BUSHENYI, Uganda — Laban Rutagumirwa charges his mobile phone with a car battery because his dirt-floor home deep in the remote, banana-covered hills of western Uganda does not have electricity. When the battery dies, Mr. Rutagumirwa, a 50-year-old farmer, walks just over four miles to charge it so he can maintain his position as communication hub and banana-disease tracker for his rural neighbors.In an area where electricity is scarce and Internet connections virtually nonexistent, the mobile phone has revolutionized scientists’ ability to track this crop disease and communicate the latest scientific advances to remote farmers.
With his phone, Mr. Rutagumirwa collects digital photos, establishes global positioning system coordinates and stores completed 50-question surveys from nearby farmers with sick plants. He sends this data, wirelessly and instantly, to scientists in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
The penetration of the mobile phone is far greater than that of the Internet in Africa, especially in rural areas, making it the most accessible communication tool, said Jon Gossier, founder and president of Appfrica, a technology company with headquarters in Uganda.
“I don’t think the development being done now for mobile phones is going to stop,” Mr. Gossier said, “but I think we’ll see a whole new generation of applications coming out of Africa, including mobile applications that utilize the Web.”
Tracking banana disease and educating farmers on how to protect their plantations is among several mobile phone applications being piloted in Uganda by the Grameen Foundation, a nongovernmental agency that aims to reduce poverty through microfinancing and new technology.
Grameen partnered with Uganda’s largest mobile network operator, MTN, to create AppLab Uganda, an initiative to explore ways to use mobile technologies to improve people’s lives, said the program director, Eric Cantor.
Building applications for agriculture seemed logical in a country that is predominately rural and reliant on small farms, he said.
Mr. Rutagumirwa is among several leaders in rural communities who were trained by Grameen to survey and educate neighboring farmers about the proper methods to contain banana disease.[snip]
David Bangirana, another village leader trained by Grameen, said he saw potential in using networks of community leaders armed with mobile phones like himself to educate and collect data in remote villages on topics beyond banana disease.
Mr. Bangirana, 60, a former teacher and village chief, wears a bright yellow T-shirt with the words “Ask Me” across the chest. His community now comes to him with questions about farming practices and health issues, and he can quickly find most answers using Google text messaging and an operator service. He said he sometimes took his phone to village primary schools to show the children the limitlessness of the information available to them.
“The use of the mobile phone,” Mr. Bangirana said, “has empowered the community to know what they never knew and ask any question concerning their surroundings.”
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