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Google, Grameen and MTN provide relevant local content PDF Print E-mail
By Edris Kisambira    

When you load MTN airtime today, you receive an unsolicited response with information on how you could get vital information about the weather, prices for agro-products, sexual reproductive health matters etcetera.

This kind of information is vital for Ugandans to especially foster rural development by bridging the digital divide in the rural and urban areas. This offering, a joint venture by internet giant Google, MTN Uganda and the Grameen Foundation is aimed at helping poor farmers and other underserved communities access information using mobile phones.
Grameen set out to develop a way to offer people in remote areas access to information that many people in the developed world take for granted.
"Devices or technology can shorten that gap between where the information exists and the location where people who need it are. That's really a great empowerment," said Peter Bladin, founding director of the Grameen Technology Center.

"There was this great idea of rolling out a lot of computers, but it was hard to figure out a business model and how to keep those devices charged when they're off the grid," said Bladin, also executive vice president for programs and regions at the Grameen Foundation, in a recent interview.
As a result, Grameen began investigating ways to let people use SMS, which is available on even the lowest-cost phones and the oldest mobile phone networks, to access information. 

The short messaging service (SMS) lets people send text messages with certain keywords to get information in a number of categories. People use the service by texting a keyword like "weather" or "clinic" followed by the city. They get the information they request by return SMS.

The service has been dubbed ‘farmer's friend’ since it offers agricultural advice and weather forecasts to farmers. In a video posted on the Google.org blog, it is written that one farmer used the service to discover that rather than pay for a pesticide for his tomatoes, he could use materials that he already had on hand in excess. He says he used the money he saved to buy more land. 

Health Tips and Clinic Finder are two other SMS services that let people find sexual and reproductive health information and find nearby clinics.
The Google Trader service lets people sell or buy crops or other items. For example, a user would text "BUY Toyota Kampala" to receive a list of Toyotas for sale within 50 kilometers of Kampala.

The services don't come with additional fees beyond standard text messaging rates at Ush130 a text. While initially the service was free, MTN has indicated new rates especially for the 6006 and 6007 service while the 6001 service, which carries health, clinic, farming and weather information, is free.

The Grameen Foundation, started by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who created the Village Phone project in Bangladesh, spearheaded the text service as a way to deliver information to people who live in remote areas.

Village Phone is the project that turns primarily poor women in developing countries into entrepreneurs by offering them micro-loans to buy a cell phone that they let other villagers use for a fee.

Its operators in Uganda have been trained to use the new SMS service, so they can sell it to their customers.

To use Google SMS send an SMS query to 6001 for farmning and Health tips. Other Google SMS services can be found on short codes 6006 and 6007 on the MTN Network.
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