Plug and Play Day

Plug and Play Day attracted over 300 participants. A warm-up for the main conference, the day began with a brief introductory session, with Didier Nkurikiyimfura, Director General of Rwanda's Ministry of Youth and ICTs (MYICT), acting as master of ceremonies.

"This is a very important conference," he said, "and today is all about interaction, having fun, and learning about innovations and the use of ICTs." Coming the week after the Transform Africa Summit, which set out a vision for how ICTs will transform economic development in Africa, the conference provided the ideal opportunity to focus on one particular sector – agriculture.

michael hailu opening plug and playThe timing was certainly opportune, said Michael Hailu, Director of CTA. After years of neglect, we are now witnessing a surge of investment in agriculture. "During Plug and Play Day, we're going to hear about a range of technologies which are helping farmers to increase their incomes and productivity," he said.

Rosemary Mbabazi, MYICT Permanent Secretary, explained how ICTs are helping to transform Rwanda into a knowledge-based economy. Between 2000 and 2005, the government established a strategy for ICT development, focusing on the enabling environment. During the following five years, it developed the infrastructure to spread the use of ICTs. It is currently developing ICT services in five main sectors, one of which is agriculture. "If we can improve the lives of farmers, we'll improve the lives of 80% of the population," she said.

Ernest Ruzindaza, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), talked about the importance of finding practical solutions to farmers' problems. "They want quick solutions, and that means the quick delivery of information," he said. It's not just a question of providing the knowledge and skills to increasing productivity; farmers also need to improve their access to the market. ICTs have a key role to play throughout the value chain.

Benjamin Addom, programme coordinator at CTA, stressed the importance of participation. This was not going to be a sit-and-listen event. "We want you to get your hands on innovations, and test them yourselves," he said. "And we want you to share your own experiences, both during the sessions and at the end of the day when we have a period of reflection."

Knowledge management expert Pete Cranston and his team of facilitators ensured that the rest of the day ran smoothly, despite the logistical complications of having six parallel sessions, each with eight presentations. You will find a comprehensive list of the presentations elsewhere on the website. Here, to provide a taster, is a summary of just a few of the topics covered.

Brave New Worlds

Fisherfolk in the West Indies are benefiting from mFisheries, a suite of mobile and web applications developed at the University of the West Indies. The apps were designed to improve the efficiency, welfare and safety of small-scale fisheries. Using a smartphone, fisherfolk can access weather reports, navigational tools and training tips on first aid and emergency boat repairs. "They can also use an app to find out fish prices in different markets," explained software developer Daryl Samlal, "and they can post what species they've caught and the quantities they've got while they are still out at sea." Buyers using mFisheries can then get directly in touch with the fisherfolk and make a transaction. Launched and tested in Trinidad, this suite of applications could prove just as useful for small-scale fisherfolk in the Pacific, Africa and elsewhere.

One of the most eye-catching and impressive mobile phone apps for farmers is iCow, developed by Green Dreams TECH in Kenya and powered by Safaricom Ltd. One of the services is a cow calendar. Farmers register their cows by gestation date, and SMS messages provide them with the information they need about when to use artificial insemination (AI) and how to look after their cows. Another service provides farmers with a list of AI providers. According to Green Dreams creative director Su Kahumbu Stephanou, iCow has helped farmers to increase their daily milk production by 2 to 3 litres, and their incomes by US$30 a month. On average, subscribing farmers – 128,000 currently benefit from the service – receive three SMSs a week at a cost of just US$0.034 per text.

Still in the developmental stage, Mobile Agribiz is a web and SMS mobile application linking some 400 farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo with about 100 buyers in Kinshasa. It is a two-way process, explained Narcisse Mbunzama, CEO of Mobile Agribiz. Farmers can use the application to get information about market prices and needs; and buyers can find out where they can get the produce they want. The SMS service also provides farmers with information on how to improve their agricultural skills. "Better crops and better prices means farmers make more money, and that means better education for their children and better healthcare," said Narcisse.

During recent years, researchers in Canada have designed a participatory web-mapping application known as GEOLive. "Participatory mapping is all about communities putting themselves on a map, and influencing decision-making," explained Jon Corbett from the University of British Columbia's Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice. He and his colleagues developed GeoLive for Canada's indigenous communities. Since then, GeoLive has proved useful to a wide range of organisations, including universities in Australia and local farmers' groups in Canada. It allows multiple users to contribute data simultaneously to a map, and makes large amounts of data manageable and meaningful. It is extremely sophisticated, and can be customised to suit users' needs.

Traditional paper-based data collection has several disadvantages, according to Absolomon Kihara of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). "It can be cumbersome, prone to error and expensive," he said. Researchers at ILRI are now opting to collect and manage data on smartphones, using the Open Data Kit (ODK) tools developed by Google. "ODK is very versatile, works for all sorts of data, and makes it much easier to manage data," explains Absolomon. It is easy to adapt questionnaires in mid-research, and researchers can do pre-analysis of their data on smartphones before returning from the field.

The stories above are just a few of the dozens told during the course of Plug and Play Day.

Views from the floor

During the final session of the day, participants split up into small buzz groups. They were given the task of answering three questions:

  • What did you discover?
  • What are the complementarities we have seen today?
  • What do you want to see more of?

After half an hour's discussion, CTA's Krishan Bheenick invited participants to share their views. They were, as he said in summary, overwhelmingly positive. "Plug and Play works," he said. "Today was a good example of a platform of collaboration."
However, he conceded that some of the criticisms were justified. One of the participants said that he and others had hoped the sessions would be rather more 'hands-on', and not so presenter-oriented.' Another pointed out that it had been difficult for some of the French speakers, as it hadn't been possible to arrange simultaneous translations.
One of the participants stressed the importance of establishing sustainable business models when developing ICTs for agriculture. "This sounded like a non-profit session to me," said someone with 20 years' of business experience. "For me, the business should come first, technology second." Another participant stressed the importance of content. "To develop the best apps you need a combination of skills," he said. "You need content experts, as well as ICT experts."
There was general agreement about the importance of harmonisation. From the day's sessions, it was clear that many apps were being developed with the same goal in different parts of the world. It would help if there was greater collaboration. One participant suggested that it might be worth setting up a Wiki at the conference to keep people in touch and create a community of interest.