Mobile phones help fight hunger in Kenya

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

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Concern launched a pilot program using the M-Pesa system to deliver cash to needy families in the Kerio Valley. M-Pesa was developed by Safaricom and its partner, Vodafone, to allow customers who did not have bank accounts to send and receive money via mobile phones.

To send money using the system, a Safaricom customer must register with M-Pesa and have M-Pesa activated on the phone's SIM card. The sender can then deposit cash at one of 2,500 M-Pesa agents throughout Kenya and, after a confirmation SMS (Short Message Service) text, can send the money to a recipient's phone number using the special menu on the phone.

On the other end, the recipient gets an SMS alert that funds have arrived in his account. If the recipient is a registered M-Pesa user, he can withdraw the cash or keep it in his account to send to someone else, or use it to purchase food or other products. If the recipient is not registered, he must withdraw the cash at an authorized M-Pesa agent.

The seed money used to start this program -- and in turn distributed to various people -- came from Concern's regular fundraising efforts.

To get the program started, Concern distributed mobile phones, SIM cards registered with M-Pesa and solar chargers to recipients free of charge, predominantly the family matriarchs, in some 560 households, O'Mahony says. It then organized local youth to help heads of households learn to use the phones. The youth also helped beneficiaries receive their M-Pesa text messages on the day the cash was distributed.

"We gave the phones mainly to the women in the households because we knew that they would use the money to buy the food and goods that their families needed," O'Mahony says.

That decision seemed to work. Recipients spent some 70% of the money on food, with the remaining 30% put toward transportation and other non-food essentials, she says. And Concern didn't find any incidents of misuse of the cash.

One of the beneficiaries, Martha Mukami, says she received cash aid for her family for three months. Mukami takes care of five children -- three are hers and two are orphans -- who range in age from 18 to three. Life has been particularly difficult for her since her husband passed away in his sleep after suffering a shock in 2007, she says. But the money from Concern helped her feed her family, particularly after they were struggling given the chaos in her country, she says.

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