Thu, Oct 01, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Dialing for answers where the Web cannot reach in Africa

Question Box was conceived as a way of overcoming both the expense and the scarcity of Internet connections, initially in India and then in Uganda

NY Times News Service, Kampala

The caller was frustrated. A new pest was eating away at his just-planted coffee crop and he wanted to know what to do. Tyssa Muhima jotted down notes as the caller spoke, and promised to call back in 10 minutes with an answer.

Each day, Muhima and two other young women at this small call center on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital city answer about 40 such calls. They are operators for Question Box, a free, nonprofit telephone hot line that is meant to get information to people in remote areas who lack access to computers.

The premise behind Question Box is that many barriers keep most of the developing world from taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge available through Web search engines, said Rose Shuman, the service’s creator. That could be a drag on economic development.

“So I was thinking, why not bring the information to them in a way that’s most convenient and useful to them?” said Shuman, who is based in Santa Monica, California.

Instead of searching for information themselves, people in two rural agricultural communities in Uganda can turn to 40 Question Box workers who have cellphones.

The workers phone the call center and ask questions on behalf of the locals, or they put the call on speakerphone so the locals can ask for themselves. The operators then look up the requested information in a database and convey it to the workers, who pass it along to the villagers. The workers are compensated with cellphone airtime.

The service is a joint effort of Open Mind, a nonprofit group founded by Shuman, and the Grameen Foundation, which is best known for promoting small loans for the poor. It has received financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Question Box service was first introduced in remote villages in India two years ago and came to Uganda in April. The Ugandan version takes advantage of the explosive popularity of cellphones in Africa. Cellphone use has more than tripled in the last few years, and nearly 300 million Africans have them.

Where rural villages were once cut off and isolated from urban centers, cellphones offer a lifeline, providing access to banking, news and business opportunities.

That is a big technological advance, but for most Africans, Internet access is still too costly and slow. Question Box was conceived as a way of overcoming both the expense and the scarcity of Internet connections. Eventually, Question Box will allow farmers and others to use the hot line with their own cellphones or through text messages.

In June, Google introduced a similar effort in Uganda, also involving the Grameen Foundation, that allows people to find information on topics like health and agriculture via text messaging.

Nathan Eagle, a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who has done research on cellphones and development in Africa, said that while services like these can be helpful, they must be responsive to the needs of their users.

“We can’t sit in our offices in America and decide what is useful to people and what is meaningful in their lives,” said Eagle, who also runs a cellphone-based business in Kenya. “The services only add value if they are open-ended.”

Shuman said this was the aim of Question Box. The service, she said, is first and foremost a tool for economic development. Uganda’s agricultural sector employs more than 80 percent of the country’s work force, and receiving timely information about crop prices or the most current planting techniques is crucial.

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