Text symrabies to 4321

“Check this out”, Deepak, Nepal’s Head of the Markets and Livelihoods Programme called over to me. When I came over, he had his phone in his hand, texting ‘pai symrabies’ to 4321. Immediately he got a text back: ‘Aggressive, drooling, choking sound, sensitive to noise and movements, lack of appetite and excessive sleeping. SMS “treatrabies” to 4321 for treatment options’.

Of course we texted ‘treatrabies’, and we got this message back: ‘Isolate animal. Do not touch or come in contact with Saliva. Call vet or para vet. SMS “vet” and your location number. E.g. “vet1” if you are in Dullu’.

The next text had a couple of names, addresses and phone numbers.

This text messaging service is part of a new project in Nepal called Access to Information (A2I). You can see that it’s new because Deepak’s demonstration is not completely ready. Shortly the service will have its own dedicated number and once that’s set up, you won’t have to put ‘pai’ in front of your requests. That just stands for ‘Practical Action Information’ and is required because 4321 is Focus One’s number. Focus One is the company behind text message horoscopes and dating compatibility tests in Nepal. Who better to partner with to deliver a virtual encyclopedia of information for agriculture, livestock-rearing, and foraging of non-timber forest products to the poor!?

Each text costs 3 Nepali Rupees, that’s about 2 pence. Of that, 2 rupees go to NTC, the national mobile network. Half a rupee goes to Focus One, and half a rupee comes back to Practical Action. The reason for that half rupee coming back to us is that we hope the demand for the service will grow enough to pay for a permanent person to keep the system up to date. So this model is built for sustainability.

And it’s built for scale. The service works anywhere in the country.

Practical Action Nepal is drawing on its network of experts in agriculture in the government and private sector to feed the system with up-to-date information about market prices, disease outbreaks, local weather forecasts and much more.

A lot of this information is already out there, publicly available, but the problem is that poor people out in the hills and mountains, who could really make use of it, can’t get hold of it. Like everything Practical Action does, the need came before the idea. Practical Action Nepal has drawn on a wealth of analysis conducted with the participation of poor farmers to find out what their biggest problems are. Lack of basic information is one of the biggest issues.

All well and good, but what happens if you don’t have a phone. Good question. Although Nepal’s phone ownership has been growing nearly exponentially in the last few years, it’s still fairly low compared to other countries, including those in Africa. Furthermore the distribution of phones is heavily weighted towards the urban population, and in rural areas towards those in the service sector. That’s why for A2I, this mobile text messaging service and its sister Voice Messaging (VM) service are not intended to reach the last mile.

(The last mile is part of Practical Action’s development-speak. It means that last distance (spatial, economic, social…) between those doing ok in difficult situations, and those that aren’t. Reaching those that aren’t – that last mile – is what Practical Action is all about.)

A2I’s text messaging and VM services are designed for local animal health workers, agricultural service providers and community forest chairpersons to access useful information. In many places these are the only people reaching the last mile and providing them with advice. A2I’s services are designed to help them provide the last mile with much, much better, up-to-date, advice.

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