Mobile phones key in tracking hunger

One in 10 people do not have enough food to eat in rural areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite it being Africa’s second largest country with vast fertile lands and thousands of lakes, rivers and streams.

Food insecurity, which is the “availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life,” is one of the major consequences of a crisis that is plaguing the country, especially its eastern provinces.

More than 20 years of successive wars, skirmishes, rebellions have severely disrupted the entire food production industry.

In North Kivu province, where more than 700,000 people are internally displaced, the World Food Programme relies on new technology to monitor food security data among some of the country’s most vulnerable communities.

The agency has used mobile phones and voice recognition software since 2014 to regularly collect food security data.

The mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) project has been implemented in 15 countries with the first-ever pilot project taking place in Eastern DRC.

It has been successfully implemented in Mugunga III, a site hosting more than 4,600 internally displaced people (IDP) near Goma.

This is just the beginning of mobile data collection in DRC. The WFP is planning to expand it to other parts of the province in the coming months, and price data collection is being rolled out nationally.

The idea behind mVAM is to remotely gather information on food access, consumption, prices and household-level coping mechanisms, which allows the WFP to better assess the food security situation in a given zone and provide emergency assistance when possible.

WFP staff members Mireille Hangi and Jean-Marie Kaseku call approximately 300 respondents residing in the Mugunga III IDP camp every month to ask them a series of precise questions: “In the last seven days, how many days did you eat protein? Cereals? Fats?.

“If you didn’t have enough to eat, what coping strategies did you employ to have food to eat? Did you borrow money from a neighbour? Do you reduce adult family members’ rations? Do you decrease the frequency of your daily meals?”

Remote data collection has proven to be a more flexible alternative in a country such as DRC, where access to vulnerable populations is often hampered by the absence of roads and ongoing insecurity.

This process is faster and cheaper than traditional face-to-face interviews, which often cost US$20 to $40 per household and take four to six weeks to transcribe and analyze.

With mVAM surveys, the cost of a phone call is $1-$2 per household using a live operator from WFP and even less if using SMS.

The project has demonstrated its usefulness where high rates of vulnerability and illiteracy prevail. The WFP is able to better understand what people need, making its assistance more effective.

It allows for real time data collection, providing a full overview from the beneficiaries themselves of changes in their food needs in a given area.

However, technology has its own challenges. Access to electricity to charge the phone is a major issue for people living in a camp or in remote areas.

To overcome this, the WFP installed a solar charging station in the camp, and a committee elected among the survey respondents manages matters related to charging issues.

An unintended benefit is that beneficiaries have learned how to use cellphones and are able to stay better connected to family members in other parts of the country. Each respondent receives 50 cents in phone credit following the call as compensation for their time. The beneficiary household can use this credit to call family and friends outside of the camp.

They also have greater access to information on prices and distribution dates and are able to express their questions and concerns via the two-way communication system.

It’s clear that new technologies are exploring new ways to better serve populations most in need. And this is just the beginning.

Berger is a public information officer for the United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

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