Village Billboards and a National Classifieds System

Last year I had a good long conversation with Zach Lutische, a Kenyan with a big idea. It all started with this comment:

“There was a time that I went all the way to Nairobi, only to find out that what I needed was only 1 kilometer away from my farm in Eldoret.”

Zach is soft spoken, but ambitious and energetic. He splits his time between reading the Kenyan tech email lists and time upcountry in his village. He was really excited about putting up a network of rural billboards around Kenya, using them as a way to gather and create a nexus point for community information.

Zach Matere Lutische

In our day, and being technologists, we sometimes forget that simple and non-digital is still the norm in most of the world. This is especially true in rural Africa. Which is what makes Zach’s concept so intriguing. What he wants to do is marry the worlds of non-technical rural Africa with that of modernized urban Africa.

The Concept

Anyone in the village can put up a notice, news or advertisement on a village billboard by going through a site manager, who would probably be the same person that runs the local mobile phone booth (Simu ya Jamii). Depending upon the size and length of time the notice would be on the billboard, the person would pay between 10/= to 100/= Kenyan Shillings ($.12 to $1.20).

There are a lot of ways these village boards could be used, many outside of what we can think of right now, but here are some ideas for example users:

  • Mr. Njuguna has a potato plot and it will harvest approximately 50 bags in August. He runs an advertisement in June on the community billboard and find a buyer in advance.
  • A local photographer can advertise and be contacted via the message board.
  • City-based companies can go directly farmers and/or sellers in local communities, and be aware of the inventory months in advance.
  • Land for sale (with pictures).
  • Every village has a market day, the billboard makes it easier for village-based buyers to work with sellers in outlying areas.

A Network of Rural Village Billboards

As village billboards start working for the local community, they can branch out to connect to other villages in the area. News and advertisements can then start showing up on billboards beyond a single village, providing more reach to those who are willing to pay.

Zach and I spent some time drawing out and discussing what a pilot program might look like, using his rural community as the testing grounds. We took into account the villages, mapped out their relative locations to each other, their market days and the approximate number of people in each village.

Village Billboard Diagram

It turns out that each billboard would cost about between $40 and $150 to build, depending upon materials available locally, and on what additions were made – like a small roof to keep rain off of the board.

Augmenting the Rural Billboard with Technology

The above section can stand alone as a business concept. However, where it gets interesting to people like me is in how you take these village billboards and create a powerful melding of the offline and online/mobile worlds that is our present day Africa. This is where the insights and experiences of a rurally raised Kenyan, living in the city and taking part in technology discussions is irreplaceable.

Since the site manager would generally be the person running the local village phone booth, there is the opportunity to sell message space on billboards in other towns, using the mobile information pathways open by these operators. Once you have that network of site managers, you have the beginnings of some very interesting things.

For one, you can now connect these billboard operators locally, regionally and nationally. The ability for end users to both put up advertising and find goods and services is available via digital format or analog. It’s not a big jump to see a nationwide classifieds system growing organically, stitched together by mobile and web services.

Already we see newspapers, like Star, in Kenya taking free classifieds via SMS. What happens when we create a nationwide billboard and mobile phone classifieds network?

Star Newspaper in Kenya - SMS classifieds

Final Thoughts

Africans tend to not be singular. They like to act as a community, so singular actions on mobile phones are less likely than the community coming together around a notice board. So, where mobile phones act as communications between individuals, the notice board serves as communication medium between groups. So, notice boards are the nexus, augmented by the mobile phone.

I think this concept could not only work, but could become something really big. I say that with one caveat. This needs to be done by Kenyans, not some outside entity. The local communities need to be the ones who decide to create and build their own billboards. They need to value it and own it themselves.

The network needs to grow organically from the grassroots up. Not all communities will take to it or support it in the long run, however those that do and find that it makes their lives easier and adds to their lives will pass the word on to other nearby communities, and it will grow. Once a network of community-supported village billboards are up and going, you have the groundwork made for lasting change and a means to build other digitally-connecting services on top of it.

Radio Gbarpolu and Travel in Liberia


Liberian Bush Trip from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

I took an opportunity to travel to Bopolu, a small town in the Liberian bush that is the center of government for Gbarpolu county (don’t say the “G”).

My goal was to talk to someone from a rural community radio station. I also wanted to talk to the local leaders to determine how information flows in the community, and how it gets from local villages to Monrovia.

Here is a quick video that I put together showing some of the highlights of this trip.

Liberian Bush Radio Escapades

Today finds me off in Bopola, a town well off the beaten track North of Monrovia, Liberia – where I’ve taken a lot of pictures and had a good time getting out of the city. I hitched a ride with an American NGO taking breeding rabbits upcountry, so the back of the pickup truck had 80 furry big-ears in it. It smelled some, since they had picked them up in Guinea 2 days before.

Handing out rabbits in Liberia

I saw this fascinating creation called a BUV on their station before I left too. 3 wheels, and it looks like it can haul anything.

BUV

The ride was just what I was looking for; providing me a chance to get out and see how the country really breathes and moves. The outskirts of Monrovia are hectic, as you would expect, but as soon as you get out it slows waaaay down.

Radio Gbarpola

One of my main missions while out is to talk to some rural community radio managers. When we got in, I made contact with the owner/manager of Radio Gbarpola and we had a good 2-hour discussion on their technology, programming, practices and business growth possibilities.

radio gbarpola in liberia

International Alert has pumped a decent amount of money into a number of strategically located community radio facilities. Radio Gbarpola is one of them, and boasts a bank of solar powered batteries, a 300 watt transmitter, a split studio, a 2-deck CD and tape player, and a motorcycle (for the news reporter to visit locations on). That’s some spread!

As I had expected, this radio station is one of the only ways anyone in much of the county can find out what is going on within the county. They currently cover 2/3 of it, and with a repaired or new antenna, they can reach all of it. The only mobile phone antennas are owned by Lonestar, and it doesn’t have nearly the reach of the radio station.

Getting interviewed at Radio Gbarpola

While there, they insisted on a quick interview as well – I hope the Liberians in Gbarpola county can understand my American English… :)

New technology injection

Being myself, after exhausting my question supply, I started demo’ing what you could do with just a SIM card, mobile phone, and a computer. The first thing out was a quick test of FrontlineSMS there, which worked like a charm. I explained how a setup like that could add a new revenue stream as well, if they started selling text ads.

Then, I went on to talk about what we did in Kenya with Ushahidi, and ask about what they thought of similar technology in Liberia. Interestingly enough, it turns out that all “important” information seems to filter into the radio quickly. It’s either direct to, or direct to police-to-radio.

That that has started me thinking about is using the 50+ community radio stations in Liberia as nodes in a larger network. I’m thinking it might be possible to set up a number of them with a FrontlineSMS system that uses Mesh4x to sync certain information between them and up to Headquarters in Monrovia. Just an idea at this point, but well worth doing more discovery on.

[Note: How did I manage to post way out in the middle of nowhere? Aforementioned NGO has a nice slow connection, and I have all night to upload these resized images…]

Rural Community Radio in Africa

DSC_0265 Tuareg radio deejay

It’s not true if the radio doesn’t say it.

That was a reply from a rural Liberian farmer to Malcolm Joseph, the managing director of the Center for Media Studies in Liberia. He shared that with me as I discussed the way communication has happened between the media and the public here over the past few years. It’s an interesting challenge, trying to marry up communication channels and technology mediums to be as effective as you can be across a varied and spread out demographic.

Radio is important. It’s still the main way that rural groups get their news. Newspaper circulation drops drastically outside of the cities. While many countries have at least a couple of radio stations of national reach, you still find a number of smaller radio stations that work within districts, down to the the real rural community radio stations that operate with a 5-10 kilometer radius.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we connect better through this medium? It’s not good enough to just say that, “mobile phone coverage is good enough”. Even though the mobile coverage might be good, the credibility and community-inclusiveness of even a small radio station means that it cannot be ignored when trying to reach ordinary Africans. Add in illiteracy rates, which are typically higher in rural areas, and it becomes even more important.

Not ever web or mobile service needs to consider this, but we all need to think better on how to integrate radio into the mobile and web world in Africa. This isn’t just a post for aid and development groups either, it’s for people who want to create digital services that reach beyond African urban settings.

More thoughts and resources:

Quick Hits from Digital Africa

I’m on the road to Liberia for a couple weeks, so getting up a quick post on some items that I think are interesting around the technology space in Africa.

Hannes van Rensburg goes off on groups that give financing to European tech companies for work in Africa, rather than the local African companies who are better equipped and more knowledgeable to handle the situation. I agree.

“I really have difficulty in understanding how this mildly succesful UK company can make a difference in Africa. Not only is it unlikely that they will be able to re-use the UK functionality in Uganda (Java phones, ATM switches, etc.), but they are also late. Many Ugandan-based companies have already (or are in the process of) lanching their mobile banking services.”

Solar-powered phones are coming. How will they change the power equation in Africa?

How will solar powered mobile phones change Africa?

Matt Berg writes a good post on leveraging internet with radio:

“Eventually low cost smart phones that are able to access the Internet in an acceptable way (think < $100 Chinese iPhone), will represent a paradigm shift in the way Africans connect to the Internet. Until then, a community radio is probably the best way to make the information on the Internet accessible to rural communities."

Zain launches mobile payment service Zap in East Africa. This is their challenge to Africa’s mobile payments golden-child MPESA (by Safaricom). In the past, Zain hasn’t had a stellar record in marketing and simplification of their services. I hope this is different, as the market needs competitors.

Rural internet, not online but still connected

“Internet access might not be instantaneous, but a USB stick driven off in a cloud of motorcycle dust, or bumping along in an ox cart, can often shift more data than a telephone dial-up connection. And with delayed dial up the customer avoids the frustration of slow downloads: returning later to waiting data.”

Coby Leuschke builds a prototype 12 volt mini computer:

“I was most interested in the 12V DC requirement for use with solar systems. I finally got around to building one from a bare bones kit…”

Rugged, solar powered VSAT broadband in rural communities

I just sat down next to Raphael Marambii, who happens to be the innovations and knowledge management specialist for a small local NGO called ALIN (arid lands information network), at a cyber cafe in Nairobi. As happens in Africa, you get into conversations, and I found out that they have been connecting rural communities via community knowledge centers (sort of rural cybercafes cum libraries / training centers) running solar powered VSAT dishes.

Solar powered VSAT broadband for communities in Kenya

They have deployed a unique prototype solar powered VSAT base station terminal at two of ALIN’s Community knowledge centers, at Marigat and Nguruman, Kenya. The base station is self contained and toughened for remote African rural conditions and requires little expertise to deploy. It’s part of the University of Michigan’s Imagine Africa project.

The question is, “why is this NGO plunking down remote satellite connections in rural Africa?” I asked Raphael just that question, and he tells me that it’s because they strongly believe that information and access to knowledge is what is needed most in these communities. They are trying to get the youth within these rural communities to embrace some of the new social media tools too, like blogging and podcasting.

From what I understand this is a pilot, testing out what happens when a new form of information is freely available within marginalized or disconnected rural communities. Raphael and team have ideas on seeing this become embedded in the community – ranging from helping with eCommerce, to creating new local content, to live video language services available over the connection.

There are two reasons I like this project. First, because it’s being driven by a local NGO, so it has some hopes of making it after the big donors leave. Second, the team is truly trying to think different – they make no bones about how their ways to connect the community to the rest of the world in mutually beneficial ways isn’t “normal”.

The true test however will be found after their 6 months of funding is gone. It costs about 26,000 Shillings ($320) to run one of these each month. Let’s see where this project, and more importantly, the communities are in one year.