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.


Orange is the new grey for Bangladesh beards

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on January 24, 2019 shows men with henna-dyed beards in Dhaka on December 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 3 min 8 sec ago

Orange is the new grey for Bangladesh beards

  • It is now virtually impossible to walk down a street in a Bangladesh city without seeing a colored beard

DHAKA, BANGLADESH: From shades of startling red to hues of vivid tangerine, brightly colored beards have become a fashion statement on the streets of Bangladesh capital Dhaka.
Facial hair of sunset tones is now the go-to look for older men wanting to take off the years, with an array of henna options available to the style-conscious.
“I have been using it on my hair for the last two months. I like it,” says Mahbubul Bashar, in his 50s, whose smile reflected his joy at his new look.
Abul Mia, a 60-year-old porter at a local vegetable market, agrees that the vibrant coloring can be transformative.
“I love it. My family says I look a lot younger and handsome,” he adds.
While henna has been used widely in the country for decades, it has reached new heights of popularity. It is now virtually impossible to walk down a street in a Bangladesh city without seeing a colored beard.
Orange hair — whether it’s beards, moustaches or on heads — is everywhere, thanks to the popularity of the colored dye produced by the flowering henna plant.
“Putting henna on has become a fashion choice in recent years for elder men,” confirms Didarul Dipu, head fashion journalist at Canvas magazine.
“The powder is easily found in neighborhood stores and easy to put on,” he adds.
But the quest for youth is not the only reason why more and more Dhaka barbers are adding beard and hair coloring to their services.
Top imams also increasingly use henna powder color in what experts say is a move to prove their Muslim credentials as some religious texts say the prophet Mohammed dyed his hair.
In Bangladesh most of the population of 168 million is Muslim.
“I heard from clerics that the prophet Mohammed used henna on his beard. I am just following,” says Dhaka resident Abu Taher.

Henna has long been a tradition at South Asian weddings. Brides and grooms use henna paste to trace intricate patterns on their hands for wedding parties.
It has also long been used in Muslim communities in Asia and the Middle East for beards.
Previously, aficionados created the dye by crushing henna leaves to form a paste. It was messy and time-consuming but modern henna powder is far more user-friendly.
Taher, who goes by one name, believes the dye has given his beard added vigour.
“Look at this growth. Isn’t it strong?” he exclaims pointing to his chin.
“The powder turns the grey hair red but does not change the remaining black hair,” he explains.
Some believe henna powder has health benefits and, as it is natural rather than created using man-made chemicals like some dyes, does not cause any medical issues.
The new trend has also boosted barbers’ fortunes — more men feel compelled to dye their hair and to do it more often at the salons.
“In the past we hardly would get any customers for this,” recalls Shuvo Das, who works at the Mahin Hairdressers in Dhaka’s Shaheenbagh neighborhood.
“But now there are clients who come every week to get their beard dyed,” he says.
“It takes about 40 minutes to make the beard reddish and shiny. It is also cheap. A pack cost only 15 taka (four US cents),” Das explains as he massages the dye mixture — imported from India — into a customer’s beard.
According to Dhaka University sociology professor Monirul Islam Khan, the growing number of henna beards “is a sign of increasing Muslim fervor in Bangladeshi society.”
But, he adds, even those who are not strict followers do it.
He explains: “They want to look younger. Even the women are getting fond of it as it makes their hair glitter.”