Mobile phones help fight hunger in Kenya

People are using text messages to send and receive cash to buy essentials, especially food

It was early 2008. Kenya's Kerio Valley was collapsing under the weight of the chaos and violence sparked by the country's contested elections the previous December.

The statistics are startling: 1,200 people dead, more than two million Kenyans driven into poverty, 400,000 to 600,000 natives displaced and 41,000 homes and businesses destroyed, according to Concern Worldwide, a Dublin -based aid organization. In a July 2008 report, Concern estimated that more than half a million jobs were lost and the economic cost of the crisis was more than $1.5 billion.

To make a horrendous situation even worse, farmers weren't able to grow crops because of the chaos of the uprisings and a lack of rainfall, so food was scarce or nonexistent. Enter Concern, which set up an emergency response program to get food to the people who needed it most.

The food-distribution program worked for a while, but it soon became obvious that the organization had to help people buy or grow their own food instead of giving food away on a permanent basis. So, after much thought, the relief group devised a plan using mobile phone technology.

"After five or six months, people really needed to reestablish their livelihoods. They had to get back to farming," says Anne O'Mahony, Concern's Kenyan country director. To support both the farmers and people needing to buy food, the organization decided that the best course was to begin distributing cash, rather than food, to the needy. According to Concern, recipients given cash bought some of their food from local farmers, which helped stimulate the growth of local produce after the worst of the chaos had ended.

Sole Kilelit
Sole Kilelit was one of the first recipients in Concern's mobile-phone program. At first she "did not quite understand how things would work and half expected the money to pop out through the phone," says Anne O'Mahony, who heads up the Kenya program.

The challenge, however, was figuring out how to distribute the cash in a safe and secure way, she says. Then, over lunch one day in Concern's Kenyan office, a plan was born -- a plan to distribute cash aid to some 3,000 beneficiaries in the Kerio Valley via mobile phone payments.

The Concern employees had noticed people lined up at Safaricom Ltd., a mobile communications company, O'Mahony explains. "I knew it was about to launch on the stock exchange here so I thought maybe people were lining up trying to buy shares or apply for shares. But someone told me those people were lining up to send money via mobile phone. I thought, 'Oh, this is so simple, we can actually transfer money by mobile phone.' "

Where the mobile phones had been used to send money by individuals, Concern wanted to try it on a larger scale. "Then we went to see the head of Safaricom to see if the company could handle what we wanted to do," O'Mahony says.

And it could, she says.

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