Faculty Research Profiles

JENNY C. AKER – ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF DEVELOPMENT ECONOMICS

A farmer in Niger receives a SMS on his cell phone, reads about a change in the price of grain, and decides to hold off on his 8-hour trip to the market for a week, until the price goes up. This may seem simple enough to most people, but Assistant Professor Jenny Aker, F97, knows that the illiteracy rate in Niger is 80%. Not only is this farmer reading, but his literacy is functional, he is not reading children’s books, but information that will improve his daily life. This insight, combined with her expertise in agricultural economics, information technology, and regional knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa, led to the design of Aker’s innovative research in Niger, recently featured in The Economist’s special report on telecoms in emerging markets.

Professor Aker in Kibera, Kenya
Photo courtesy Matt Herbert

Aker’s current work is a continuation of her dissertation research at Berkeley, which demonstrated how the spread of mobile phones reduced price variations in grain markets in Niger from 2001 to 2006. While conducting this research in collaboration with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Aker’s team observed that previously illiterate traders were teaching themselves how to read the information on their cell phones, since voice calls are more expensive then text messages. Based upon these observations, Aker worked with CRS to design Project ABC: Alphabetisation de Base par Cellulaire. This two-year program is assessing the potential to teach rural farmers functional literacy by providing access to information on market prices through SMS messages. The project’s impact is being tested through a rigorous program evaluation, identifying the change in literacy in the areas receiving the program versus those in a comparison group receiving traditional, non-cell phone based literacy programs. The project is a partnership between CRS/Niger, the Ministry of Non-Formal Literacy, the Agricultural Market Information System, in addition to Aker and her research colleagues at Oxford and UC-Davis.

Aker became a full-time Assistant Professor of Development Economics at the Fletcher School in the Fall of 2009, and she is already having an impact on students through her research and approach to her field. Aker is returning to The Fletcher School for the second time, having obtained a master’s degree in Development Economics and Public International Law in 1997. Most recently, she received her Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics at the University of California-Berkeley. Her research interests focus on the impact of information technology on market actors’ behavior, as well as the role of agro-food market performance in producer and consumer welfare, primarily in West and Central Africa. Professor Aker is teaching classes on the micro-economics of development and econometrics. Two students, Joshua Haynes and Sarah Haddock, were given the opportunity to work with Professor Aker this summer to assist her with ongoing research. In addition, she participated in the student-organized Fletcher M-Banking 2009 conference in May 2009 in Nairobi, Kenya. She continues to demonstrate her commitment and support for Fletcher students, and her cutting-edge research will be a great asset to the school in the coming years.

Christine Martin, F10