Question Box: Crossing the digital divide

20 July 2011
ITC News


By removing the obstacles to technology, language and literacy, Question Box – an initiative of US-based not-for-profit Open Mind – is breaking down the barriers to eradicating poverty by providing easy access to information in hard-to-reach areas in India and Uganda.  

A central tenet of Aid for Trade is bringing marginal producers into the global economy. However, how can that connection be made, to share the full benefit of free and open trade, when the producers suffer severe information asymmetry? Frequently, middlemen exploit the information advantage, cutting out a significant portion of the profit. Lack of timely information also affects income when producers are unaware of broader trends at planting season. An incorrect decision can result in crops that are worth little because of global overproduction or that are destroyed by unexpected agricultural epidemics. 

A conversation conducted in Marathi language:
Operator: ‘Hello? Thank you for calling Question Box. Please ask your question.’ 

Caller: ‘Yes, please, what is the price of tomatoes in Pune today?’  

Operator: ‘…Today’s price is 1,300 rupees per quintal at the market. Thank you for calling Question Box.’   

For small producers, timely access to market prices, trends and improved production techniques can mean the difference between sustainability and losing the farm. Currently, over one billion adults are illiterate. Two thirds of these are women. Nearly four billion people have never been online. Much of the developing world relies on word of mouth, newspaper, radio and television for knowledge.  

Information and communications technologies (ICT) can make a significant contribution both to the income of small producers and to assuring an improved flow of products to the international market. ICT is an ideal method to provide simple, timely information about market prices, production techniques and connections to fair trade buyers.  

Over the past several years, Open Mind developed and deployed a community information system called Question Box. The core idea is to provide local, relevant information via micro-hotlines. In India, these hotlines were accessed via custom-built Question Boxes. In Uganda, the organization ran a rural agriculture hotline using a network of Grameen Foundation fieldworkers with mobile telephones. The fieldworkers worked in their communities and offered access to the expert advice via mobile phone. 

Often, the only communications technologies available in rural areas and to small producers are mobile telephones, radios and sometimes SMS messaging. It is tempting to build a large, complicated system, or to introduce technologies that are currently unfamiliar in producer communities. However, Open Mind believes it is usually easiest and most effective to build upon systems and technologies already in use. Familiarity with the technology platform allows providers to devote their energies to educating communities about their new service, rather than focusing on the mechanics of how to use it. Lastly, using available technologies allows organizations to run small, iterative tests of new service concepts without committing large amounts of funding up front – essentially, moving in steps from proof-of-concept to a viable service. 

With Question Box, Open Mind was surprised to discover the depth of curiosity among farmers in both India and Uganda. There is both a significant information gap and a considerable desire to close that gap when the proper ICT tools are made available. Traditional utilities, such as water and electricity, continue to lag in reaching the world’s poorest. However, the expansion of mobile connectivity along with the existing deep reach of radio and television provide an exciting, highly viable opportunity to connect with and support smallholder producers, a group that is critical to the success of the Aid for Trade agenda.      

For further information visit www.questionbox.org