New apps transforming remote parts of Africa

Updated 02 April 2013

New apps transforming remote parts of Africa

For generations, breeding cows in the rural highlands of Kenya has hinged on knowledge and experience passed down from parents to children. But Mercy Wanjiku is unlike most farmers. Her most powerful tool is her cell phone, and a text messaging service called iCow.
The service informs her when her cows are in heat, which feed might boost their milk output and what their fair market price is. And when she needed a veterinarian recently, she relied on the service’s extensive database. “Otherwise, it would have been hard to find someone qualified in my area,” said Wanjiku, a 29-year-old farmer in Mweru, a village about 100 miles north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, technology, particularly mobile technology, has transformed the lives of digital-savvy entrepreneurs. While many are forging successful high-tech businesses in urban centers, others are finding ways to help people such as Wanjiku prosper in more traditional, low-tech professions such as farming and fishing. Digital tools are also being used to overcome the continent’s obstacles to growth, such as corruption and weak health care, social services and education. In recent months, text messaging was a crucial tool in monitoring elections in Kenya and Ghana.
“In Africa, we have too many problems, which provide [so] many opportunities for technology,” said Bitange Ndemo, permanent secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications. “Today, there are multiple options to address these problems. If Plan A doesn’t work, there’s Plan B and Plan C.”
Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest-growing mobile market in the world, increasing an average of 44 percent annually since 2000, according to the GSMA, a global body representing cellphone operators, as competition among providers has lowered costs, creating tens of millions of users. With the advent of cheaper smartphones, many predict a surge in mobile apps in the years ahead.
In Kenya, a well-known example of how mobile technology has altered the economic and social landscape is M-Pesa, a cellphone-based money transfer service used by millions that has become the biggest such service in the world. Its success has inspired thousands of software developers across the continent, including Su Kahumbu, the founder of iCow.

“M-Pesa has done amazing things for this country. It has taught farmers the value of cellphones and SMSes,” said Kahumbu, an organic farmer, referring to text messaging. “Our system is piggybacking on this.”
In a nation where 80 percent of the population farm their land, iCow started off with a simple premise: The creation of a gestation calendar would increase the productivity of the cows and, hence, food production and the wealth of individuals and communities.
Farmers can register their cows by sending a text message to iCow. That allows them to receive cellphone messages tailored to their needs. They get alerts, for example, on feeding schedules, on when to expect their cows to be in heat or on disease outbreaks. The service also functions as a Craigslist of sorts for farmers looking to connect with their peers to buy and sell cattle.
Kahumbu said 42,000 farmers have signed up for iCow, a tiny percentage of Kenya’s farming millions. The potential, though, is enormous.
Mobile connections have risen to 475 million across the continent. Among African nations, Zimbabwe and Nigeria have some of the highest levels of mobile Internet usage globally, accounting for more than half of both countries’ Web traffic, compared with a global average of 10 percent. Across the continent, the GSMA reports, more than 50 “innovation” centers have been started, including Hive Colab in Uganda, Limbe Labs in Cameroon and iHub in Nairobi. American and European firms such as Google and Nokia are encouraging African app developers to invent through contests and financial incentives.
Kahumbu said she has received requests to launch iCow in nearby countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, as well as from Malaysia, Russia and China. Common to all the requests is the desire to find ways to create sustainable supplies of food — in particular, milk and other dairy products.
“It’s becoming a problem in developing nations because the food chain is under pressure,” she said. “Every time we have a drought, our food resources dry up. We are driving toward disaster if we don’t do anything about it.”
The desire to solve the developing world’s problems is a thread running through many of the new digital tools. Many are funded by nonprofit or social development organizations. For example, there’s Maisha, an app that helps pregnant women and first-time mothers with the health of their children. There’s also Get H2O, a game that educates players on chronic water shortage.
Mobile technology is improving the lives of some of Africa’s poorest people, in some of the continent’s most remote areas. Ndemo said Kenyan fishermen are using text messages to set up markets along the shores of Lake Victoria and negotiate prices with buyers, which helps them sell more fish.
The technology has also reduced opportunities for abuse, especially among farmers. “We can generally say that it has improved efficiency, in some cases productivity,” Ndemo said. “Middlemen used to exploit the farmer. Now, the farmer has more information about retail and wholesale prices. They know precisely what things cost.”
For Kahumbu, iCow is a way to make money. Each message costs the farmers 5 Kenyan shillings, or about 5 cents. Kahumbu also hopes to make money through advertising and strategic partnerships with cellphone operators. Depending on government or nonprofit groups to run iCow, she said, would open the door to manipulation.
Wanjiku and her family don’t mind the costs. She said the service is affordable and has helped her gain income. There also are some drawbacks, she said. The text messages are in English, but her 74-year-old grandmother speaks only Swahili and her tribal tongue.
Still, the veterinarian used by Wanjiku helped her to artificially inseminate Baraka, one of her cows. And when Baraka gave birth, the text messages helped Wanjiku feed the calf and watch out for diseases.
Recently she sold Baraka for the princely sum of 38,000 Kenyan shillings, or about $450. At first, the buyer low-balled her. But then Wanjiku checked the market prices with iCow and demanded the fair price. Her grandmother approved.
“It’s much easier to do the work now,” said her grandmother, whose name is also Mercy, standing next to their three cows.


South Korean cafe hires robot barista to help with social distancing

Updated 25 May 2020

South Korean cafe hires robot barista to help with social distancing

  • It is believed the robots could help with social distancing as the COVID-19 pandemic continues
  • The manufacturer and the scientific institute aim to supply at least 30 cafes with robots this year

DAEJEON, South Korea: The new robot barista at the cafe in Daejeon, South Korea, is courteous and swift as it seamlessly makes its way toward customers.
“Here is your Rooibos almonds tea latte, please enjoy. It’s even better if you stir it,” it says, as a customer reaches for her drink on a tray installed within the large, gleaming white capsule-shaped computer.
After managing to contain an outbreak of the new coronavirus which infected more than 11,000 people and killed 267, South Korea is slowly transitioning from intensive social distancing rules toward what the government calls “distancing in daily life.”
Robots could help people observe social distancing in public, said Lee Dong-bae, director of research at Vision Semicon, a smart factory solution provider which developed the barista robot together with a state-run science institute.
“Our system needs no input from people from order to delivery, and tables were sparsely arranged to ensure smooth movements of the robots, which fits will with the current ‘untact’ and distancing campaign,” he said.
The system, which uses a coffee-making robotic arm and a serving robot, can make 60 different types of coffee and serves the drinks to customers at their seats. It can also communicate and transmit data to other devices and contains self-driving technology to calculate the best routes around the cafe.
An order of six drinks, processed through a kiosk, took just seven minutes. The only human employee at the two-story cafe was a patissier who also has some cleaning duties and refills ingredients.
The manufacturer and the scientific institute aim to supply at least 30 cafes with robots this year.
“Robots are fun and it was easy because you don’t have to pick up your order,” said student Lee Chae-mi, 23. “But I’m also a bit of worried about the job market as many of my friends are doing part-time jobs at cafes and these robots would replace humans.”