When ActionAid International Kenya (AAIK) partnered with Infosaid to kick-off the FrontlineSMS project, the objective was simple: deliver communication as a form of humanitarian assistance, and as a means of improving the delivery of food assistance. Three years down the line, the novel project has, however, brought unprecedented benefits, empowering local communities to make informed decisions on matters affecting their livelihoods and opening up the area to the rest of the world.
The project rolled out at a cost of 27,000 pounds, is innovative in its use of mobile technology solutions in a remote semi-arid geographical area, and has ensured timely flow of vital information between AAIK, other humanitarian organisations and beneficiaries of relief aid.
This two-way flow of information from both ends has helped the residents who are mainly semi-nomadic pastoralists from Borana, Samburu, Turkana and Somali ethnic groups become active participants in relief efforts hence boosting their own recovery process.
Before the project was introduced, communication between AAIK and drought-affected communities in the area were generally effective but slow and labour-intensive as it was basically through face-to-face meetings.
FrontlineSMS project officer, Ms Rahab Mburunga, explains that due to poor road conditions, security incidents, and the time required to meet relief committees in various locations, AAIK field officers were sometimes unable to communicate critical information in time.
Rahab says there were complaints of food distribution trucks arriving without any prior information, resulting in long hours of food distributions due to a lack of community preparation and absent recipients.
“In some instances, community members also expressed frustration when children unexpectedly had to abandon their classrooms to inform their parents of a truck’s arrival,” explains Rahab.
With food security worsening in the area in the summer of 2011, and the number of people in need of food aid rising, there was increased pressure on AAIK to ensure fast and reliable communication with local population hence the partnership with Infosaid that led to the Frontline SMS project.
Today, the project that started in 2012 has brought about seamless and timely flow of information and changed the scenario for the better for more than 59,300 beneficiaries.
It involved the purchase and distribution of 250 mobile Nokia phones and solar chargers to relief committee members elected from beneficiaries of the relief aid. About 30 Java-enabled mobile phones were also distributed to AAIK field officers, staff in the Isiolo office, warehouse managers and food distribution truck drivers.
The criteria used to select relief committee members who would receive the equipment were lack of a mobile handset within the committee, access to a mobile phone network and the ability to read and write.
“A FrontlineSMS hub was then installed at the ActionAid’s Isiolo office from which bulk text messages would be distributed to the field officers and relief committee members from time to time,” explains Rahab, who also handles operations at the hub.
To ensure effective implementation, AAIK staff were trained on FrontlineSMS, the development and dissemination of key messages, responding to feedback as well as other components of the project namely FrontlineForms and FreedomFone.
The FrontlineSMS allows the same text message to be sent to large groups of people from a computer linked to a mobile phone line. It also allows incoming messages to be monitored and the numbers of all those who have sent texts to be logged and captured for future use.
In a week, Rahab notes, the hub sends out 10 to 12 messages while from the community they get between 20 and 35. The project uses mobile telephony technology to send a single message to a large population of people through the mobile service provider, Safaricom, platform which costs Sh10 a day for 200 messages.
The bulk messages on relief aid give details on the quantity and type of rations and distribution schedules and venues to relief committee members who then relay the information to beneficiaries.
But the messages are not limited to relief supplies alone. Messages on weather forecast, health issues affecting the communities and market prices for farm produce and livestock are also sent out to the communities.
“From the community, we always get messages acknowledging receipt of food rations, requests for information on project activities and updates about the situation of the roads when it rains or if there are incidences of insecurity in certain areas,” says Rahab.
“Information flowing from the beneficiaries is very crucial for us as it enables us make decisions on when and where to distribute food. We also pass other information touching on disease outbreaks and insecurity to relevant government agencies, who come to the aid of the affected villages,” she adds.
In an area where men are rarely found in the homes as they travel with their livestock from one place to the other in search of water and pasture, the project designers were tactical in distributing the phones mainly to women members of the relief committee.
“Women are naturally good at sharing information while engaging in other daily chores like fetching water from the river and firewood in the forests, hence any messages sent to them would reach a large number of residents within a short time,” she notes.
The use of Frontline Forms to electronically gather data from the field has also saved time taken by field officers to manually writing down information or inputting information into a computer, ensuring faster reporting of data and analysis of trends.
Although the project has been a huge success, Rahab explains the quality of the solar chargers distributed to the relief committee members affected smooth implementation as some of the gadgets could not charge the handsets. Those whose chargers are ineffective are therefore forced to travel long distances to power their phones at a cost.