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News || Thursday, 11 August 2011

How Mobile Phones Can Help Solve East Africa’s Food Crisis: Our Thoughts

Souktel has been tackling poverty, unemployment and other humanitarian crises for the past five years--all through mobile technology. In 2009, we helped the UN World Food Program (WFP) in Gaza to plan emergency aid delivery through SMS alerts. Today we reach over 150,000 Somalis and Kenyans with news and information, also sent via text-message. As the current food shortages worsen in Somalia, Kenya and neighboring nations, we believe that mobile phones can help address this crisis too. Here’s why:
 
In any crisis zone, we’ve learned that quick communication is the key to survival. Whether it’s an earthquake or a famine, affected communities need to find out immediately where they can get food and medical help. But poor infrastructure is often an obstacle to fast information flows: In a region like the Horn of Africa, the roads are potholed, communities are dispersed, and Internet isn't readily available.
 
At the same time, though, mobile phones—which only need basic infrastructure—have taken Somalia by storm, with cell phone ownership growing by over 1600% from 2002 to 2007 alone (while web access grew by only 10%). The Horn of Africa has five mobile networks vying for customer attention, with new companies entering the market each year. Mobile handsets are cheap, and text messages cost as little as 1 cent.
 
Leveraging these conditions to fight the food crisis can be done easily and cheaply. Here’s how:
 
1. Use mobiles to send out large scale—but carefully targeted—alerts about food, medicine and shelter. Since 2010 Souktel has sent weekly news and information messages to a quarter-million mobile subscribers, in partnership with UNDP and the BBC World Service Trust. At the same time, in Gaza, we've helped the UN’s WFP keep 11,000 families informed about available food aid. If a refugee camp is full, or a new facility is opening, SMS alerts can help stop a stampede or spread the word. Targeted updates for specific audiences, like new mothers or youth, can help often-overlooked groups get assistance quickly and discreetly.
 
2. Use mobiles to plan and track aid supply delivery. In Palestine, we've run basic SMS data collection services that let field workers send requests for supplies--and track amounts of food and medicine available on the ground. When contact between field sites and regional offices is limited, these mobile services can fill a critical gap.
 
3. Use mobiles to help communities tell their story. Right now, we're mainly hearing about the food crisis through aid agencies--but not directly from the people who are affected. Text-in feedback services can change this, giving a voice to the voiceless: In Darfur, Souktel runs a hotline that lets ordinary citizens share their views about local events with international NGOs and regional media outlets, all via SMS. Setting up a similar service in Somalia is easy, and can help aid agencies--and average citizens around the world--to get a clearer picture of events on the ground.
 
The scale of the current food crisis is massive, with millions of families displaced and multiple countries hit hard. However, mobile technology offers a way to help at an equally large scale--with the ability to send key information across the entire Horn of Africa. In the weeks ahead we'll be working with aid providers across the region, offering free access to our mobile gateways in Puntland, South-Central Somalia, and Northeast Kenya. Their work--providing food and shelter--is key to combating the crisis. We're honored to help get the word out to those in need.