Food aid by mobile phone: Concern’s new venture in Kenya

Food aid by mobile phone: Concern’s new venture in Kenya

Thousands of villagers in remote Kenya are anxiously awaiting text messages, writes Rob Crilly, in the Rift Valley.

The Delivery of emergency aid to the hungry people of Kerio Valley in one of Kenya’s more remote regions was signalled not by the rumbling of heavy trucks or the sight of cargo planes in the sky.

It came in the form of a beep delivered to dozens of mobile phones, sending hundreds of women who had waited all day into a frenzy of excitement.

“I have got it, I have got it!” screamed one woman as she raced around holding her phone aloft. They had not been waiting for food or plastic sheeting or blankets- but a code to be sent to their phones which they can use to collect cash.

The technique has been pioneered by the Irish aid agency Concern, which sees it as a faster and more efficient way of getting help to people in need.

Anne Ejakait, who is running the programme for Concern, said: “If we think of bringing in food items in an emergency then we want to respond as quickly as possible. This technology can get the money here in minutes compared with the very difficult logistics of bringing in food.” The irony is that the people of the Kerio Valley are surrounded by food. Juicy avocados blush red in the sun, the markets are full of bananas, and happy goats play king of the castle on tree-stumps.

However, no one has any money to buy that food. Dumping sacks of maize would fill bellies but put farmers out of business.

The alternative works through a mobile phone operator, Safaricom, which runs a money transfer scheme called m-Pesa. This allows people to send cash from one part of the country to another, by paying money to an agent who then sends a text message to the recipient, who collects the cash from a second agent.

Concern has taken things one step further by paying €20,000 for distribution to some of Kenya’s poorest people. It is the latest example of mobile phones helping people in remote areas of the developing world.

Farmers receive market information directly on their phones, and health workers use mobiles to collect epidemiological data, or to distribute advice.

Until now, all of this had passed Tarik Tealei Teresha by. She does not know her age – probably in her 60s – much less how to work the mobile phone she has been given to share with nine other families.

“This system is good,” she says, “but that’s as much as I know.” She has her shopping list ready for her children and grandchildren.

It has been a month since she has eaten meat. Like most people here, she is only able to afford one meal of thick maize porridge a day. Where once she would have cooked a chicken or beef stew to go with it, now she is surviving on the fleshy fruit of the Taralakwo tree. “When I get the money I will buy maize, meat and milk for the children,” she says, waiting patiently for her phone to beep with the vital information she needs to collect 320 shillings per person in her family – enough for about a fortnight’s food.

Her story is typical.

Wilson Lokopwa, the local chief, says his area has been badly affected in the wake of Kenya’s disputed presidential election.

Long-standing tribal rivalries exploded, pitting the government-supporting Pokot against the opposition supporters in the Tugen.

“After the election they started killing people, burning homes. Stores of maize were taken from homes, and cattle and goats were stolen. Now there is maize in the market but it is more expensive, and people are hungry.”

As chief, he worked with other community leaders and Concern to draw up criteria to decide who would be eligible for cash.

The result was about 550 households in need of urgent help. They targeted women to make sure the cash would be spent on household goods.

Aid workers will monitor the spending to see if it is worth extending the programme across the country to potentially 16,000 families for about €3 million.

Anne O’Mahoney, Concern’s Kenya country director, said sending cash meant transport costs could be avoided, greenhouse gas emissions reduced, and it empowered people by allowing them to choose how to spend it.

“You may say some people will waste it. But then they say some would sell food or other commodities anyway.

This article was originally published in the Irish Times. Visit the Irish Times site


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