By Katrina Crew, British Red Cross
Twenty years ago fax machines were almost everywhere, but today most people would be hard-pressed to recite their company’s fax number. Soon they’ll probably go the way of the telegraph, becoming dusty museum pieces. Communications technology is changing rapidly, and humanitarian organisations are adapting alongside it.
But how can technology be used to fight food insecurity in a region as large and diverse as east Africa?
Karen Peachey, the British Red Cross’ east Africa representative, gives a few ideas: “Mobile phones are everywhere in east Africa, even in many remote areas. If mobile companies could improve access further then people’s lives can change. A mobile phone gives you access to information –you can find out that your goat is worth more money than the middleman is offering, meaning you have better access to food, medical care, and education.”
Mobile money is another technology that can change lives, and it’s hugely popular in east Africa. Mobile phones can be linked to a virtual account, and people easily transfer money from their own account to others’. Mobile money can be used like cash and is particularly important in places like Somalia, which has a sophisticated mobile network, allowing Somalis to use their mobile phones to send their families money in rural areas.
And Kenyans, as well as using mobile money to send to their families, are using their phones to sms donations to fundraising appeals, like the Kenyans for Kenya appeal which is raising money to help parts of Kenya that are suffering a food crisis.
Stephen McDowell, east Africa food security advisor, explains the importance of mobile money in helping people recover from disaster: “We might not be Facebook- or Twitter-driven here yet, but in terms of mobile money we’re way ahead of Europe. Mobile money means your phone becomes a bank, and there are lots of applications – like paying salaries.
“For the Red Cross, one of the most helpful ways we can help people recover from disasters is by helping them work. Moving cash is dangerous, but if you can pay employees through your phone then it’s much safer and more accountable.
“These are responses to disasters. We’re also asking ourselves how we can use these tools for preventing disasters or helping people be prepared before they happen. Here we get into interesting projects looking at long-term weather forecasts, and finding ways of sharing price information between sellers and buyers. We keep trying, and it’s just a matter of time before we get it right.”
The Kenya Red Cross has close links with local research institutions, and they work with the Kenya Meteorological Office to understand better where and when the rain will fall – or fail. This means the Red Cross can be prepared and help communities start planning early for a crisis. Getting the information out to vulnerable communities is the next step. What better way to do so than through mobile technology that most people already use, developing partnerships with telecoms companies to make such messages cheap?
Humanitarian organisations need to keep abreast of changes in technology and how communities are using it themselves. We need to be willing to experiment with new ways of using technology – and learn from the experiments that will sometimes fail.
And mobile technology is key to helping the younger generation of east Africans prepare for future droughts, floods and other factors that leave people without access to food. Stephen says: “So many people have cell phones. They’re going to be one of the stock tools of our trade in the near future. This is the internet generation in east Africa, so we’ll have to speak with them differently than we spoke to their parents.”