When Vietnamese farmers headed out for the sugarcane harvest this year, 200 of them took a new tool into the fields—their cell phones. In 2009, Dung Hoang, Microsoft’s business development manager and J.William Fulbright alumnus (2008), helped farmers in Vietnam get crucial information via text messaging during the sugarcane harvest.

A pilot project sponsored by Microsoft and Tate & Lyle, one of the world’s largest sugar-refining businesses, helped bring crucial harvesting information to farmers via text messaging. The project in Vietnam’s Nghe An province integrated text messaging with Microsoft enterprise applications to help farmers maximize profits and improve the productivity of Tate & Lyle’s Nghe An factory.

The project, which launched in February, was a successful example of how the power of ICT can improve people’s lives in developing countries. “In this part of the world, the mobile phone is far and away the most ubiquitous technology around,” Dung said. “Mobile phones are sold to more people in one year than the total PC install base from the last 30. Our proposition is how we can get people with these simple mobile devices connected to the Internet. That’s what’s so exciting.”

The pilot involved a small number of farmers in Vietnam’s vast sugarcane industry. At the peak of harvesting season, the single factory involved in the experiment was receiving hundreds of tons of cane every day from 25,000 small farmers. “When you think about what we’re trying to do, it’s quite sophisticated,” said Michael Goonewardene, Tate & Lyle’s general director at the factory, in interviews with Vietnamese journalists. “There are a lot of complications involved.”

And if things go awry, those complications can have a real financial impact on the farmers. If they cut too soon, the sugarcane quickly starts to rot, and the quality of their product is diminished, as is their compensation from the factory. Typically, farmers call the factory to find out when the trucks will come to their farms, which is how they determine when to harvest. Call centers aren’t always staffed, and even when they are, it can take awhile to track down the information.

Using text messaging speeds the process by enabling farmers to time their harvests precisely, which means they will save money. In news program that aired in Vietnam, Hoang Van Dung, a sugarcane grower, said the text messaging solution let him be much more proactive in arranging his harvesting with less time and effort than before. The factory saves money, too, by dramatically reducing calls to the call center.

Based on survey results from the farmers who participated, the pilot was a great success—98 percent said they would use the service again. The success of the project offers promise for similar endeavors in Africa, South America, and other parts of Asia, Dung said. “If we’re going to bring ICT to the world’s poorest populations, we need to leverage the technology they have in their hands. The mobile phone can be a tool to access information that resides on software or in the cloud. This is how we can bring Web 2.0 to mobile users.”

Recognizing the project’s impact on people’s lives and its potential to reduce the digital divide, in July 2009, Microsoft gave Dung the Circle of Excellence Award recognizing the company’s finest contributors.

The work has appeared in the National Television Network of Vietnam: