Information as aid in East Africa's famine

In partnership with “infoasaid“, a collaboration between the BBC World Service Trust and Internews, ActionAid is rolling out a project in Isiolo district, Kenya which aims to help combat food insecurity amongst communities affected by the ongoing drought.

Information as aid in East Africa's famine
Author(s):
Airlie Taylor | Posted by Ken Banks

In any emergency, be it natural disaster or man-made, long- or short-term, people’s lives are turned upside down. Knowing what’s happening, where to go for assistance and who to call for help is crucial to their survival and recovery.

As famine is declared in six regions of neighbouring Somalia, this edition of Mobile Message highlights the work of ActionAid in improving vital communication with drought-affected populations in northern Kenya.

Mobile Message is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Airlie Taylor

In partnership with “infoasaid“, a collaboration between the BBC World Service Trust and Internews, ActionAid is rolling out a project in Isiolo district, Kenya which aims to help combat food insecurity amongst communities affected by the ongoing drought.

The project uses innovative technology – FrontlineSMS and Freedom Fone – to transmit information simultaneously to multiple recipients from a laptop computer.

Basic mobile phones and solar chargers were provided to 250 Relief Committee members who live within the communities we are working with, and who are themselves recipients of food supplies provided by ActionAid.

ActionAid’s Data Officer in Isiolo, Rahab Mburunga, explains how the project works.

“I’m in charge of the communications hub in Isiolo which coordinates communications with the communities we are working with on drought response in Isiolo district. Every Monday I receive a list of livestock prices from the Ministry of Livestock and input them in shorthand into the FrontlineSMS system. The information is then sent out via text message to Relief Committee members and ActionAid’s Food Monitors, who are based within communities. The Food Monitors then transcribe the livestock prices, in the local language, onto a bulletin and post it on a noticeboard in their community. They then organise a community gathering to alert people to the fact that new information is available and talk through the prices. I follow the same process to provide information on staple food commodity prices in Isiolo market, using information sourced from the Ministry of Agriculture”.

The livestock market information empowers drought-hit pastoralists to achieve better prices for animals that they sell to traders – boosting their cash income. The food price information allows them to keep tabs on the price of staple foods such as maize, beans and vegetable oil, on which they increasingly depend in times of drought.

Illiteracy rates in the area are high, so the project has set up a recorded message service to complement information sent out by SMS. It allows members of the public to hear the same market information spoken in Kiswahili by calling a special information line.

“Using Freedom Fone software, I record and upload messages on livestock and food prices,” continues Rahab. “Relief Committee members and members of the communities we work with can call if they want to hear the information directly. I record two new messages a week – one on a Monday and one on a Friday. We are also looking into providing additional information on the recorded information line – mainly on weather conditions with information from the Meteorological Department, and other humanitarian information such as on healthcare, from the Department of Health. It’s important that the messages we record and send out, either through Freedom Fone or FrontlineSMS, have a legitimate source so that people trust the information we are providing”.

“The Freedom Fone line also allows community members and Relief Committee members to leave messages with information direct from their communities. It’s particularly useful for illiterate members of the community, who may be unable to write text messages. Recently we received text messages from Relief Committee members reporting outbreaks of disease amongst livestock in Garba Tula. When we receive such information we pass it on to the relevant government department, in this case the Ministry of Livestock”.

Together, the two channels of mobile information allow pastoralists living in isolated communities to access reliable and up to date market information. They also allow ActionAid to keep in closer touch with the village relief committees that handle food distribution to individual families.

Faster data gathering from the field

An additional aim of the Isiolo communications project is to speed up collection of vital data from the field.

Using FrontlineSMS, ActionAid is able to send electronic forms to the mobile phones of our field staff in Isiolo County. These forms can be filled in electronically and returned immediately to our office in Isiolo in the form of SMS messages.

These forms are now being used to transmit time-sensitive reports on activities such as food distributions and food for work programmes, as well as information on malnutrition rates and local food prices between the Food Monitors and our staff in our Isiolo office.

“We use the FrontlineSMS forms to inform Food Monitors about when the next consignment of food supplies will be delivered to their community, whether any supplies are missing from the pipeline on any given week, and if there are any delays in dispatching the supplies,” explains Rahab. “At the same time, the Food Monitors text us information reporting back on how food distributions have gone – whether all community members attended a distribution, and whether they received the correct rations”.

“This project is important for ActionAid because we can get feedback directly from the communities, whereas previously information came only through the Relief Committee members. It also helps establish a better relationship between the communities we are working with and ActionAid. I enjoy this work – it is very quick and easy to do, and makes a big difference to both ActionAid and the communities we are working with”.

This communications project in Kenya is part of a wider ongoing partnership between ActionAid and infoasaid, aimed at integrating two-way communications with disaster-affected communities in our emergency preparedness and response programming. This in turn improves the effectiveness of aid delivery.

Airlie Taylor is Communications Officer for ActionAid’s International Emergencies and Conflict Team, responsible for promoting understanding of ActionAid’s human rights based approach to emergencies and conflict. She is also leading ActionAid’s engagement with the infoasaid consortium to integrate communications with disaster-affected communities in ActionAid’s emergency preparedness and response programming, and is an active member of the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities Network.

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