I was reading the Economist on my flight to DC this evening and was thrilled to see my old friend Mark Davies featured in an article about his new project, TradeNet. Mark is one of the key figures in Ghana’s IT scene. After retiring from the dotcom world in 2000 (he was one of the founders of Metrobeat, which became part of CitySearch), he poured his energy into the founding of BusyInternet, a remarkable cybercafe and business incubator in downtown Accra. In more recent years, Mark has been helping to build software businesses in Ghana, working with programmers around the world, but especially focusing on African software developers. Given the model I started Geekcorps with – encouraging local IT entrepreneurship – I can’t help but be a fan.
TradeNet is designed to take advantage of the boom in mobile phones on the African continent, a boom that’s put mobile phones in the hands of 10% of Africans… an amazing growth over the number of people connected via wired telephony. TradeNet is designed to be an open marketplace for buyers and sellers of agricultural products throughout West Africa. The reason for this is simple: most farmers sell their goods to wholesalers located near to them. They might get much better prices for their goods selling to customers located elsewhere in the country or the region. But without accurate pricing information, it’s difficult for a farmer to invest the money neccesary to bring goods to a faraway market.
TradeNet tries to solve this problem by letting farmers and customers post their products and find each other via the web and SMS. They’re building a set of server software that NGOs or for-profits could use to build local or national exchanges. As the software gains popularity, it should become increasingly possible to search for products both locally and internationally using little more than a mobile phone and an account.
This sort of system has been tried before, largely by NGOs and government-sponsored development projects. (I remember writing a proposal for USAID for a project called “Plant to Plate” which used web and SMS to price agricultural commodities – pity it never got funded…) What’s likely to be different here is that Davies and crew are making the software available so that this can start in many different markets, and are pursuing an ad support model which lowers or eliminates transaction costs.
There’s huge barriers to success, of course. While Africa now has 60% mobile coverage across the continent, there are many rural areas where mobiles don’t work. And transportation in the region – especially across international borders, needs major improvement. Then again, investment in international transport infrastructure is unlikely to happen until there’s increased trans-national trade… and many smart economists argue that one of the reasons Africa has such a hard time economically is a lack of trans-national economic integration.
My worries aside, I’ve learned not to bet against Mark, and I think this is one of the most exciting projects he’s launched yet.