Mobile, social media key to developing Pacific

Providing timely information to islanders

By Dionisia Tabureguci

February 2013

Topics
Technology
Telecommunications
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Using mobile telephones to leapfrog development initiatives through innovation has long been done in most developing countries, especially in Africa and Asia. Now, it is somewhat slowly taking root in the Pacific.

Much of these are to be blamed on the historic high prices of telecommunication services in these parts of the world. But as these prices begin to fall over the last five years with the advent of competition like Digicel and the Internet, the potential offered by mobile telephones is back at the forefront.

As emerged from a recent discussion initiated by the University of Melbourne in Australia, a number of development initiatives are now underway in some Pacific countries based on mobile telephone technology.

There is a view fast garnering support that its use together with other web-based tools such as Facebook, Skype and Twitter will be the answer to providing timely information to Pacific islanders, whether it be for awareness on natural disasters or something as simple as connecting a rural farmer to his market.

“Just a few years ago, Internet access was limited in the Pacific but now it’s expanding rapidly. As a result, the use of social media, such as Facebook, is spreading like wildfire in the Pacific and many more people have access to mobile phones.

“Mobile phones, particularly those with combined SMS (text message) and Internet features, are being used by many to improve their lives whether for social reasons, health (e.g. Dr SMS health practitioner text service), or finance (e.g. ‘mobile money’ such as M-PAiSA—mobile-phone based money transfer service),” said Dr Adam Bumpus, a lecturer in Sustainable Development and Climate Change at the University of Melbourne.

Bumpus initiated the online discussions which were facilitated by the United Nations Development Programme’s Pacific Center in Fiji.

“I am exploring how mobile phones, internet connections and other ICTs might be used by local people in the Pacific to promote, monitor and report the effectiveness of climate change projects and programmes that affect their communities. This work is looking at both Climate Change Adaptation (CCA) and mitigation performance.”

The diverse responses from parties in the Pacific and abroad reveal a lot has been taking place in Fiji compared to other Pacific countries. But the interest to use new technology to assist development initiatives is equally expressed in other Pacific countries, the limiting factor being the general lack of Internet access, again, due to the relatively high costs of providing the service.

Where previously a mobile phone was limited to just SMS, its use to assist communities in other parts of the world, Africa especially, was actively explored and resulted in innovative projects that changed lives and inspired the world.

African farmers explored its use to collect and disseminate relevant information on crops, market prices, livestock and weather forecasts.

Last year, a pilot project in a drought affected town in Kenya won the 2012 Technology4Good Awards, an annual event supporting technological innovation in the developing world and sponsored by Microsoft and CTT.

The project used basic mobile phones, SMS network technology and simple community notice boards to give local people vital information on food and livestock prices and food distributions, so people can boost their household income and stay informed of humanitarian activities in their communities.

Although that depth of innovation has not quite taken form in the Pacific despite the availability here of basic mobile phones and SMS technology, progress has been made as evident from responses received by Dr Bumpus’ discussion.

In Samoa, for example, a network for local businesswomen called Women In Business Development Inc. uses the now affordable mobile phones to improve information dissemination to farmers which in turn helps the network.

Spokesperson for the group Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i said the use of SMS has helped the women to improve communication with farmers.

The result, she said, is that Samoa’s Women In Business members are now in a better position to make business decisions. For example, in the case of virgin coconut oil production, they know how many buckets have been produced, whether extra buckets are needed and whether a farmer needs assistance to gather coconuts for virgin coconut oil. The exchange of important information is also instantly enabled such as whether a farmer has a particular crop Women in Business is seeking. This helps to save time and costs, said Tafuna’i.

In Fiji, a similar project called “Fiji Makete” is being put together by a local content provider F1 Mobile Solutions and the nation’s three mobile telephone providers, the agriculture ministry, local farmers, exporters and the National Crop and Livestock Council.

“The Project Brief for Fiji Makete indicates that “mobile telephone penetration and coverage in Fiji is very high—reported at around 77% in 2008—with most rural communities connected or becoming connected. ITC experience in other countries, including other tropical islands states, shows that intermediaries, extension services and collection centres can all benefit from improved communications, advanced notice of produce availability and farm inputs demand to better plan collections and distribution,” said F1 Mobile Solutions spokesman Damien Whippy.

“The Fiji Makete project aims to enable farmers to negotiate with traders from a position of greater strength, by providing them with access to strategic market information.

“In the longer term, it aims to provide greater opportunity to plan and diversify production in line with market trends.”

Among other things, Fiji Makete is expected to provide farmers with the necessary information such as updated weather reports, market price information and a real-time access to a central database where they could be assisted by agricultural officers who have direct access to that database.

With advancements in mobile telephone technology, where users can now readily access the Internet on their mobile phones, development solutions are further enhanced as available tools is not limited to SMS but to web-based applications like Skype and social media like Twitter and Facebook.

Especially in the case of natural disasters to which the Pacific is prone, a combination of SMS and social media seems to provide the answer to the prompt dissemination of information and a number of projects have popped up to explore this.

Over time though, getting them to be useful to Pacific islanders will depend on the lowering of prices of basic services like Internet and mobile telephone handsets and calls or SMS.


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