Rural Trade Communications

Stage 2 E-Team Grantees

Recipient Institution: 
University of Colorado at Boulder
Principal Investigator: 
Alan Mickelson
Grant Amount: 

An off the grid communication platform, supported by subscription fees, that will allow direct communication between farmers, transportation providers and end users.

See the videos here:

The team:
Rural Trade Communications – Awarded $16,600

The team members:

  • David Espinoza, PhD candidate, RTC technical lead
  • Jared Leventhal, undergraduate student in Civil Engineering and Business Administration; RTC business model development lead
  • Alan Mickelson, associate professor of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering; RTC project manager
  • Christie Ritter, undergraduate student in Environmental Engineering; RTC social analysis lead

Principal Investigator:
Dr. Alan Mickelson

University of Colorado, Boulder

The innovation:
A for-profit, subscription-based cell phone service that links together farmers, transporters and merchants in the Peruvian rain forest.

The problem:
Farmers along the Napo River in the Peruvian rain forest are often underpaid for their crops and are at a severe economic disadvantage that locks them into poverty.

This is due to their isolation: cell phone signals can’t penetrate the thick forest canopy, making expensive and spotty satellite phones the only choice. Additionally, there are no roads, making slow, infrequent river transport the only means of moving goods from one place to another. Without cell phones or the ability to travel, farmers are unaware of current market prices and often sell their crops at the village riverbank for meager returns on investment.

The solution:
Rural Trade Communications (RTC) is taking advantage of existing infrastructure in the region in order to provide a solution. In the early 2000’s, the United Nations funded the construction of 17 communication towers along the Napo—towers tall enough to rise above the forest canopy and make cell phone communication possible. The team installed a WiFi Long Distance network on the towers, making cell phone usage a reality.

The team is now looking to make commerce in the area more efficient with a cell phone-based subscription service. For $5 a month, users of the service—farmers, merchants down-river in the major market town of Iquitos, buyers that travel the river and local entrepreneurs—would belong to the RTC network. Using their cell phones, members of the network would, for the first time, be able to arrange transactions between themselves by phone. A farmer could spread the word that he has bananas for sale, a restaurant owner in Iquitos could bid on them and a facilitator could arrange a fair market price between them. A traveling buyer in the network would then pick up the bananas and bring them directly to Iquitos. RTC will take a small cut of the transaction in order to sustain the business and the facilitator of the transaction will also take a small fee.

The future:
The RTC team is planning pilot tests of the network in three Napo communities while simultaneously monitoring two control communities at the same time. They will gather as much data as possible on how the operation works, then make a decision on whether or not to incorporate.

In the long term, the team would like to see its model scaled throughout Latin America and as far as Africa—wherever there’s the cell phone capacity.

Tips for student innovators:
Alan Mickelson advises “Perseverance. These things are not going to work out the first time. You aren't going to get funded the first time. You just have to stay at it. You have to want to do it.”

Jared Leventhal recommends student innovators “Have fun and be creative.”

David Espinoza tells innovators that “You have to really believe in your project. If you have passion for it, the time and effort and resources invested will feel worthwhile.”