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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"I used the money to go to the market to shop for food and cooking fat, that's all," she says.

Through its cash aid program, Concern has distributed about $53,000 to 3,000 individuals. Community leaders selected recipients according to certain criteria. For example, the beneficiaries had to have been directly affected by the post-election violence.

Initially, to save on start-up costs, groups of 10 households shared a SIM card. The registered user divvied up the money with the others, O'Mahony says. But for the second money transfer, each beneficiary received her own SIM card and registered as an M-Pesa user. However, the women often had to insert the SIM into a shared handset.

Concern's program is the first of its kind.

"Although there are other programs trying to figure out how to do mobile remittances, or person-to-person, cash transfers, this is the only organization using mobile phone technology for cash aid" on this scale, says Katrin Verclas, co-founder of New York-based, a community of people and organizations using mobile phones for social impact.

Most people use Western Union to send money to their families in other nations, a method that is more expensive than sending money via mobile phones, Verclas says. The World Bank has estimated that remittances to developing countries worldwide reached $328 million in 2008.

In the end, the pilot program demonstrated that transmitting cash aid using mobile phones could work, O'Mahony says. Concern reported encountering only one technical issue: One batch of SIM cards couldn't be activated because default settings hadn't been removed. Activating those SIM cards required recipients to go to a specific customer care center, according to the organization.

The M-Pesa program also proved to be a cost-effective and secure way for Concern to help the most vulnerable people in crisis situations.

In fact, the pilot program worked so well that Concern is now distributing emergency cash via mobile phone technology in the slums of Nairobi where the growing food crisis is threatening millions of people, says Joop Koopman, a spokesman for Concern Worldwide U.S. Inc.

A former Computerworld reporter, Linda Rosencrance has written about technology for 10 years and has been a reporter for 20. Currently a freelance writer in Massachusetts, she is working on her fourth true crime book for Kensington Publishing Corp. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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