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Google SMS to serve needs of poor in Uganda

(Cross-posted from Official Google Africa Blog)

Today is a big day for the Google Africa team for several reasons. We're announcing an exciting partnership between MTN Uganda, the Grameen Foundation and Google, along with the launch of Google SMS in Uganda. This launch makes available the first suite of applications resulting from an endeavor initiated by Grameen Foundation called "AppLab" (Application Laboratory) which began over a year ago. AppLab is designed to develop mobile applications that serve the needs of poor and other vulnerable individuals and communities, most of whom have limited access to information and communications technology.

At Google we seek to serve a broad base of people — not only those who can afford to access the Internet from the convenience of their workplace or with a computer at home. It's important to reach users wherever they are, with the information they need, in areas with the greatest information poverty. Hence the launch of Google SMS, a bundle of mobile services for users to access content on a range of topics. This not only includes traditional services such as sports scores and local news, but for the first time, also includes services such as health and agriculture tips.

We are also releasing Google Trader, an SMS-based "marketplace" application that helps buyers and sellers find each other, enabling greater access to markets and trade, especially for those who are most excluded today. With these services, we hope to help alleviate some of the information and access to markets barriers for the poor, especially those in rural areas. So when farmers in Iganga want to sell their maize, they can list it on Google Trader and a miller in another trading center can find and contact them to buy their goods (see picture below). If a pregnant woman has a question about prenatal services, she can text her question to 6001 and get a response right away. Now people in any part of Uganda can easily find the information that is most critical to them.

Miller in trading center calling women's farming group in Iganga to obtain maize.

These activities also represent an important milestone: our first major initiative in Uganda, one of the newest locations where Google is setting up operations. Earlier this year, I joined the Google Africa team to lead our efforts in Uganda, where we want to offer valuable services that address real needs. As East African fiber optic cables begin to connect Uganda to the global Internet community, it is vital that the foundation for a thriving Internet economy also be established. Many impressive organizations are focused on this goal, and we hope to enhance these efforts.

Finally, this launch represents the team efforts of many local partners, communities and individuals, each of whom played a role in bringing this vision to life. The Village Phone Operators represent our very first set of focus group participants and product development advisors. And the participation of farmers in more distant villages was fundamental in creating the highly local content — created by them, for them, through our local partner BROSDI (Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiative), in collaboration with AppLab. While developing the health tips service, students, health workers, doctors and school nurses stepped forward as leaders in their respective areas and turned this humble mission into a reality. Our partners, Straight Talk Foundation and Marie Stopes International, not only created the content with AppLab based on the input of these many constituents, but forged deep and strong links with the communities where these services are in greatest demand.

When we return to these villages with a product that will be developed through their insights, we want to understand if the service truly is having an impact. To this end, we are conducting a social impact assessment with Innovations for Poverty Action, with support from, to build from the knowledge of what users need most, to understand what works best.

We hope these services will help a variety of organizations already doing impressive work to reach a broader audience and those with the greatest need, in new and innovative ways, through the mobile phone. This is the first of many exciting collaborative efforts we will be working on to support access to information in Uganda and more broadly, across Africa. So to everyone who participated in this effort, we say Webale Nyo!

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