Tuesday 19 November 2013

New Forms of Communication for Scaling Re-greening


Recharging a mobile phone in a village without electricity


If we want to accelerate the scaling of re-greening by smallholder farmers we need new forms of communication. The challenge for the next few years is to equip smallholders with knowledge that allows them to build new agroforestry systems or to improve existing agroforestry systems by increasing tree densities or by introducing new species.  If tens of millions of smallholder farmers will be motivated to invest in trees, then we can re-build resilience of farming systems, improve food security and reduce rural poverty to mention just some of the impacts.  Knowledge building and knowledge sharing is vital, but more is needed. We also need enabling national policies and legislation that enable farmers to invest in trees. This will be the theme of a next update. The focus of this re-greening update will be on the role and potential contribution of new forms of communication.    
If we look at re-greening successes in the Sahel, the spread of agroforestry can largely be attributed to the exchange of local knowledge amongst a growing number of farmers.  Many NGOs and projects organize farmer-to-farmer visits to promote sharing of knowledge and experience between farmers. Besides this, farmers are no fools. They observe what their neighbors and other farmers are doing and if they are convinced by what they see, they will begin applying it on their own fields. The challenge is how can we accelerate the sharing of knowledge and information between smallholder farmers in a cost-effective way?  There will always be a need for farmer-to-farmer visits, so farmers can see for themselves what other farmers have achieved who farm under similar circumstances, but what more can be done?  For example, how can mobile phones be used for knowledge sharing and can they be linked to community radios?  What role can be played by the internet in regions where the majority of smallholder farmers do not read or write?  

The Web Alliance for Re-greening in Africa (www.w4ra.org)

In 2009, VU University Amsterdam decided to give an honorary PhD to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web.  This inspired the Network Institute of VU University to create a “Web Alliance for re-greening in Africa” (W4RA) and to explore possibilities in the Sahel for developing a project linking mobile telephony with community radio stations and the web.
The first step was to undertake field visits to Burkina Faso and Mali to meet with farmers, NGOs, radio stations and mobile phone companies to review experiences, needs and possibilities.  They wanted their project to be grounded in field realities. One of the realities is that most farmers have simple mobile phones without internet access. And most farmers don’t use SMS because they don’t read or write. The literacy issue is especially important for women as many are still quite constrained in their access to education.  The variety of regional languages also makes communication a challenge. However, many farmers in the region like to share information about their experience or to get information about prices on different local markets. Any useful method for sharing information will have to use voice as means for communication. 

The team of VU Network Institute in Burkina Faso in September 2009 grounding themselves in ICT realities. From left to right: farmer innovator Ousséni Kindo, Mathieu Ouedraogo (Réseau MARP), Wendelien Tuijp (CIS-VU), Anna Bon (CIS-VU), Prof. Hans Akkermans (VU Network Institute) and Prof. Saa Dittoh (University of Development studies, Ghana).

The team of VU Network Institute in Burkina Faso in September 2009 grounding themselves in ICT realities.  From left to right: farmer innovator Ousséni Kindo, Mathieu Ouedraogo (Réseau MARP), Wendelien Tuijp (CIS-VU), Anna Bon (CIS-VU), Prof. Hans Akkermans (VU Network Institute) and Prof. Saa Dittoh (University of Development studies, Ghana). 

Supported by EU funding staff of the Network Institute and the World Wide Web Foundation and African partners (including, for instance, SahelECO in Mali, community radio stations and farmer organisations in Mali; and Reseau MARP in Burkina Faso) jointly developed what they called the VOICES project(www.mvoices.eu).

To quote an early information leaflet: “Today, the vast majority of households in the Sahel have mobile phones. And nearly everyone owns a radio or has access to one. The radio is a great source of community information, broadcasting programs for farmers in local languages. Combining existing radio content with novel ways for voice-based access and other mobile Web services enables an increase in the speed of knowledge sharing among farmers, families and communities”.

All voice-based services developed in this W4RA-VOICES project are delivered as open-source components that can be downloaded, used, modified and further developed by local or global entrepreneurs or ICT developers. All new methodologies, services and software components and related knowledge are transferred to local innovators who are interested to further the web of voices to the benefit of farmers and their re-greening efforts and many other people in developing regions.

From left to right: Bakory Dembélé (Radio Moutian), Amadou Tangara (SahelECO), Gustave Dakoro (Radio Moutian) and Mary Allen (SahelECO). Watch their t-shirts.  


The process: developing local language support
 Illiteracy and language can be barriers to communication and knowledge sharing. To make the project relevant for local stakeholders, the team developed specific language packs for two local languages in Mali: Bambara and Bomu, enabling voice-based services for these languages. Information, such as market prices of agricultural products, is often available in the form of text. Even though most farmers in Mali use mobile phones they can’t access SMS-based services because of illiteracy. W4RA-VOICES developed several voice-based systems to enable farmers accessing information. For such information to be useful in voice services, the text must be “read out” as speech.

Text-to-speech systems are used for this purpose. However, the development of a full-fledged Text-to-speech system is an expensive and resource-intensive process. Text-to-speech is usually not available in African languages. Therefore, a methodology was developed to create language packs for these African languages. This enabled the project to develop market-price readers in Bambara, Bomu and West-African French. Surveys have shown that first-language speakers find the systems easy to understand and acceptably natural. This enables the cost-effective development of voice-based services for other regions of Africa. At the request of the local communities, the current services use familiar local voices, which were recorded in Mali. The collection of speech data from several speakers is a crucial and logistically complicated aspect of what is called the development of Automatic Speech Recognition especially in places without internet access.
When using a voice service, it is natural for users to provide information by speech. Automatic speech recognition is used to perform the speech-understanding task. But there are no Automatic Speech Recognition systems for numerous local African languages, which is why we have created our own system, using open source tools along with speech data and other resources that were collected in Mali. The French telecom company Orange is one of the partners in VOICES. They contributed Emerginov, which is open source software, which enables the development of voice-based applications using mobile phones or the web. This open source software enables local ICT entrepreneurs to create new knowledge sharing solutions.

Three major products

1.     Voice-based market information system

The first system built by W4RA-VOICES is known as “Radio Marché” (or ‘market radio’). Radio Marché is a mobile voice Service for Market Information supporting farmers in the Tominian region in Mali. It supports agricultural value chains by delivering market information and simplifying the trading of goods in the region. Radio Marché is based on a combination of cell phone, voice and web technologies, and has been designed to automatically generate voice messages containing market information that can be broadcast over the radio.
Radio Marché was developed in close collaboration with local farmers and is designed to serve local needs. Radio Marché can be accessed via voice or web, using either simple mobile phone or internet. It interacts with community radio stations that broadcast the farmer’s product offerings. Currently, Radio Marché distributes market information in three languages: French, Bambara and Bomu.

2.     Tabale: a system to organize meetings efficiently and at low cost

Another example of a voice-based service that was developed is named “Tabale” and is used to send voice-based invitations to a number of people each in their own language. Tabale in Mali is the King’s drum beaten by a messenger to gather people for important occasions in the village.  If an NGO wants to organize a meeting, participants are notified by the Tabale voice message about the event, its time and venue. Each person receives the message in his or her own language. The service is very efficient and saves a lot of work and time.  Tabale can be used to send group messages to 50 phone numbers simultaneously. It enables the participants to reply and leave a voice message that is stored and can be accessed later.

3.     Foroba Blon: a system to develop citizen or village journalism

A voice-based information system for African community radio is named ‘Foroba Blon’.  In Bambara this means a space where everyone has the right to speak, and the truth must be told respectfully. For people in rural Africa, community radio is an essential and often exclusive source of information. Radio stations serve as information hubs, relay news, and share knowledge in the community. The Foroba Blon system, which has won the 2011 International Press Institute News Contest, shares technologies with Radio Marché. In this system, the voice platform is used to improve radio journalism in Mali. It allows radio staff as well as citizen journalists to call in and leave spoken reports from the field for the radio stations. The reports can then be accessed, broadcast and shared through both a web- and a voice-based interface.

Testimonies from local stakeholders in Mali
Zakary Diarra (farmer and beekeeper) collects offerings of honey from neighboring farmers to aggregate them into group supply. Using the voice-based service, the supply  of honey and shea butter can easily be broadcast on the local radio. Here is Zakary's opinion about Radio Marché:
 “My income from the sale of honey has almost doubled in one year.. I have more food stability than before this project, as I am now able to pay schooling for my four children and I could even buy a cart and a donkey last year. Without this project, I would be doing mainly regular farming, and I would have missed this great opportunity of becoming an entrepreneur and really selling honey. I am also determined to expand the number of beehives, and I advise others in the village to do the same, so that we as a group can meet the customers’ high demand, and increase our honey production and the volume of our sales.” “I am very pleased with this trading service of Radio Marché, which improved confidence and collaboration between honey producers and sellers. I am also pleased to be a contact person for the Radio Marché trading system, as this role is highly appreciated in my village. Some people now call me "Sozakary", which means "Zakary of Honey".
Naomi Dembelé, is among the many women from the village of Sira producing shea butter. Thanks to this Radio Marché trading-system we, the women who produce shea butter, are known throughout the country, and whenever there is a demand for shea nuts, people will come to me. I am proud that I am known across the country.”
Alou Dolo, developer at the ICT enterprise Yeleman in Bamako, Mali, had this to say about the W4RA-VOICES service Tabale: “When is the system free and available for everybody? I can see possibilities not only for organizations in rural areas, but also for organizations in urban settings.”

A journalist from a small community radio in Mali
Adama Tessougué is a journalist at Radio Sikidolo in Konobougou, a small village about 150 km east of Bamako in a rural region of Mali. Adama’s voice is famous as he informs and entertains at least 50.000 listeners in the 39 surrounding villages every day. “Informer sans déformer” which means "to inform without deforming", is written on the walls of the narrow corridor where we meet Adama and his colleagues. 
Radio Sikidolo has no fixed internet connection.  Adama Tessougue can check his email using a mobile internet connection, but this is very expensive. He pays a fee per minute online - so he accesses the web only now and then. Its high costs are another hurdle for people in Konobougou to use the Web.
Adama works with fifty independent citizen journalists, reporting news from the surrounding villages. They collect announcements and report the local breaking news: weddings, funerals, parties, accidents, lost cows and goats.  These voice microblogs are sent to the radio by mobile phone.
Some news items broadcast by Sikidolo are of interest to regional or national news providers. If others want to access news from radio Sikidolo, they can do so using Foroba Blon. Thus by bringing the micro-blogging service online, and allowing people to share voice-based resources, this may eventually become Web of Radios

How can this Web of Voices help spread re-greening and related activities?
The regional and the community radio stations can be used to spread information about farmer experience with re-greening. This can be achieved by giving  (a platform?) to farmers in their local language (or “a means for farmers to communicate more widely in their local language”.), They can be invited to visit the radio station for a live broadcast or they can call the radio station with their mobile phones and their messages are registered and broadcast later.   In this way , thousands of farmers can speak out and reach hundreds of thousands of other farmers  with relevant information.  

It will be an advantage if news about re-greening and related activities will be broadcast in a regular program at fixed hours. One of the major advantages of using radio stations to spread the information about re-greening is that it can trigger a spontaneous process that helps to spread re-greening in villages within the reach of the radio stations. This spontaneous spreading will be beyond project control and independent of interventions. For that reason it may well escape conventional project monitoring and evaluation as the spreading may well occur outside villages in which re-greening projects intervene. Catalyzing a process is exactly what is needed to adapt to climate change, address the loss of soil fertility and transform rural landscapes over large areas. Developing new agroforestry systems and improving existing ones, is urgent and should be done at scale.  The challenge is to devise ways and means to use the same Web of Voices as a tool for participatory monitoring and evaluation.  
Although there is a cost attached to developing radio programs around re-greening, its costs are low compared to other ways of spreading information. 

How can the Web of Voices be used for developing value chains?
The examples mentioned above tell the story about how smallholder farmers (men and women) are using Radio Marché to collect and spread information about the supply of agroforestry products, but also about market prices. 

Capacity building by VOICES
VOICES has developed, tested and successfully used its tools in Mali with a wide variety of partners.   It can now be rolled out in other countries. It has a mobile training lab that offers capacity building for local partners.

Sibiri Sawadogo from the village of Santena (Burkina Faso) has restored barren land to productivity using simple water harvesting techniques and also transformed 6 ha of land into a diverse forest. He is actively sharing his experience with other farmers. 


Some farmers write their mobile phone number on the wall of their house.

More information about W4RA-VOICES:

Project website: http://www.w4ra.org and http://www.mvoices.eu
5 minute film about the project: http://www.mvoices.eu/node/80
23 April 2013 Article in The New Scientist, about the W4RA-VOICES project:


13 May  Article ""The biggest media in Africa" in Silicon Africa about Zakary Diarra, honey producer in Mali, beneficiary of RadioMarché voice-based trading service.

14 June 2013 More media coverage: A large article about the results of VOICES in the Science for Development Network http://www.scidev.net
2 May Malian online ICT news site mali-ntic.org reports about the m-agro pilot of the VOICES project after the Conference in Bamako, Mali, 23 April 2013. "Les Technologies vocales pour permettre aux populations défavorisées d'accéder aux TICs" by Fousseyni Sanogo.

For more information about the Web Alliance for Re-greening in Africa (W4RA), please contact:
Anna Bon,  ICT Consultant (a.bon@vu.nl)
or Wendelien Tuyp (w.tuyp@vu.nl)
VU  University amsterdam
Centre for International Cooperation
De Boelelaan 1105
1081 HV Amsterdam
The Netherlands
t + 31 20 5989074
f + 31 20 5989095


  1. Interestingly, many ICT4D projects address only farmers with smartphones, tablets, social media, and sms. Not many ICT4D projects apply voice modality as the channel for communication. It may technically be more challenging, but for the farmers that do not read or write, it makes more sense.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this great blog. Very inspiring and helpful too. Hope you continue to share more of your ideas.I will definitely love to read.