A cellular approach to food security

Eirin Evjen
ESST MA Student

In exciting and innovative ways, mobile phones have become an important agent in tackling food insecurity and undernourishment in developing countries.

Picture a Ugandan mother with two malnourished children. She is clearly tired, and she and her children are hungry. They are standing next to a simple hut. She is carrying a bucket of water in one hand and is using the other to text on a mobile phone. One thing stands out clearly in this picture: the use of modern technology. Yet in low-income countries, mobile phones are often more common than stable electricity. Mobile technology impacts lives in developing countries far beyond its basic communications functions. The technology is being used in ingenious and unconventional ways to improve everyday life. One example is how people and telecommunication providers are using mobile phones to enhance food security.

Through simple text messaging, farmers get advice and information
on everything from weather forecasts to the daily price of seeds. Some companies use text messaging to give tips on how and when to fertilize, or how to prevent infection among cattle. This communication among farmers, experts and companies can increase food production. Mobile phones are also being used to link farmers and consumers for both communication and payments. Besides making this interaction easier, it also makes it more secure as it can help reduce the need for carrying cash and the related risks of handling money. The risk of corruption is also decreased by reducing the need for middlemen to handle transactions.

Mobile phones are also used to transfer money from abroad. Cash transfers over mobile phones is one of the most frequently used methods by relatives and friends to wire money home from abroad. A charity called GiveDirectly also uses mobile technology to allow people from around the world to make cash donations to families living in extreme poverty in Kenya and Uganda. These unconditional donations go to people registered with the charity such as the Ugandan mother with hungry children, giving them the opportunity to buy food or improve their lives in some way. GiveDirectly tracks what the money is spent on, and their data show that the people do indeed use the money on essentials such as food, school fees, improving their homes or even starting a business.

These seemingly simple applications of mobile technology can open up unanticipated windows of opportunity for people in need. These examples show a set of users who require different primary features from their phones than we do in Norway. For the Ugandan woman, for example, a high-resolution retina screen with a fingerprint sensor is probably not crucial. However, a phone with long battery time, short charging time, a robust frame and reliable cell service may be of greater use.

The advantages of using mobile technology extend beyond the services it provides. Mobile phones can also be used to enhance security through the information they transmit. One of the projects in the UN’s Big Data initiative, Global Pulse, is using mobile phone data to get precise estimates of where there is food insecurity – and ultimately where there is need for help. This initiative is using data as proxies for food security and poverty indicators and looking at the correlations between purchases of phone credit and local surveys of consumption of certain products. The goal is to use big data to inform and guide hunger relief efforts. If successful, this project could result in significant time and resource savings and perhaps even save lives.

In these inspiring ways, mobile phones, known best to us as a source of communication and entertainment, are used to improve food security and life quality in developing countries. This forces us to think differently about the potential uses of technology and shows the opportunities that basic technologies such as mobile phones can provide. Perhaps developers in the future will consider the unique needs of users in developing countries to a larger extent when designing new applications for mobile phones.