Linking Africa’s Farmers to the Food Crisis: A Challenge to the World’s Mobile App Developers

"We need to focus on the links among hunger, water and energy, so that solutions to one can become solutions to all." -- United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, August 10 , Seoul

MTN, an ICT service provider in Africa, has issued a challenge to mobile application developers around the world: Make an innovative app inspired by the market realities in Nigeria. The international competition, launched in August and running through December, invites developers to create Android-based apps that will be judged by their "relevance and user friendliness to the Nigerian market.". Five monthly winners will receive a Samsung Galaxy Tab as the first-place prize and a Samsung Galaxy S2 as the second-place prize. While MTN has identified Nigeria as a target market, the competition welcomes all apps that serve the particular needs of markets throughout Africa and the Middle East.


Technology in the developing world is marked by leapfrogging -- skipping over one technology only to vigorously adopt the next one. Mobile phones represent a major leapfrog. While personal computers have not become nearly as ubiquitous in the poor world as they have in the rich world, mobile phones have. And Nigeria is an ideal country in which to test out new mobile apps. With 65 percent of the population using a cellphone, the nation takes first place in mobile phone penetration across Africa. "As telecoms compete for a market of 150 million Nigerians," writes Dayo Olopade in Slate, "Web literacy, email usage and mobile-phone penetration has become among the highest on the continent." Nigeria ranks high for mobile Internet browsing, with 31 percent of all Web content being accessed from a cellphone, far ahead of India (20 percent), Indonesia (11 percent) and the United States and United Kingdom (both 6 percent).

One of the most compelling ways that mobile phone technology has helped Africa has been to bolster the agricultural sector. In the developed world, farmers enjoy easy access to up-to-date market information. In Africa and the rest of the developing world, however, farmers lack this access. At the mercy of traders, they are forced to sell their crops at whatever price they are offered. But mobile technology is changing that, adding market, crop and weather data, convenience, connectivity and transparency to the small-scale farming industry.


Cellular-connected farmers, for example, can use mobile apps to check daily market prices and decide whether or not it is worth it to take the often long and laborious trip to the marketplace. Apps like Google Trader and Farmer's Friend create mobile networks that connect rural food producers with buyers. They also provide weather data and information about pest and disease control for crops and livestock. All of these innovations are helping farmers in Africa maximize their output and income. No wonder that mobile phones in the developing world have been called "poverty-killers."

With famine spreading throughout East Africa, climate change destroying crops and soaring global food prices, feeding the world's hungry is one of humanity’s most pressing problems. Humanitarian aid, while absolutely necessary to help immediate needs, is not a long-term solution. Helping the farmers of the developing world develop sustainable agriculture and income is key to achieving global food security. MTN has thrown down the gauntlet to the world's developers with their mobile app contest. Hopefully, a good number of the submissions will directly help Africa's farming communities. At the United Nations Academic Impact Forum in Seoul last month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said, "We need to focus on the links among hunger, water and energy, so that solutions to one can become solutions to all." To be sure, many of those links will be created by mobile phones.



image: Farmers preparing the fields at the beginning of rainy season field, Plateau State, Nigeria (credit: MikeBlyth, Flickr Creative Commons)