ARCHIVE: Facebook…for Farmers: 8villages and Nokia help keep rural livelihoods online

First Published: 2012/06/08

Farmville just got real. Instead of tending to virtual gardens and livestock, an innovative new venture is enfranchising farmers to tend to their actual gardens and livestock virtually.

The BBC on Tuesday ran a feature on 8Villages, a new social networking venture specifically not for those uber connected city folk in the world’s global cities, but instead for developing world agriculturalists who have historically been on the fringes of connectivity. The story for quite a few years now has been how rural communities are more connected than ever with cheap phones and cheap service available throughout previously unreachable corners of the earth. On a recent trip to Northern Uganda, outside of Gulu, I noted with a smile the small solar panels set up outside of huts at midday charging cell phone batteries miles from the nearest electrical socket.

8Villages builds on this growing connectivity. Reuters quotes 8villages’ chief executive Mathieu Le Bras on his new tool for farmers: “It provides them with a link to local buyers, their local sellers – and other farmers who are growing the same crop as them.”

The network’s creators say it is ‘The first online network combining voice, SMS and internet that connects farmers by relevant business communities (‘’villages’’).’’ One of the farmers involved in a pilot in Indonesia told Reuters that “It allows [him] to access information about fertilisers, pesticides and the prices of crops.”

“So now when I need information, all I have to do is wait for an SMS from 8villages.” The service is enjoying success in uptake by its end-users in part from its model that mirrors traditional forms of face-to-face networking – placing special value on the knowledge offered up by elders. Reuters says ‘’8villages has a service that allows farmers to enter a code on their mobile phones and access product reviews by senior farmers – taking the whole “like” concept offline.’’

After Indonesia, 8Villages plans to take its services to other regional neighbors, like Vietnam and the Philippines.

The key to this quirky new networking platform is its mix of old and new – capitalizing on what modern networking technologies have to offer, while not speeding past those who are just now catching up to mobile phone connectivity, embracing simple functions like SMS to disseminate information.

The effort mirrors that of long term initiatives by cell phone maker Nokia. I always knew there was something special about my old school Nokia brick phone. You can flush that thing down a toilet, leave it to marinate at the bottom of a swimming pool, run it over with a scooter and it still works. For farmers, the reliable and affordable phones also offer an information lifeline for small agribusiness at a bargain price of five U.S. cents a day.

With networks like 8villages and innovative corporate culture, like that at Nokia, an exciting world of possibilities opens up. “Roughly half of [the world’s seven billion inhabitants] have a device in their pockets. But only a billion of these consumers are on the web,’’ Nokia told Reuters. ”Nokia’s plan is to connect the following billion consumers to the web.” If you add this to the work being done with mobile banking and cash transfer programs, some of the expensive infrastructure we’ve built up in the global North starts to seem a bit foolish.

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