Africa: Google and Grameen Foundation launch AppLab

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The Grameen Foundation (a micro-credit bank) and Google have launched AppLab, a range of applications available via SMS (Short Message Service), in Uganda. This initiative allows those without Internet to access information quickly and cheaply. This service will soon be introduced to other African countries.

Henceforth, high-tech phones are not the only ones to provide access to the Google search engine. June 29, The Grameen Foundation microcredit bank, MTN (mobile phone company) and Google launched Google SMS, a range of applications available via sms, under their AppLab (Application Laboratory) project. For now, the service is only available in Uganda, but it should soon be introduced to other countries.

The application is simple: the user sends an SMS with a question (to Google SMS Tips) or a keyword (to Google SMS search) and receives an answer that best matches their search. The service replaces online search engines, while the computer is replaced by a mobile phone. A farmer can, therefore, receive forecasts, market prices, advice on how to grow crops through biological methods, on his/her mobile phone, among others.

AppLab also provides information services in the health area; locating the nearest clinic, information on HIV and malaria, answers to adolescent puberty-related questions.

Google Trader, a virtual marketplace service, can also be accessed: this service allows sellers of agricultural products and commodities to locate and communicate with buyers. The phone service is expected to cut travel costs, while making information that has so far been inaccessible available to certain populations, especially in rural areas where electricity and Internet access is often poor.

Meeting the needs of local people

To implement the project, Grameen Foundation has been working with local partners to help identify the needs of the population. Before the service, adapted to specific local populations, is launched, a preliminary study is conducted to ensure that the needs of the local populations are met. In Uganda, the Grameen Foundation has been working with local agencies since 2007. The Busoga Rural Open Source Development Initiative (BRODSI), among others, provided data on the needs of farmers and helped develop solutions proposed by AppLab.

Grameen Foundation is also involved in assisting the development of village phone operators for the benefit of users who cannot read, do not speak English or own a laptop computer. The service includes the possibility to rent a mobile telephone or even ask for help to send and receive SMS.

The service, since its inception, has continued to grow. When a request is unknown to the search engine, it is directed to a service which processes and relays information to the Google SMS database. SMS use is expanding in Africa and signify a niche market for operators who wish to reach less accessible areas. A few months ago, mobile phone operators across sub-Saharan Africa launched banking services via SMS.

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