pepper.

Eritrean farmers use a variety of irrigation methods ranging from drip to pipe and sprinkler and religiously adhere to the agreed irrigation schedule. Thanks to a favourable government policy, they have the luxury of not paying for water. However, they pay an average of 10,000-15,000 nakfa for a pump and those who have a fuel-run pump benefit from subsidized fuel.

The farmers are cognizant that their livelihoods depends not only on water, high yielding seeds and high-value crops but also on making sure that their pumps are well maintained. To this end they’ve established a revolving fund which is used exclusively for this purpose.

“Thanks to the reservoir now I have a secure source of water and can irrigate my 0.25 hectare”, says Woldo a farmer living in the Shmangus-laalay village. “Now I have three crops instead of one.” Woldo uses a combination of sprinkler and water pump. “When my crop was germinating, I used water pump, because sprinklers can damage the crop”, says Woldo. Woldo’s water pump is run by electricity for which he pays 24 nakfa per hour.

The 350 households living in the vicinity of this reservoir use this body of water not only to irrigate their plots, but also for their livestock and for domestic purposes such as for washing.

Before the reservoir was built, Elsa a mother of three, used to wake up at crack of dawn to go fetch water for washing purposes. Today, in tow with her donkey and her youngest son, she goes to the lake to collect water. While the water collecting technique may be rudimentary, it has saved Elsa hours of walking, allowing her to spend more time at home and to get involved in agricultural activities.

In the nearby village of Tesazege village, Athaneta and her brother are cultivating 0.5 hectare of land using the nearby reservoir. “I practice crop rotation and for this crop cycle I’ve replaced barley with tomatoes, because I have a secure source of water”, says Athaneta with a smile. “I’ve already harvested 100kg and expect to harvest another 200kg which I sell for 2 nakfa per kilo”.

“Thanks to this secure source of water, my brother and I can be sure to have one cereal crop and two vegetable crops”, says Athaneta.

Habtemariam is a model farmer who has fully taken advantage of the nearby reservoir and exploited the potential of his 0.75 hectare land, managing to secure himself and his family a total 5,000 nakfa by planting cabbage, lettuce and carrot.

Eritrea has the potential of having many more lush, green-emerald mini-oasis allowing more farmers to systematically cultivate agricultural land, ensure their food security and earn a secure income.

The Eritrean government and donor agencies are investing and committed to invest more in agriculture. Now, the onus is on the world leaders gathered in Copenhagen to finally seal the climate change deal, so that Eritrean women, children, men, farmers and pastoralists can have a bright future and never again suffer from drought and famine.

Please sign the climate change deal so that these children and this Eritrean family and many more have a better and brighther future!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Slowly but surely knowledge sharing methods are making a signficant dent

Over the last weeks I was on cruscade to convince colleagues to use a series of knowledge sharing methods for a regional event. This morning I saw the results of my efforts.

In a plenary session bright and early I laid out the plan for the day. We started off with three parallel chat shows, moved to three parallel world cafes and finished off with a speed geeking session.

The three parallel chat shows focused on the following three themes:
  • Agricultural value chain development
  • Rural and agricultural finance and rural enterprises
  • Support to capacity building

During the chat show participants shared their insights, experience and knowledge about the various challenges and opportunities of the above themes. For many, this was the first time they had participated in a chat show and most of them thorougly enjoyed it.

At the end of chat show the hosts quickly formulated three questions based on the insight that emerged from the chat show. These questions were then addressed during the World Cafe.

Your reporter had the daunting task of acting as cafe host for all three parallel world cafes. I must admit this was quite challenging also because I had to set up the cafe tables for one of the group. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of the participants, I started with the first group outlining the process. 5 minutes later I went to the second group and did the same. I then rushed upstairs to third group.

The hosts of group three were absolutely marvelous and had explained the process to the participants. Drenched, I headed back to the secretariat for a sip of water.

The cafe host is also the time keeper. So 20 minutes into the first round of questions, I did my rounds to ask colleagues to move table and get on with their second question. I must admit that everyone collaborated and they moved orderly to the next table, trying their utmost to keep 5 to table.

The hosts of group 3 had done their maths right and had managed to have 5 francophone and 5 anglophone tables!!! The participants in all three cafes were completely engaged. I heard comments such as: "This cafe thing is really good". Another person said: "You know, I was a skeptic, but this structured chaos is really great!". Someone else reflecting on the process said "I wish we had started by asking the participants to talk about their successes, because when we did that at the last round, the energy level changed." And this person right, the question is one the important ingredients of a world cafe, it can make it or break it.

I am currently immersed in a series appreciative leadership courses, so his comment resonated completely with my changed mindset. He was right on: we always need to start looking at strengths and build on these, rather than falling in the trap of looking at weakness.

After lunch, participants regrouped in their original table to do the summary of their discussions. These were then used for the speed geeking. An hour later, a total of 30 table hosts descended to the open area, carrying flipcharts or their flipchart papers. They created their stands waiting eagerly to present their table's work to other participants.

I think the speed geeking could have gone a bit better, if before the participants made their way downstairs, we would have reminded them what was expected from the table hosts and from the other participants. This said, the outputs were remarkable. I walked to three stands and must say I was quite impressed.
Kudos to tmy colleagues who fully embracing the concept of using knowledge sharing methods at their events. This is now the second time. Early this year, they used the same knowledge sharing methods at another workshop.

For your reporter, it was an absolutely rewarding day. I hope colleagues back home got a flavour of the richness of this day. Hope I've done justice to the great work that went on today.

Now, we are all getting ready for a well deserverd dinner somewhere near the beach. If you feel inspired, please comment on this blogpost.

Monday, 16 November 2009

World Summit on Food Security (#wsfs09) show is on the road!

The World Food Summit on Food Security will officially start in less than 45 minutes. The FAO building is buzzing. The angels in orange T-Shirts are colleague colleagues and delegates to get on-line. Journalists have started filing their first reports.

In the press area we have live feed from Viale Aventino to keep track of arrival of dignitaries. You can follow the proceedings at and on twitter

Sunday, 4 October 2009

KM search and rescue operation: Looking for intelligent and KM-enabled indicators!

I'm faced with the challenge of measuring the progress and impact of knowledge management activities using indicators!

I must confess that indicators and I do not get along very well. I believe indicators are one-dimensional and not flexible enough to assess progress in a multidimensional manner. Another reason why I do not like indicators is that often they are devised and used to justify our deeds.

Having said that I am fully aware that as development workers we need to show how tax-payer money is used to make a difference in the lives of poor and marginalized people. As a result, we are continuously preparing progress reports, case studies, impact assessments, results-frameworks, logframes and you name it to show progress and impact.

I beg your indulgence for a minute and want to ask you to reflect on how many of these reports, case studies, results-frameworks, logframes and indicators are knowledge enabled? Which of these outputs actually tell the story of what worked and what did not worked and more importantly WHY it did not work? Which of these indicators actually measure the learning and innovation that may or may not have occurred? What indicator measures whether the learning emerging from an activity is captured, disseminated and fed back?

I do not have an answer to these questions and would like to hear from those of who may have plausible answers. What I do know is that I am asked to come up with KM indicators and I have really a hard time to do so.

When it comes to KM indicators, I continuously ask myself: if KM activities are to support the mission of organizations while enhancing business processes, why should we have KM specific indicators?

If we have mainstreamed KM in our activities and if we have intelligent and KM-enabled indicators, these should be able to tell us whether the KM activities are supporting business processes, we should be able to assess whether we are sharing, using, capturing and generating knowledge. We do not need to have a completely new set of indicators to measure the impact of KM! DO WE?

I know the big IF is having "intelligent and KM-enabled indicators"! This is why it is paramount to have intelligent indicators that measure not only the physical progress of any given activity but also and most importantly measure learning and behavioural aspects. That is to say, something that tells how and what we've learnt as a result of accomplishing any given activity; how we've used and are using what we've learnt; something that provides evidence if we're re-inventing the wheel and/or show how we're applying the knowledge generated or acquired.

If we start going down the path of creating KM specific indicators without embedding these in existing indicators, we'll end up engaging in bean-counting exercise and risk creating futile and empty indicators such as "number of communities of practices (CoP) established" or "70% increase in CoP participation" or "30% increase in number of learning events" or "14 knowledge products produced".

Now, you tell me where is the real essence of KM in these indicators? Do any one of these indicators assess the quality of discussions and learning emerging from the CoP, do they tell us how the collective knowledge of the CoP has improved a project design or introduced an innovative irrigation scheme? Do these indicators measure how the CoP has enhanced knowledge exchange or how the CoP has contributed to expanding the knowledge-base on a topic?

These indicators do not telling us whether there has been any behavioural changes, whether the learning events have led to innovative processes and products or if and how they have fostered knowledge exchange etc.

What are these 'indicators' really measuring? JUST NUMBERS!!! They fail to measure the qualitative dimension of HOW results were achieved and WHAT we learnt as a result of achieving and not achieving the desired results. So, can anyone out there tell me why should we create KM specific indicators? Would not it be better to convert dim-witted indicators to KM/learning-enabled indicators?

Help me in this search and rescue operation..... share your intelligent and KM-enabled indicators or any ideas and experience that you may have of measuring the impact of KM-related activities.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Battle of giants: Social media, web 2.0 vs letters to editors and press releases

The other day I came across a beautiful and inspiring quote by George S. Patton "If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking."

Reading this quote made me realize that if I am not thinking like everyone it does not mean I am completely crazy, but it actually means I am thinking….

I've been thinking about how Web2.0 tools and social media have democratized the way we communicate and how they have opened up frontiers which only a decade ago were completely closed or perhaps only accessible to a small elite.

Today those who have embraced the philosophy underpinning web2.0 and social media are experiencing unprecedented freedom of speech and thought. This is why some governments are going out of their way to shut down or jam certain social networking sites and web2.0 tools. Little they know about the power of the community and network!

Let's take a trip in the time machine and go back 5 year. In July 2004 if I wanted to share my opinion and views about something I had read or come across I would have had to write a letter to the editor hoping that they would publish it. If I had written something that I thought was earth-shattering and groundbreaking the only way I could get it out was either to publish it in a journal, put it on my personal website which probably no one would have visited or if I was bold enough write an opinion editorial.

It goes without saying that since I am not a big shot nor a movie or rock star, neither my letter to the editor, nor my article and opinion editorial would have been published, resulting in me being highly frustrated.

July 2009, the world has changed and in this particular sense, it has changed for the better. Today, I am on an equal footing as the big shots and the movie and rock stars. I can freely share my insight and views with the rest of the world. I can go on-line and comment on almost anything. I can publish my groundbreaking and earth-shattering thought or aspiration. That is exactly what I am doing with this blogpost. I am in position of power, I can do it and I am not at anyone's mercy!

All of this is possible thanks to web2.0 paradigm, philosophy and thanks to a new way of life. Millions of people are taking advantage of this stuff and making their voice heard within and outside their communities and networks. What is happening is that if they have something good to say, their voice will be amplified exponentially, something that no opinion editorial or letter to the publisher could have ever achieved – even in their respective hey days.

Web2.0 and social media has created the phenomenon of citizen journalism which in turn is challenging traditional journalism. Thanks to YouTube, Blip.Tv, Flickr, Picasa and other tools we have access to documentaries, news, photos which mainstream media would most probably think twice before broadcasting, and yet these are real people-centred stories.

Traditional news/media outlets came to realize the potential and power of social media and web2.0 when they started feeling the blows. Some reacted more swiftly than others. I happened to recently watch 10 minutes of CNN's back report. I found it very entertaining. I watched Ivan Watson, a relatively seasoned CNN journalist "embedded" in a battalion in Afghanistan, showing us around the military camp, trying to tell the audience the human side of the story. What was amazing was their effort to make the piece look rough – so the pictures were grainy, they had done away with the usual script and articulate language. The rabbit in the hat was the "sock water", which Watson explained with some gusto. He explained how the soldiers put a bottle of water in a sock and hang it from their jeep and so that the desert wind can cool it making it drinkable. This was their version of a raw footage and a human story… good try.

Most mainstream newspapers now have their blog section, they are now allowing their readership to comment on their articles and they do not exercise editorial control as much as they used too… So, today, I can comment on virtually anything and no longer need to write a letter to the editor crossing my fingers that it will be published. Yet some people still insist in writing letters to editors and are very disappointed and frustrated when their letter is not published.

What is amazing is when I tell these disappointed people: "so what that the editor did get publish your letter, go on-line and add your comment, there are more people reading on-line comments and more importantly you give others an opportunity to react and comment on your comment", they look at me as if I am an extraterrestrial creature.

It gets worse when I dare say: "believe me pretty soon opinion editorials, press releases, print newspaper – the stuff we know today - will be subsumed by new forms of communication and this stuff will become artefacts for museums". That is when they go berserk and get all geared up to pull out the strait-jacket!

For me these are two instances how thinking like everyone means someone is not thinking. It is understood that the concept of "everyone" is relative…. My web2.0 friends and peers are part of another "everyone" dimension"!

All of us at some point were faced or are facing the challenge of making the "everyone" understand and appreciate the power and, potential of web2.0 and social media. We need good and convincing examples of how web2.0 and social media at work.

President Obama's campaign is a perfect example of social media and web2.0 tools in action. The White House website is another excellent example. Another good resource is Christian Kreutz's article "Exploring the potentials of blogging for development". This morning I came across a great blogpost entitled "Journalism should look to collaboration, not charity" on the Guardian blog – yeh, these guys are cool and have embraced web2.0 and social media.

Also thank God for news and information outlets such as Huffington Post, blogs such as Global Voices on-line and mainstream journalists such as Hala Garani, Rosemary Church, some ABC journalists and others who have adopted web2.0 way of life. Kudos to those journalists who use twitter to interact with their audience.

But yet, despite these examples and thousand othes, we are still faced with the enormous challenge of making the old-timers and the older generation understand the benefit and potential of social media.

These guys resist adopting these tools and way of life, because they see their area of expertise being eroded. Simply put THEY ARE AFRAID OF LOSING TEHIR JOB. Instead of jumping on this band-wagon and bringing in their vast experience, they end up sulking, sitting on the fence, hoping that this movement will die.

So what can we do to make them understand that: (a) the community has a lot to learn from them and is keen to benefit from and want to draw on their vast experience (b) this "thing" is here to stay and will not go away and (c) if they want to survive they better jump on the band-wagon as opposed to trying in vain to derail it, because it ain't going to derail, so they better use their energy positively!

On a bad day, I ask myself whether it is worth the effort to try to conceive the cynics that the old-way of doing business is now history. On these days I think maybe I should just concentrate my energy and efforts in grooming the younger generation – because they (a) have an excellent grasp of this new way of life, (b) I can learn a whole lot from them and (c) together we can do some fun stuff.

But when all is said and done, I really do not want to leave the "older generation" behind, because they too have a lot to offer, so if you know of any useful resource or if you have a rabbit in your hat, please share it. Let's not leave anyone behind!!!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Three Rome-based agencies share their blogging and microblogging experiences

Earlier this month my FAO colleagues Gauri Salokhe (@gaurisalokhe), Luca Servo (@neoluk), Michael Riggs (@mongkolroek) asked me to participate in their web2.0 session on blogging. I always thought that guest appearances were only the prerogative of celebrities… Well, guess what, also development workers can be guest stars!!!

I guess I will never quite make it to Oraph or Larry King's show, but quite frankly I do not know what Oraph or Larry can offer that I was not offered by my hosts. They made me feel just like a star (sounds like the Turkish airline ad, with Kevin Costner).

I was unable to attend in person. Since the session was about Web2.0 tools, we decided to use Skype as our preferred instant messaging tool. Luckily my webcam was working, so we did a video conference and I must admit it felt pretty cool….

I felt like I was being broadcast live on CNN or BBC. The difference was that I had a wonder anchor person by the name of Romolo – who has the most gorgeous voice asking me questions instead of Zeinab Bedawi and her annoying voice…..

I started by sharing my personal experience with blogging, when and why I started blogging – basically it started as a means for letting off steam, sharing my ideas and challenges. I am not an assiduous blogger – that is I do not blog every day – but I try to blog at least once a month.

In my blogging adventures, I was pleasantly surprised when two of my more serious posts were picked up and subsequently published. One is a personal tale (see original blogpost) and the other one (see original blogpost) has now turned to be a solid 'academic' piece which was published in 59th issue Participatory Action and Learning.

We then moved to the blogging experience of my organization - IFAD. I shared with the participants the fact that IFAD President has an internal blog. That won us lots of brownie points. It put my organization light years ahead of others and showed that we are indeed a modern organization.

IFAD's social reporting blog
We talked about IFAD's social reporting blog which now has over 100 posts.

I shared how it all started on a spring morning, when we set it up for an event. In retrospect, it was my easiest projects, as it picked up on its own and the reason of its success was because colleagues immediately saw its value.

For those who could not attend the event, the blog ended up being an invaluable tool. Every morning, they could read about what had happened in the workshop which was held in another continent. It was invaluable, because the blogposts included all relevant information in one single entry (yes, they were great examples of mashup!) – that is powerpoint presentations, videos, photos were all embedded in the blogpost. Truly a one-stop shop!

For those attending the event, and the organizers, it was a great tool, because thanks to their daily reports, they ended up having their final report at the end of the workshop. No extra work needed after the workshop. That was really a treat.

The audience was pleasantly surprised that both members of management and staff alike contribute to the social reporting blog. We recently held a couple of web2.0 briefing sessions and as a result we now have members of our senior management keen to blog.

Guidelines – how about common sense
I was then asked whether we had blogging guidelines for the corporate blog and personal blogs.

I often ask myself why do we need guidelines for common-sense stuff, why do we need to be told what we can and cannot do, if we can use our common sense.

I know, I know, we need guidelines because not everyone may have the same understanding… So yes, I told the audience we have some draft guidelines which we are finalizing.

I really think guidelines kill creativity and innovation. I wish we could live in a world where peer pressure would act as guiding principles.

For example, if I were to do something that the community deems unacceptable, I would much prefer for the community and my peers to point it out to me and help me rectify rather than a lifeless piece of paper telling me what I can and cannot do? After all, community is the foundation of Web2.0 paradigm! Is not it so?

Understanding the psychology
When we embark on new adventures which can rock the boat, we need to understand what goes on in people's heads. Inevitably there is uneasiness, because people feel they may be 'exposed' and/or they are afraid of entering into unchartered territory.

Web2.0 is no different. I was asked whether staff could comment on the President's blog and if so whether comments were anonymous.

When I mentioned that yes staff can comment and comments are not anonymous, although I could not see the audience, I could feel that there was a sense of awe, surprise and also uneasiness.

I must admit, until then I had not realized that the fact that staff feel free to comment and share their ideas on the President's blog shows the organization's maturity and transparency.

At IFAD our the philosophy is that if someone has something to say or ask they also expect to receive an answer. So, if they do not identify themselves, how can they get a response? That makes sense, does not it!

There are risks associated with this – for example someone can criticize or be obnoxious. But that is not necessarily bad, but rather healthy as it is probably something that needs to be dealt with. It is always better to know sooner rather than later if there are seeds of discontent, as this way these can be dealt with as opposed to being complacent and/or be left in the dark and let the discontent grow like a cancer.

My next guest appearance, this time on Twitter
After this first wonderful experience and because I had got a kick out of it, I volunteered to do an encore for the microblogging session.

I owe my entrance in Twitterville to Michael who was instrumental in making me understand the value of microblogging. I will eternally be grateful to him. Recently we did a tweet duet at the World Summit for Information Society Forum 2009. The two of us started twitting away and our enthusiasm ended up being contagious. As a result after the first session we had others tweeting! Sorry for digressing….

Back to the microblogging session…

I was really sorry that this time too I could not be physically present, especially since Peter Casier from WFP (@TheRoadTo) who is a fantastic and active blogger and tweeter was the guest star! Peter is truly exceptional.

I followed what was happening through tweets @neoluk, @TheRoadTo and @mongkolroek tweets. I did tweetvened (intervened via a tweet) by responding to a few questions, and asked my own questions. We also cracked some jokes about @neoluk's new haircut – thanks to the tweet pictures send by @TheRoadTo and @monkolroe. That was really fun and showed the sense of community, collaboration and trust – all pillars of web2.0 and the web2.0 way of life.

It is a challenge for novice twitters to immediately see the benefits and value of microblogging. I hope our tweets helped convert the sceptics. For sure, those more conversed – such as @ICT-KM - got a lot out of it, as they tweeted thanking for all the tweets and said "thanks to your tweets, I felt as if I was there".

In the true spirit of web2.0 – that of reciprocity and giving – we agreed that next time my FAO and WFP colleagues should come to IFAD for similar sessions.

My Web2.0 journey so far has been nothing but fun. It's been fun thanks to wonderful colleagues such as Nancy, Gauri, Luca, Michael, Peter, Lucy and many more who held my hands and showed me the marvels of these tools. You have really made the difference and I will eternally be grateful to each and every one of you.


Monday, 22 June 2009

Knowledge sharing: How can we encourage people to share knowledge without feeling threatened

Quite for sometime I've been thinking what motivates people to create, share and use knowledge?

I believe creating and using knowledge are part and parcel of our life. It is like breathing, we just do IT without realizing that we are doing it, and if we stop doing it we'll put ourselves at risk.

What will happen if you stop breathing? Well, pretty much the same thing may happen when you enter the 'no knowledge zone' and should that happen you should think: "why in heaven's name am I alive?"

I'll use a mundane example to show how we continuously use and create knowledge.

Every day when I am drive to and from work, depending what time I've left the house or the office, I use my traffic knowledge to choose the fastest possible way to get to my final destination. Almost every day by applying my traffic knowledge I end up creating new knowledge. The new knowledge is created simply by refining and/or fine-tuning my existing traffic knowledge, fine tuning actions such as when to change lanes, which traffic lights are to be avoided, depending on the hour of the day, which lane is the fastest etc.

Some time ago, I noticed that on Wednesdays and Thursdays evenings the traffic was heavier on the way home. It did not take too long to figure out that the heavy traffic was because of football matches on those evening were thousands of people commuted from South, East and West to the North of the city.

To avoid being stuck in the traffic jam for hours on end I acted on the newly acquired piece of information and found alternative itineraries. By proactively seeking to understand the cause of the heavy traffic and subsequently acting on what I learnt, I managed to circumvent getting stuck in the traffic.

My overarching motivation was: "getting to my final destination in good time". I could have left hours earlier to get to final destination in good time, which meant less precious sleep time in the morning and in the evening leaving the office at midnight!

But I chose to be efficient and do things in a smarter manner. I used my existing knowledge and my acquired new information, acted upon the newly acquired information to create new knowledge which led me to circumventing being stuck in traffic jams and helped me to get to my final destination in good time. And believe me it was not hard at all.

I believe motivation comes with sense of purpose and need. I can be motivated to drive an F1 car, but since I do not need to drive one, nor will I have the opportunity to do so ever, I can pretty much downgrade my motivation to a dream and concentrate my energies elsewhere!

But nothing prevents me from expanding both my information and knowledge base about cars, F1 and racing and applying the acquired knowledge to driving my battered city car!

So even if we do not have a specific challenge to overcome or issue to resolve, we can still acquire, apply and adapt knowledge and as a result create new knowledge.

Now let's move to what is considered by many as the most challenging knowledge management dimension: sharing knowledge. Let me stay with the traffic story.

Couple of weeks ago one of my friends had to go to my neck of the woods and asked me how to get there. I was faced with numerous options:
  • Share the longest possible way to get there (we've all done this sort of nasty things with people who we do not particularly like)
  • Find out when and what time they have to go and share the quickest possible way to get to their destination
  • Tell them I no longer live in that neighbourhood (typical knowledge hoarding attitude which in real life would translate to: "I do not know", "I do not have time", "this is not your area of expertise, back-off". Most probably we've both been victim of these attitudes and YES – most probably sometime in our life we too have exercised these attitudes)
I opted for the second option and shared my traffic knowledge. The next day we ran into each other and my friend thanked me profusely and I thought to myself, wow, what a nice feeling.

Sharing is the most rewarding and gratifying act in the world, this is why some call it an act of love simply because when you share someone else receives.

When and why do we share?
We tend to share when we come to know of something, when we read or hear of something interesting, when we have an idea, when we are faced with a challenge, when we experience something, when we have aspirations, when we do not know, when we want to show-off and when we are forced to.

Who do we share with?
We share with people who we trust, we share with our community and our peers, we share with those who love us, we share with those who hate us

So what is preventing us from sharing?
And let's not go down the path: "I do not have time to share", as that is a non-starter!

There have been times when I felt intimidated by certain individuals who were in position of power or considered as an opinion leader. As a result if I had something to share, I thought about it twice and 9 times out of ten shied away from sharing it, because I was afraid that what I had to share would be considered either as stupid or arrogant.

9 times out of ten I would have done myself a favour if I had shared my "stupid" and/or "arrogant" knowledge!

Probably most of us have had similar experiences. So, building on own personal experience I have reached the conclusion that often people do not share because they think – or are led to believe – that what they have to share is not worthwhile or is not of a certain calibre.

Another reason why people may resist sharing knowledge is lack of trust. Typically we share knowledge with those who we trust. This is because we know that they will:
  • not laugh at us even if we have something "stupid" to share
  • give us honest and constructive feedback
  • help us earnestly with our challenge
  • put to good use the imparted knowledge

How can we build a trustworthy environment to help a seamless and systematic knowledge sharing?

What I've observed is that people are more willing to share with their closest peers, colleagues and friends. When they collect their courage and decide to come out of their comfort zone and start sharing little titbits with others, they are pleasantly surprised because 9 times out of ten they get kudos. This in turn results in expanding their network, which often has a snowball effect, because like a cool insightful tweet, the expanded network will retweet the piece of knowledge many many times over!

Web2.0 revolution
The Web2.0 wave has revolutionized the way we share knowledge today. First and foremost, while we may have loyal followers and friends we know that we are also reaching out to many others, whom we may or may not know.

Secondly, we seem to be more relaxed vis-à-vis the reaction of people towards what we have to share. For example, for sure there will be some who may find this very blogpost absolutely stupid, but is it preventing me from posting it? NO!! It is not. Would I have shared these very thoughts and ideas in the old way? Probably yes, but only with those who I knew were interested in this topic.

What is different? If you come across this blogpost and after reading the first couple of paragraphs you find it utterly boring, you do not necessarily need to sit politely in a room being subjected to a boring dissertation, but you can simply leave the page and go off to another site. You may go through the hassle of leaving a comment expressing your view about the blogpost – which may be the same as laughing or deriding.

On the other hand, if you find it interesting, you may read it to the very end and who knows you may leave an insightful comment and share your knowledge about this challenge. You may also twit it and/or share the link and lastly you may add yourself as a new follower.

Why is it that I do not think twice about writing and actually posting this long blogpost – which by the way did not quite turn out the way I had originally intended (it does not have the depth I wanted it to have) - but I am willing to share the same thing only with people who are interested in this subject matter?

Is it because there are greater chances that someone who cares about the subject matter may find this useful and provide constructive comment or is it because I feel protected by relative anonymity or is it because I do not care if someone who I do not know nor care about leaves a deriding comment?

Maybe the answer to all the above questions is "Yes". What I've learnt over the years is that as a knowledge practitioner and facilitators we should continuously and relentlessly foster and facilitate knowledge sharing. We can do so by creating a safe and conducive knowledge sharing environment and championing knowledge sharing.

My own knowledge sharing journey was far from an easy ride. Having learnt it the hard way I do not wish it on my worse enemy, so here are three very easy tips which you may wish to take into consideration:
  • do not be put off by "opinionated and influential people"
  • dare to share. Yes sometimes you may be laughed at and criticized. But believe me 9 times out of 10 you will feel highly gratified by sharing your knowledge
  • sharing knowledge – especially sharing development related knowledge - inevitably spearheads something bigger and can contribute to a noble cause.
I now firmly believe in the African proverb: "knowledge is the only form of wealth that grows by sharing". This wonderful proverb has now become my mantra!

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Philanthropy - Give and count the cost

This week's Economist carried an article entitled "Philanthropy - Give and count the cost". I must admit I was surprised by the tone of the article and how the journalist failed to make a distinction between charity and sustainable development, as these two ARE NOT synonymous and should not be confused with each other!

The article reads "Governments hope that charities can fill the gap", but fails to stress that heavy reliance on charities will not bring about sustainable development and will not lead to empowering developing countries to come out of poverty, simply because charities wax and wane.

There is a dire need to increase official development assistance (ODA) to allow reputable development, aid and humanitarian organizations who are equipped to deliver sound and robust development programmes to design programmes with local communities with the aim of bringing about long-term progress and help the marginalized and disadvantaged to come out of poverty in a sustained manner.

The article says that foundations wallet's are bulgy. This may be so - but are their programmes effective and reaching out to those who most need them? And if so where is the evidence, where are the numbers, indicators and impact assessments?

If philanthropists want to have any impact and if they want their good will to be remembered and praised, they need to or rather they have to join forces with development agencies. There are enough of us out there doing development work. More will not be better....

If we really want to help those in need, we need to join forces, build synergies and complement each other as opposed to competing with each other by creating new, unnecessary and ineffective and inefficient structures.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

World Café makes a world of difference

Last night I promised I would write about my World Café experience. As mentioned I had to fight my way to get a World Café session in the agenda. For me what was disconcerting was to come to know that a "KM officer" had indicated that we should not pursue using knowledge sharing methods such as World Café.

I hope by reading the summary of the World Café and listening to some of the participants we collectively manage to convert them!!! There is nothing more gratifying that converting a KM cynic to a KM practitioners.

Read more about the World Café : and a big thank you to my mentors Nancy and Dan

Check out this space to find out how I rewarded the participants. A domani

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Chat show brings about euthanasia of powerpoint presentations

Over the last weeks I've been preparing for a regional KM event in Africa. I had a goal in my head to introduce a number of knowledge sharing methods and tools and more importantly to make sure that the event was an exciting, innovative and "unconventional" event. Some of my partners were on board and welcomed my suggestions. Others wanted to do a "business as usual event", with BORING and DEADLY powerpoint presentations, little or no interaction.

We negotiated and compromised.... So I got to do a chat show and also conduct a world cafe - albeit only with half of the audience - I guess it is better than nothing.

Last night when we did our after action review, it was absolutely rewarding to hear my sceptic and cynical colleagues thanking me for introducing them to this method. The chat show guests had a great time and learnt a lot from each other. The participants came up to me and thanked me for introducing them to this method and said that THEY would be using it in the future.

I was a happy girl!!! It was worth all the trouble. Today I conducted a World Cafe.... Check out the blog for more on that. Now I am going to bed now! It was a long, tiring and yet another rewarding day.

Read more about the chat show at:

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Graffiti the forefather of Web2.0

Many of us associate graffiti with rebellion, poverty, gangs and other urban malaise. We have little or no respect for it, consider it as an eye sore and something that degrades our urban cities.

Recently I got interested in this form of art and did a little research and came to realize that graffiti art has a lot in common with web2.0. OK – you are now thinking I am completely crazy. Maybe! But please read on to find out the reasoning behind this crazy idea.

Web2.0 tools allow us to create an identity for ourselves and to take a social position in the virtual world. Our virtual identity may be something completely different from our real life identity. Well surprise surprise, graffitis do the same thing. Graffiti artists through their art project an alternative image of themselves and construct an identity for themselves by adopting specific style.

As I was reading about this form of art, I came to know that graffiti artists sign their piece of art with a "tag". Yes, with a "tag". In graffiti art, tags correspond to the signature of the artist. Taggers or bombers are known, judged and respected for the quantity of tags they have up. The tag name conveys an attitude and plays an important role in the process of constructing an identity.

Does that sound familiar? Think of your delicious bookmarks, think of all your tags, be it in delicious, twitter or your blog. Do not they tell the others about you – the tags, bookmarks, blogs and tweets you follow give an indication of who you are and what you are interested in.

The first type of known graffiti art dates back to 1st century in Pompei, so this means that tagging existed well before Web2.0. As the French say: "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"!

Web2.0 is based on collaboration and also competition. Well this is incredibly similar to how graffiti artists work, because their work too is based both on collaboration and competition which leads to the creativity of graffiti art. In other words someone starts a creative piece of work and others tag along, complement it, add to it, change it… it is work in progress. Is not this the underlying philosophy of wikis and wikipedia?

Graffiti art and Web2.0 are based on eternally ongoing conversations. Is not true that we continuously tweet, we keep blogging, we comment on other people's blog posts, we comment on articles posted in the on-line media, we add to and enhance our favourite social networking site…what we are doing is having conversations with a crowd and this conversation never comes to an end and is continues to be work in progress

Web2.0 paradigm and tools are allowing those with access to internet to have a voice. As a result we have the privilege of hearing the voices of a crowd and benefitting from a wide variety of opinions, views and insights. We are no longer confined to hearing just the voice of a select few, but we can actually choose who we want to listen to.

Graffiti artists like bloggers, tweeters and social network freaks have their own criteria for judging the quality and effectiveness of their contribution. Graffiti artists compete with each other because they are in search of respect, recognition, want to make a name for themselves – in other words they are looking for their 15 minutes of fame…. It is subculture fuelled by competition and divided by status.

Is not this somewhat similar to the number of followers on blogs, twitter, friends on facebook, number connections on linkedin? Is not similar to whether Technorati has ranked your blog as an authority or not?

Graffiti artists are underground celebrities, just as famous bloggers or tweet freaks are virtual celebrities. Couple of years ago I met one of these virtual celebrities in person. I tell you, it was as if I had met Brad Pitt. I was so excited and felt honoured and privileged to have a 30 minute conversation with this famous blogger and as result I missed my photo opportunity!

While it is true that graffitis date back to 1st century, however as a form of art it was never mainstreamed and continues to have a life on the "fast-lane". Web2.0 on the other hand is becoming more and more mainstream. While this may be good from certain aspects, it is not good from other aspects, as it may end up stifling creativity and risk become bland and no more cutting edge and we may risk giving up "life on the fast track" for something mundane.

Our challenge is to make sure the Web2.0 paradigm continues to live on the "fast lane" so that it can continue to foster creativity and create bigger and better opportunities for collaboration, competition and innovation.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Appreciative leadership

I've been fascinated by appreciative inquiry and appreciative leadership. Earlier this year, I wrote about Benjamin Zander wonderful gig "Art of possibility" at Davos. Earlier this month, I witnessed a great example of appreciative leadership - in the speech delivered by IFAD's President Mr Kanayo F Nwanze.

Why are these two episodes different from the traditional leadership we are used to?

Traditionally leaders are seen as problem solvers. As problem solvers, leaders are usually at least two steps distant and removed from the problem, which means often their "solution" does not work. This is why there is a lot of value for organizations to embrace appreciative leadership paradigm.

This paradigm calls for leaders relying on people who do the job to find solutions to problems. An appreciative leader is one who focuses on solutions rather than problems. He/she sees the glass half full, emphasizes on things that are right and builds on these.

As KM practitioners we say: "knowledge is the only form of wealth that grows by sharing". Well, appreciative leadership says that what ever we pay attention to grows, that is to say, when we pay attention to something, we are investing in it therefore it grows. An appreciative leader builds on strengths.

Appreciative leaders:
  • Build common vision where one is currently lacking
  • Create openness and rapport between people and groups who don't trust each other
  • Develop new approaches to human resource issues that will be well accepted by organizational members and lead to positive change
  • Create a positive work climate where a negative one previously prevailed
  • Discover, understand and amplify the positive forces already existing in organizations
  • Accelerate the development of new teams

I believe embracing this paradigm is not rocket science. When there is a will there is away. We can all do and by embracing this paradigm we will contribute to transform our workplace for better. For sure I'll give it a shot and will be sharing my challenges and successes.

Monday, 16 March 2009

KM self-assessment

Last week I used Geoff Parcell's KM self-assessment tool to assess the KM maturity level of my organization. I have documented the entire process, namely the three separate sessions with different audiences, the wrap-up session with our KM champion and a summary explaining the process and how we customized the tool. If you happen to have conducted the self-assessment using this tool I would love to hear your views and experiences.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Mobile phones: the silver bullet to bridge the digital divide?

Dear reader, you may also wish to read the sequel to this blogpost: Enough with pilots, lets’ get serious and start investing in m-development and m-applications

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that there are 3.3 billion mobile subscribers. The vast majority of these mobile users never part from their ubiquitous mobile phone. For those living in developed countries, the mobile phone started off as a status symbol and a cool gadget to have. Today, however, the mobile phone is also our mobile office. It is our oxygen, our livelihoods, an object that is more than an object; it is an extension of ourselves. If we happen to "forget" our mobile phone, we feel completely lost and disoriented. This is because our little hand-held device has our daily appointments, our address book, our emails, photos of our children, our favourite music and allows us to access the internet.

The mobile phone is also the lifeline and an equally important source of livelihood for our brothers and sisters in developing countries. It has revolutionized the lives of millions of urban and rural poor by connecting and involving them in viable economic activities.

Mobile telephony is a success story because the handset is an affordable, scalable, self-sustaining and empowering tool which is paving the way for men and women to achieve socio-economic goals and provide food security to their family. It is a tool that provides a wide range of services at a reasonably low cost.

It is a success because it is providing timely, localized and relevant access to knowledge which in turn has led to reducing production and transaction costs. For example, poor rural people use mobile telephony to get commodity price information via Short Message Service (SMS), gather market intelligence and find out the market needs so that they can make “targetted” trips and save on travel and transportation costs.

As the predominant mode of communication in developing countries, it has contributed substantively to the reduction of the digital divide, something other ICTs such as computers did not manage to achieve. They are definitely more appealing a more viable tool than the $100 laptop. And they are the only ICT sector where developing countries are catching up with and in some cases overtaking developed countries.

Mobile phone revolution: The numbers speak for themselves
"Every generation needs a new revolution.” Thomas Jefferson

Mobile phone revolution is our generation's revolution and it has changed our culture, economy, social and political lives. As such it has a promising future to become the first universally accessible Information Communication Technology (ICTs).

It is a unique revolution because:
  • first and foremost it is truly global and not limited to a specific country, region or sub-region
  • secondly it has been a catalyst for unprecedented global economic and social benefits
  • thirdly because it is global revolution, it is becoming more and more accessible to the marginalized and less advantaged segment of population
  • last but not least, it is an early example of mash-up[1] when this term did not even exist, as it is a perfect marriage between telephone and radio. The third and fourth generation phones are a living example of mash-up as they are an integrated platform offering content and telecom services. Gone are the days of carrying a beeper, a phone, a camera and a walk-man.
Some argue that new ICTs such as mobile telephony contribute to increasing the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots". One could strongly argue that this is not the case.

Statistics show that 3.3 billion people, 50% of the world population, is a mobile subscriber against 1.3 billion internet users. Recent estimates show that while 6.5% of people in Africa are internet users, 280.7 million people or 30% of the population in Africa is a mobile subscriber. According to ITU between 2000 and 2006 the number of mobile subscribers increased more than 12 times. ITU estimates show that today approximately 72.1% of total global telephone subscribers are mobile subscribers.

In Africa, many countries have completely skipped the land line and have moved directly to mobile telephony. This makes mobile technology the first modern telecommunications infrastructure of any kind in this continent.

For example, a country like Eritrea with a GNI per capita of US$170 has 37,400 fixed line subscribers against 84,300 mobile subscribers. At the same time, certain regions of the country such as Gash Barka region which was adversely affected by the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea and is still struggling to provide its population with access to utilities such as electricity and water is benefitting from the mobile revolution.

Early November 2008 when I was in Eritrea I visited the Gash Barka region and its capital Barentu which is known to be the centre of mining and agriculture. During a field visit to a spate irrigation[2] site under the IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development in a remote and isolated area I stood in awe and in a state of shock when the mobile phone of the extension worker and a herder started ringing.

I did not recall seeing any towers on the way to the field, and surely there were no towers in sight. However, there was reception and the herder and extension worker were able to communicate. The extension worker imparted some technical information to his colleague and the herder inquired about the possibility of taking cattle on Monday to Asmara livestock market.
The above anecdotal example shows how those previously excluded because of lack of infrastructure can now take an active part in improving their livelihoods thanks to the affordable and different pricing schemes of mobile services.

The uptake of mobile phones is leading to the demise of telecentres
The mobile revolution has made telecentres a 20th century artefact and redundant. The telecentre movement in late 20th century aimed to provide a platform and a place for people to be exposed to, learn and use ICTs. A number of donors embarked on the telecentre movement with the vision of bridging the digital divide. Donor funded telecentres offered computing services and later moved on to provide internet services. In some countries such as India, the telecentres blended ICT services with agriculture and husbandry services. For example, farmers or herders would bring in their crop or sick livestock head to the telecentres. They would connect on-line with an expert and use webcam to show their sick animal or crop and get advice from the expert.

However, telecentres in developing countries faced a number of challenges. Since their objective was to provide ICT services to the marginalized segment of population, telecentres were located in isolated and remote areas. This meant that providing basic ICT in terms of infrastructure and connectivity was costly. Secondly given their remote locations servicing the equipment posed a challenge on its own. That is, when a computer broke down it took weeks before it was fixed as this required someone skilled from the closest town to make a visit to the remote telecentre. Thirdly, since the telecentres were to serve an entire village, they were located strategically to serve an entire village or community, this however meant that villagers had to walk for kilometres to reach the closest telecentre. More importantly the sustainability of telecentres posed the biggest challenge. As a result when the donor-funded project came to an end or funds started to dwindle, the telecentres gradually turned into shabby shacks with broken and/or obsolete equipment.

The emergence of new and more affordable forms of ICTs such as mobile telephony and the proliferation of new incarnations of telecentres such as internet cafes has led to the decline of telecentres. Secondly the telecentre model does not offer the same level of entrepreneurship growth that mobile telephony offers as it does not quite create the subsidiary employment opportunities such as selling pre-paid cards, renting out the handset, recharging battery services and other types of subsidiary services that mobile telephony is offering.

With a mobile handset in the vicinity poor rural women and men have little or no incentive to walk for kilometres to get to a telecentre. What has happened is that they have simultaneously bypassed the landline, the laptop and the need to connect to the internet.

Rural connectivity: a revolution within a revolution when mobile phone plays a catalytic role in development and eradicating rural poverty
Seventy-five per cent of the world's poorest people - 1.05 billion women, children and men - live in rural areas and depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods. Conventional wisdom would lead us to believe that for them mobile phone is a luxury. And guess what? We are wrong!

A recent World Bank study states that "there is a myth that the rural poor are not able or not willing to pay for mobile telecommunication services". Mobile phone's accessibility has allowed previously marginalized groups such as women, landless workers, herders, fishers, small-scale farmers, indigenous peoples and illiterates with no access to basic services to take an active part in the economic and social spheres of their communities. This social and economic inclusion has led to the willingness of poor rural households to spend 4-8% of their income on mobile telephony.

The mobile telephony revolution is contributing substantially to achieving the targets of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)[3], especially MDG1 "Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" and more specifically to the target of "Halving, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day by 2015". Africa may be lagging behind on a number of MDGs, however, if back in 2000 world leaders had established an MDG similar to "Achieving universal primary education" (MDG2) for mobile telephony called "Achieving universal access" Africa would have met the targets with flying marks.

Mobile phone growth drivers: A unique business model
A number of enabling socio-economic and political conditions such as ease of use, liberalization of the telecom sector and prepaid services have contributed to the expansion and popularity of mobile telephony in rural areas of developing countries.

Firstly compared to a computer, a mobile phone is much easier to use and requires little or no special skills. Add to this practical detail the low penetration rates[4]; shorter payback period on investment both for the private and/or public sector investor and the farmer and low installation costs gives you a win-win situation.

How new technology can strengthen rural
An innovative new technology is radically improving trading opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses in Africa, and elsewhere. Tradenet is a privately-operated market information system based in West Africa. It links to cellular networks to provide up-to-the-minute market information via SMS.
Increasingly, the private sector is moving in to manage providing market information to farmers. Tradenet is one such enterprise. Although still in its infancy, it already covers 15 countries and 500 markets, and is available to users anywhere in the world. It offers a range of information that is key to producers, processors and others working along the supply chain: from updates about prices, harvests, transport, trading offers, disease outbreaks, weather and more. is using the market as a venue to raise awareness about its services. Tradenet agents set up kiosks in the markets and offer market information advice, register people for the service and configure alerts on people's phone. also uses a new peer2peer technology which allows users to share their resources – in this case information – to create a service. And links the vast and growing database of market information to cellular networks.

Furthermore, the liberalization of the telecom sector supported by sound regulatory mechanisms have opened the market to competition and allured the private sector to invest in developing countries. This in turn has spearheaded an increased competition among different operators. In some African countries the consumers can choose between 2 or more mobile operators. As a result consumers are choosing the benefitting from the best services at the best possible rates.

The liberalization schemes hand-in-hand with relatively economical handsets and options such as pre-paid services have led to an exponential growth in the mobile sector making mobile telephony more accessible to the marginalized rural population.

Pre-paid services were embraced with open arms both in developed and developing countries. In Africa pre-paid subscriptions accounts for 95% of total mobile subscriptions.

The pre-paid or "pay as you use" business model is attractive for poor rural people because of the numerous advantages it offers. Unlike the fixed-line model, this model does not require any formal registration and there is no waiting list. Furthermore, the user does not need to submit financial and physical data and he/she can control costs, especially when savings and incomes are low. And most importantly there is no need to present a credit history, as the pre-paid service reaches out to the "unbankable".

The 2007 World Resource Institute (WRI) and International Finance Corporation (IFC) study - "The Next 4 Billion" – provides interesting insight on ICT expenditure as percentage of household expenditure. It shows that "low-income" does not mean "no income" and highlights how expenditure on ICTs and mobile telephony while varying from one country to another are consistently increasing.

Innovative use of mobile telephony brings economic prosperity and to poor rural people
A 2005 London Business School study found that “for every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people, a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) rises 0.5 percent”.

For the 1.05 billion rural poor people living on US$1.25 or less, the mobile phone is far from being a flashy gadget but represents a viable way for improving their lives. For them mobile telephony has turned out to be a catalyst for economic growth by enabling small entrepreneurs to have direct access to market intelligence, by providing employment opportunities in the tertiary and service sectors, creating opportunities for public and private sector to invest and modernize infrastructure.

Mobile telephony is providing poor rural people with a point of contact allowing them to take part in the economic system and enter in the job market. It has allowed small businesses - previously excluded - to participate in the economic system. According to the 2005 Vodafone study:
  • More than 85% of small businesses run by black people, surveyed in South Africa, rely solely on mobile phones for telecommunications. 15% of these businesses previously had no access to telephony. Over the last decade the number of businesses using mobile phone in South Africa as increased by nearly 125%
  • In Egypt 90% of informal sector covering a wide range of small retail, small manufacturing and service activities relies exclusively on mobile telephony
    62% of businesses in South Africa, and 59% in Egypt, said mobile use was linked to an increase in profits
  • 97% of people surveyed in Tanzania said they could access a mobile phone, while just 28% could access a land line phone.
For producers access to reliable market information is a key ingredient to increase incomes. In the past they relied on governments to provide market information. Today agricultural markets are far from being well organized and transaction chains are long, while the volumes of goods are often small and of varied quality, and prices are highly unstable.

For example, the fishers of the Tamarin community under the IFAD-funded Rural Diversification Programme on the island of Mauritius do not have direct access to the fish market and as a result are excluded from the market. However, they use their mobile phones to inform buyers of their daily catch and to take orders. This way they do not over fish and are sure that they will sell their daily catch. This has led not only to economic efficiencies but also to protecting the fish stock which in turn has a positive impact on the lagoon's ecosystem. At the same time, the fishers use their mobile phone to keep in touch with their families, something that previously they could not do, and to get weather updates.

Furthermore, small producers trading in rural areas in Africa, face enormous challenges such as lack access to reliable and up-to-date market information, lack of transportation infrastructure and competition.

Without market information, small producers are vulnerable to unscrupulous traders and middle-men giving them prices at below-market rates. This may lead the producers to be reluctant to diversify into different products for fear of not finding a profitable market for their output.

The relatively affordable air-time of mobile phones has made transfer and exchange of knowledge easy and affordable. For example, in many parts of the world, mobile phones are used to disseminate a wide variety of information ranging from market information to weather forecasts. This information dissemination happens either through structured services and subscriptions such as and Zambia SMS Market Information Service or through unstructured and informal use of mobile phone. Information dissemination is also happening by blending the formal and informal services as is the case of First Mile project in Tanzania (see examples below). These services provide a wide variety of SMS services ranging from commodity price to harvest tips, information on disease outbreaks, weather reports, transport and trading offers.

As a result poor rural people can use their mobile phone both to directly communicate with buyers and also to access commodity prices via SMS.

World economists may be busy understanding the full impact of the current financial crisis, but they are equally struggling to calculate the macroeconomic impact of mobile revolution.

New employment opportunities
Mobile phones have also spearheaded a host of new and innovative income generating activities, such as small businesses to recharge batteries, sellers of prepaid cards, renting out phones and/or air-time for 2 euro cents per call and other services such as reading and sending SMS message.

In Africa and other parts of the world, occasional labourers put up ads in a village centre with mobile number to offer services, or when they register at unemployment centre they provide their mobile number to get job alerts via SMS. The job alerts can be both through subscription or free of charge. Mobile phones have led to minimizing travel costs allowing people to move when there is a concrete economic opportunity.

Cellular banking: the bank of the "unbankables"
It did not take too long for poor rural people to figure out that the mobile phone could be used for a host of other things than just talking. Thanks to their ingenuity and inventiveness they are using mobile phone in the financial and health sector. For example, the mobile phone is used as a bank to provide financial services to millions of poor rural people who send money home and to deliver micro-credit loans to poor where there are no banking facilities. Mobile phones are now providing "cellular banking" to the "unbankable" clients. They are also being used to provide medical services such using SMS to remind patients of medical appointments, children's vaccination or to take their medication to remote villages. Mobile phone is also being used to disseminate information about sexually transmitted diseases and to monitor patients. For example, diabetic patients to record their blood sugar and send the information via SMS to the medical centre.

Social cohesiveness and sense of community
What we see in rural areas of developing countries is a sense of community. It is common for one person or a group of people within a community owning a handset to rent it to other community members along with reading and writing text message services.

From a social networking perspective mobile phones have had a positive psychological impact on families, as connectivity has allowed families and the diaspora to keep in touch. Anthropologists like Dr Mirjam de Bruijn are intrigued by the way mobile users in developing countries have invented mechanisms such as "beeping", "bipage" or "flashing" as codes to alert someone else to call them. Mobile providers are equally struggling to make money by working around the ingenuity and inventiveness of poor rural people.

How can ICTs help poor rural people?
ICTs can help poor rural people if the focus is on people and their needs and not on the technology. They can be vital for reducing rural poverty and can improve rural livelihoods only if they are appropriate, sensible and meet the requirements of poor rural people so that as a tool they can increase their bargaining and purchasing power.

ICTs and more specifically mobile telephony can continue to contribute to MDG1 targets if we use participatory approaches, as outlined in the examples below, to find out and understand the needs and challenges of poor rural people, if national poverty reduction strategies systematically include adoption of appropriate ICTs, if there is a commitment to build the capacity of communities and local organization to lead and own the process of appropriation and if there is blending of old and new technology to create a three-tier system of public, private and community.

The uptake of technology can only be successful if it is demand-driven and responds to the needs of beneficiaries. The following examples show how farmers participated in identifying and defining their needs and how together with donors and other stakeholders they developed mechanisms to exploit and unleash the power of mobile phones. This participatory approach allowed farmers to actively take part not only in the design but also take responsibility in implementing the various projects and activities.

Examples of mobile telephony in action
The small-scale farmers of the Boane association under the IFAD-funded Agricultural Markets Support Programme (PAMA) in Mozambique needed a market outlet to sell its products. Together with the PAMA programme they worked towards achieving this goal. Today they are in business with Shoprite, Africa's largest food retailer. They take orders from Shoprite and once they have harvested the crops ordered by Shoprite, they use their mobile phones to inform the fruit and vegetable manager of Shoprite, to send the truck to pick up the ordered tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages and lettuce.

The IFAD-supported Smallholder Enterprise and Marketing Programme (SHEMP) in Zambia and the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) identified the need to provide market intelligence to farmers. To respond to this need, they introduced an innovative, simple and cost-effective way to address accessing commodity prices. Under its agribusiness component (one of three components, alongside road access and group formation), it put in place an SMS Market Information Service in cooperation with ZNFU. To ensure good governance and provide equitable, fair and transparent services, the Farmers Union developed a code of conduct outlining the expectations and rules of engagements for farmers, traders, processors, buyers and ZNFU agents. It also provides detailed contact information to report irregularities.

The service provides weather information, business news, up-to-date market prices, listing buyers for 14 major commodities in a cost-effective, accessible and reliable manner.

The SMS system, which was launched in August 2006, is simple to use. To obtain the best prices for a commodity, farmers simply send an SMS message to 4455 containing the first four letters of the commodity name. Within seconds, they receive a text message with the best prices by buyer using abbreviated buyers’ codes.

If a farmer wishes to get best prices in a specific district or province, he or she simply includes the province/district code after the commodity code.

After selecting the buyer that best suits their needs, farmers can send a second SMS message with the abbreviated buyer’s code again to 4455. A text message is sent back with the contact name and phone number of the buyer, the full name and address of the company and simple directions for reaching both. Farmers are then able to phone the contact and start trading. The farmers pay US$0.15 for each text message.

While the system is easy to use, extension workers are also providing backstopping to farmers in terms of training and capacity building so that they can effectively use the system. The system is also supported by the website, for those who have Internet access.

This market intelligence system is continuously gaining popularity and is empowering the farmers to negotiate their deals by offering time-sensitive knowledge and at the same time it is fostering transparency in pricing.

SHEM and ZNFU estimate that each training session results in approximately 15% increase in SMS exchanges. Over 100 traders and processors are now providing weekly price updates. The hits on the website and number of SMS messages are continuously increasing. For example in 2007 during the period February-June 520 weekly SMS were exchanged, while between July and August over 1220 weekly SMS message were exchanged. Smallholders today have the necessary knowledge to know what to grow, where to sell their products and at what price.

The better serve the Zambian farmers and to make this system the most reliable information source SHEMP and the Zambia National Farmers team continuously are ensuring that prices are updated on a daily and weekly basis. At the same time they are ensuring not to add too many secondary information services which can led to confusion and disorient the users.

To ensure sustainability they are anchoring the management of the system in local institutions and at the same time conducting public advocacy activities to attract corporate sponsorships.

The farmers' inventiveness has spearheaded another phenomenon, namely blending old and new technology. Poor farmers in Tanzania under the First Mile Project which is supported by the Government of Switzerland and implemented in collaboration with the Government of Tanzania’s and the IFAD-funded Agricultural Marketing Systems Development Programme (AMSDP) are using mobile phones to access market information in real time. Market 'spies', known locally as shu shu shus, investigate prices and the details of what is selling at local markets, and use their mobile phones to report back to their villages. The commodity prices are then transcribed on village billboards and also broadcast on radio. Thanks to a partnership with soon they will be able to use their phone to access more market information. The blending of old and new technology is helping the farmers build better and more collaborative market chains from producer to consumer.

The last big push to make mobile phones universally accessible
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop", Confucius

The world has embarked on the mobile journey and it can only go forward! By now policy makers should have enough evidence that of all ICTs, mobile phone has the best potential to stimulate growth in developing countries and that investing in mobile services brings about economic and social development.

By the same token phone manufacturers and service providers have enough evidence that the poorest people have turned out to be one of their biggest markets. Development agencies equally have acquired enough evidence that mobile telephony has not only helped bridge the digital divide but has been a catalyst to eradicate rural poverty, improve livelihoods of the marginalized and poor segment of the population.

According to the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), approximately 1.5 billion mobile users in developing countries have little or limited access to formal financial services. Furthermore, since there is limited formal banking infrastructure in developing countries, there are fewer options to transfer money and access banking services. CGAP argues that mobile phone has the potential to provide a low-cost alternative to banking via internet or ATM or point-of-sale. Their experiments show that setting up point-of-sale with cell phone can lead to cutting cost by 50%. Microcredit and microfinance institutions have enough evidence to unleashing the potential of cellular banking such and start creating "branchless banking channels using mobile phones".

To truly make mobile telephony the first universal access ICT there is a need to:

  • put in place sound ICT policy in collaboration with government, civil society, private sector actors and the consumers
  • invest more in mobile infrastructures and services in rural and disadvantaged areas
    strengthen the capacity of rural entrepreneurs and farmers' organizations to better exploit the potential of mobile phones
  • deliver relevant and timely content and further develop peer-to-peer information systems
    reduce both airtime and handset price
  • put in place better and enabling regulations to allow mobile services to thrive and expand
And last but not least to get the full picture and really appreciate the power and potential of this revolution, there is also a need for the mobile sector to capture what official statistics are unable to capture, namely the "informal use" of mobile phones – that is those sharing a subscription within a community.

Given the conducive environment, it should not take too long before private-public sector join forces and start producing the $10 handset with the vision of producing in the next couple of years the $1 handset and reduce airtime cost by using new technology such as voice over internet protocol (VoIP). And yes this can be done through a joint private-public and community partnership.

Useful links

[1] According to Wikipedia, mashup is a derivative work consisting of two pieces of media conjoined together.
[2] Spate irrigation is a type of water management, that is used in semi-arid environments. It is used in the Middle East, North and East Africa, West Asia, and parts of Latin America. In spate irrigation flood water from mountain catchments is diverted from river beds (wadi’s) and spread over large areas.
[3] In September 2000, world leaders came together at United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of time-bound targets - with a deadline of 2015 - that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The 8 MDGs are: (1) MDG1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, (2) MDG2: Achieve universal primary education; (3) MDG3: Promote gender equality and promote women; (4) MDG4: Reduce child mortality; (5) MDG5: Improve maternal health; (6) MDG6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; (7) MDG7: Ensure environmental sustainability and (8) MDG8: Develop a global partnership for development
[4] Mobile phone penetration rate is a term used to describe the number of active mobile phone numbers (usually as a percentage) within a specific population.