By Will Ross
BBC Focus On Africa magazine
New technology in Uganda is helping farmers find out the real price of their crops - and avoid being cheated by unscrupulous middlemen.
The system allows instant access to market prices
Farmers are now able to use their mobile phones to know within seconds knows the current price of maize at markets throughout the country.
This information is available through Foodnet - an organization which works for greater market efficiency and value added processing in the agricultural sector.
"One afternoon we both sat down and designed the system - 15 minutes later we were finished and ready to go," Shaun Ferris of Foodnet - who, together with Gordon Bell of Radio Lira, invented the system - told BBC World Service's Focus On Africa magazine.
Foodnet pays people in towns around the country to find out the prices for produce in the local market.
Once a week the information is sent by fax to Foodnet's Kampala office and is then uploaded onto the South African-owned MTN mobile phone network.
It can then be accessed with a mobile phone via Short Message Service (SMS) - type the keyword, for example, 'maize', send it to phone number 198 and a few seconds later the information is sent back to your phone.
Ugandan farmers often complain that the middlemen cheat them by offering a small fraction of the market price for their products. When faced with fees to pay for children returning to school and swelling medicine bills, a farmer would rather sell at a low price than not at all.
Coffee has one of the biggest price discrepancies
But with access to the market prices, the farmer is at least equipped with the relevant knowledge and is therefore in a better position to negotiate.
"When I used to farm a small area on my own, I had no idea of the market price and it was difficult to sell at a good price - so we were cheated," said farmer James Waibi.
Waibi is part of a co-operative, together with 50 other farmers, in Luzinga, north of Jinja. The well-constructed storage sheds and healthy crops suggest that the combined workforce is paying dividends.
As a group, the farmers are in a stronger bargaining position and can even transport the goods to the market themselves rather than being at the mercy of the visiting buyer.
With his mobile phone James can access the market information for the price of an SMS - 120 shillings (6 US cents).
The Foodnet idea is developing further, with the company now looking at the possibility of adding more local market information to the SMS service .
Farmers can access the price of coffee as traded in London and New York, plus the price in Kampala for raw and processed coffee as listed by the Ugandan Coffee Development Authority.
However, not surprisingly, mobile phones are far too expensive for the vast majority of small scale farmers.
A few hundred metres down the road from James Waibi is Elizephan Walusaga's farm, which grows coffee, maize and sugar cane - but on a much smaller scale.
"I don't know the real market price but they come and buy my coffee at a low price," he said.
Coffee farmers have been having a tough time with prices plummeting on the world market, while a kilogram of coffee is sold in a café in London for the equivalent of 26 US dollars, while a Ugandan farmer earns about 20 US cents for a kilogram of the unprocessed coffee.
For these reasons, farmers like Elizephan need as much bargaining power as possible when it comes to selling coffee.
The full version of this article appears in the January-March 2004 issue of BBC Focus On Africa magazine.