Voice messages help farmers in Bangladesh

It technologies can help create sustainable development, but you also have to evaluate the initiatives for them to have a prolonged effect, says Associate Professor Lars Rune Christensen, who is developing an evaluation framework on the basis of case studies in, for example, Bangladesh

Lars Rune ChristensenBusiness IT DepartmentResearchbusiness

What is your current research about?
I am researching how you can evaluate IT initiatives in development contexts. Here, the primary focus is to create IT services that can make a practical difference in peoples’ lives, and improve their living conditions. The creation of innovative, creative, new technologies, which is often the focus in a western context, is a secondary concern. The idea in a number of these projects is that the IT initiative should contribute to the fulfilment of one or more of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, such as eradicating poverty, promoting gender equality or counteract climate change – and this is, of course, an obvious parameter to include when evaluating a project.

One of the projects that I have helped evaluate was a pilot project in Bangladesh, which offered an agricultural information service to the farmers. The service consisted of voice messages, which the farmers received on the mobile phones, with advice on how to treat their crops. The project registered the time at which each farmer had planted their crop, and sent the messages synchronously with the relevant crop cycle. The project took into account that the farmers only had access to quite simple mobile phones.

What have you discovered so far?

There were three main parameters, which were important to include in the evaluation of this project: user experience, impact on farming practises and financial sustainability. The service received a great level of user satisfaction, partly because it used voice messages. Most farmers in developing countries are illiterate, and it is important to factor this in to the project. The initiative also had a direct impact on the farmers’ use of fertilizer and pesticides, which meant that their crop yield increased. This showed the importance of targeted messages timed with the specific crop cycle. In terms of financial sustainability, there were some issues. A pilot project is free of charge, and the farmers were not necessarily ready to pay for the service in the future. Their living conditions are generally so insecure that they are unwilling to put aside a fixed amount of money, which otherwise makes up one of their few safeguards against disasters. Generally, such pilot projects rarely have an actual business model to ensure that the project can keep running in the future.

What do you find most exciting about your field?
It is, of course, exciting and relevant to look at how IT technologies are used in the real world, especially when they are used to improves people’s living conditions. Evaluation frameworks, like those I am developing, fill out a hole in the research literature, where, for instance, there is not a lot of knowledge about how to evaluate these IT initiatives in the Third World Countries.

More information
Lars Rune Christensen, Associate Professor, email lrc@itu.dk

Louise Eltard-Larsen, Research Communications Officer, phone 7218 5304, email loel@itu.dk