Delivering Ethiopian teff via Czech taxi?

Forgive me, gentle readers. I’m on the road again, in Budapest for the next few days – hence, the sparse blogging. In a desperate bid to get myself off the road for much of the next few months, I’m traveling like mad between now and mid-November. One of those trips is to Pop!Tech, which means you can expect to be blanketed with posts for at least a few days late this coming week.

The reason for trying to get off the road is that I’m discovering that my brain is full. It appears to be taking me longer and longer to process the meetings I attend, the new projects I see, the talks I hear at conferences. So two weeks after returning from Rome, I find myself processing a conversation from the Web2 for Dev conference. I participated in a very strange panel on eAgriculture, where the main topic of conversation seemed to be the fact that none of the panelists quite knew what eAgriculture was or should be.

In the room, but not on the panel, was my friend Mark Davies, who might have had the best answer to that question. He’s the instigator of TradeNet, a promising system for sharing pricing information on agricultural information in West Africa, and enabling online trades between farmers and merchants.

It’s the sort of idea that’s so clearly in the right direction that it’s hardly a surprise that other groups are working on it as well. Speaking at TED Global, Eleni Gabre-Madhin outlined a hugely complex problem and proposed solution – the difficulties with establishing a national market for commodities in Ethiopia, and her proposed solution, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange. In this, Gabre-Madhin is inspired by the Chicago board of trade – in a recent Economist article, she points out that the gangsterism that plagues the Ethiopian commodities market parallels the situation in Chicago in 1848, when the first mercantile exchanges, standards boards and futures trading systems came into play.

Gabre-Madhin’s system is supposed to launch this December. In the meantime, friends at Feedelix, a company that’s built an SMS client that supports Amharic characters, are pioneering a system called BoonaNet, which will provide pricing information on commodities like teff, coffee and berbere in the Amharic, Tigrigna, and Afaan Oromo languages. There’s a very rich powerpoint online showing the success and challenges to the system, which range from technical challenges (like system uptime) to participation of partner farmers and collectives. In some ways, Ethiopia is one of the hardest countries to do this in, as SMS was blocked by the sole mobile phone operator for two years for fear of SMS being used for mobilizing opposition movements.

In our discussions in Rome, one of the subjects that came up was the problem of providing key information to farmers through appropriate technology. In the case of farmers who aren’t literate, even localized SMS may not be the right method – broadcasting information over AM or FM radio might be a better method. It strikes me as surprising that there hasn’t been more work done making interactive voice response systems usable for development purposes. (We funded a project at OSI around this issue, but without much success.) Paul Meyer’s company Voxiva (disclosure: I’m an investor) builds IVR systems for health and microfinance applications – it would be great to see systems like TradeNet or BoonaNet using IVR to deliver key data driven by voice or keypad commands.

An example of how this might work comes to mind because I’m in Central Europe, the land of functional cab systems. A year ago, calling a cab service in Prague, I was stunned to discover a highly functional IVR system that let me choose a language to interact in, let me speak my destination, put me on hold for sixty seconds until a human operator matched by location to the nearest cab, and then gave me the number of the cab enroute to pick me up. When then cab was outside, the system phoned me again and told me the cab was outside. I never spoke to a human during the process, and it was a vastly superior user experience to calling for a cab in Cambridge, which usually involves being cursed at.

There’s a reason to think about using taxi IVR systems for development purposes: part of the challenge of building an agricultural trading system in a developing nation is working out transport issues. If a Ghanaian farmer wants to sell groundnut to a Togolese trader via TradeNet, he needs to put his load on a lorry. Using some sort of IVR system to find a truck making the trip – or to give drivers a chance to bid for the load, having their phones ring when the job becomes available – would be very cool. I suspect that adapting Czech cab-dispatching software isn’t the way to go… then again, the toolkits some companies are offering are pretty damned broad-reaching. (Does anyone know of an open source package that covers this space?)

I’ve got high hopes that Mark Davies, Eleni Gabre-Madhin, my Feedelix friends and others are talking so that they’re developing their tools cooperatively. Perhaps they should invite some IVR folks to the conversation as well.

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5 Responses to Delivering Ethiopian teff via Czech taxi?

  1. Jonathan Marks says:

    You’re spot on by calling a cab in Prague and other places in Eastern Europe. Just hailing a cab is asking to be ripped off – the radio taxis are brilliant. Much better than Amsterdam where you get ripped off even more if you make the mistake of booking one in advance. Safe travels and take the time to work out those blogging notes. I would argue that being able to take some distance from conferences once in a while is a blessing in disguise.

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  3. Chuck says:

    I’ve been thinking Ouagadougou would be a great place for a regional commodity exchange–only one border to cross for transporting to or from any of six different countries, four with ports; rail service to Mali. Climatic transition zone between desert and forest. Can’t raise cattle in the dense forest, due to tsetse fly, and water scarcity makes it hard to grow fruit in the desert. Factoring in expected surpluses of meat or fruit during the high season of each, in combination with low border tariffs, adequate bulk storage, etc. would help optimize food distribution in the region and reduce spoilage.

  4. Ethan says:

    Chuck, I think that’s exactly the sort of thinking TradeNet should be inspiring. You might want to consider getting in touch with Mark and seeing if there’s a possible partnership. I suspect a big part of the problem – as I referenced in this post – is transport. Finding a partner comfortable with both the trucking and the customs clearance aspect is probably the next big problem that needs solving to make something like this possible. Very cool idea, though.

  5. Luigi says:

    Hi there. I enjoy your blog. Briefly mentioned this particular post here http://agro.biodiver.se/2007/10/ethan-zuckerman-puts-the-e-in-e-agriculture/ because I was also in and out of the Web2forDev conference in Rome a few weeks back.

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