Postcard from Niamey

WFP/Maria Muraskiewicz

WFP/Marisa Muraskiewicz

What you might have missed since our last report

We are back in Niamey, the capital of Niger, where the Harmattan wind is raging through the desert landscape. Although this is the ‘cooler’ season of the year, temperatures easily reach upwards of 38/39 degrees Celsius (100+ degrees Fahrenheit) at the height of the day.

Quite a few things have changed since we last reported on Niger. Moustapha, the VAM Officer, transferred to Nigeria, leaving the mVAM endeavours in Niger in the capable hands of Marisa, Herizo, and team. And boy have they been keeping busy! Thanks to their diligent efforts, three types of mVAM surveys are being implemented today: (1) a bi-monthly household survey; and (2) a key informant trader survey, both of which collect data in the volatile Diffa Region, which has been affected by the Boko Haram crisis; and (3) a nationwide household food security survey that covers hotspot sentinel sites. In addition, the team recently completed its first trial round to collect data for two nutrition indicators in the Diffa Region – the Minimum Dietary Diversity for Women (MDD-W) and the Minimum Acceptable Diet (MAD) indicators – to examine the feasibility of collecting nutrition data through mobile surveys in the Niger context (more on this will be shared in a separate blog entry in the future).

But perhaps the best way to appreciate the progress the Niger team has made while acknowledging the lingering challenges for mVAM in the country, is to pick up the discussion where we left off last time.

Connectivity, still a major challenge

While there is 3G in Niamey and the surrounding urban areas and calls can be placed in remote rural areas, poor connectivity compounded by frequent power cuts remains a big challenge in Niger. The call center that carries out the CATI (Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing) surveys often has to call the same number at least ten times before it reaches the respondents. They’ve even installed a generator that can serve as a back-up in the event of sudden electricity outages. Meanwhile, the IT team within the WFP Niger Country Office has been in discussions with major mobile network operators in the country to identify solutions for better coverage, including the use of satellite channels. Whilst this expensive alternative is not available to the poorest and most vulnerable communities, we are hoping that more public and private investments will be made to improve overall connectivity in the future.

Marisa Niger2

WFP/Marisa Muraskiewicz

Connecting to women, no small feat

We also reported last time that very few women own their own mobile phone in Niger, and some don’t even have the right to receive a call without their husband’s permission. Following best practices from other countries that are facing similar challenges, the call center conducted the last round of CATI surveys employing only female operators and witnessed a slight improvement in female response rates. Nonetheless, the average female response rate is still less than ten percent, so we need to continue to step up our sensitization and outreach efforts.

New mVAM tools coming to Niger: Numero verte & IVR AND Free Basics

On the bright side, we have been able to configure the IVR (Interactive Voice Response) software (Verboice) and connect it to a Numero verte – a four digit toll-free phone number – which can handle multiple incoming calls from various local network operators simultaneously. This hotline number will boost WFP Niger’s capacity to receive complaints and feedback from beneficiaries and take action when needed, bringing us closer to the communities we are supporting. Meanwhile, a new Free Basics site is in the making, which will allow us to share up-to-date market price information and tips on good nutrition and health practices with families and communities. So we are happy to admit that we were wrong last time when we said we didn’t think we would be using any of our ‘fancy’ tools in Niger any time soon!

Angie Niger

WFP/Angie Lee

A bright future for mVAM in Niger

As remarkable as the achievements of Niger’s team have been over the past year, there are no plans to stop! They are working on new activities that will make mVAM even more relevant for reaching the goals of WFP in Niger and our partners. In the coming months, the team will focus on working closer with the government, which has a keen interest in deploying mobile technologies for food security monitoring and early warning, as well as scaling up mVAM to expand our market monitoring activities.

VAM Talks: Episode 13

Logo2Alice Clough interviews Sarah Muir, VAM remote sensing analyst, Haidar Baqir, IT engineer, and Ariona Aubrey from WFP’s legal department about WFP’s use of satellites and drones.

“There’s no such thing as free internet”?

Sensitizing refugees in Malawi about Free Basics

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WFP/Khataza Jere

We last reported on ‘Za Pamsika’, our Free Basics initiative in Malawi that shares nationwide food prices, back in April, so we wanted to update you on our progress. Free Basics is one of mVAM’s newest projects and part of our two-way communication systems. Through these methods, we do not only directly ask our beneficiaries and local communities for information, but we also share useful information with them, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns in return.

Malawi hosts more than 33,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Most of them have fled conflict in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo and live in two refugee camps where WFP offers food assistance in the form of monthly in-kind distributions and cash-based transfers. It, therefore, seemed like an essential area of expansion for our existing Free Basics sites. By offering the camp population access to information about food prices and markets in and around the camp, WFP hopes to increase transparency and ensure refugees do not pay unfairly high prices.

In our previous Free Basics feasibility research, we identified several challenges including low levels of internet-enabled phone ownership, digital literacy, and a lack of awareness about Free Basics. To see if we would encounter the same challenges when implementing the tool in refugee settings in Malawi, our country office colleagues recently visited the Dzaleka refugee camp. During this visit, they wanted to find out: Is Free Basics reaching the people in the camp? How do they respond to the idea of using WFP’s Free Basics site? And how could we improve the way we provide information to them?

malawi 2 20171004_173652

WFP/Khataza Jere

Our concerns that most refugees would not have access to internet-enabled mobile phones or would not be sufficiently digitally literate to use Free Basics were mistaken. Communicating with relatives and colleagues back home is very important to refugees, so having an internet-enabled phone that allows them to use internet-based chat apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger is a priority. We also discovered that Microsoft, in collaboration with UNHCR, had distributed 949 smartphones for ‘AppFactory’, its project designed to enable young people to learn software development skills. In fact, approximately seven out of every ten refugees own phones and are computer literate in Dzaleka – and Microsoft is planning to distribute even more devices. This will make it easier for us to spread the word about Free Basics and means that we could easily train refugees to show each other how to use it.

Overall, the people we met responded enthusiastically to Free Basics. As their ability to move outside of the camp is limited, Free Basics can give them access to the wider picture of market data and food prices. This will allow them to compare these prices with those of the markets where they buy food so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. A key suggestion from the people in the camp was to add information about the stock levels of different commodities at the markets to the Free Basics site – this would allow users to plan their purchases and meals accordingly.

Initially, many people were skeptical about whether the website is free. WFP, therefore, showed them Free Basics on a phone which had no credit on it or checked the balance before and after using the website to convince them that Free Basics was, indeed, free. While we won’t need to do as much digital literacy training as we had anticipated, we still need to do more sensitization with refugees. Once this hurdle is cleared, the future for Free Basics in Malawi looks bright as refugees can use the site and are eager to do so, particularly if we add extra useful information such as food stock levels.

Qu’est-ce qui se passe au Burundi?


WFP/Silvia Calo

This week, we were in Burundi to improve how we collect, manage, and visualize data. Specifically, we wanted to work on two surveys that we conduct in the country using mVAM: an early warning survey – “Systeme d’Alerte Précoce au Burundi” (SAP) – and price data collection, known as mMarket.

mVAM has been active in Burundi since October 2016 and has collected information on different early warning indicators every month since then. Given the very low mobile phone ownership rates in the country, it is not feasible to conduct household food security surveys using mVAM. However, we have been able to gather useful information by regularly calling 55 Burundi Red Cross volunteers there who make up the SAP. These volunteers are Burundian citizens who work closely with the communities we’re trying to reach. They organize weekly meetings with local community focal points, which gives them a good understanding of the food security situation.

Gathering information about food security in the communities through key informants has its challenges of course. Finding out how households are coping without interviewing them directly can sometimes be difficult.

We visited WFP’s Country Office in Burundi in order to combine the local team’s knowledge of the Burundian context with our experience of conducting phone surveys. The result?  A new questionnaire that is shorter than the previous one, but still contains all the indicators needed for a meaningful early warning survey. Although the additional indicators we collected in the longer survey provided valuable information, very long questionnaires conducted over the phone have their own set of risks – the length may lead to key informants dropping out or not being willing to participate in the survey at all. Even worse, key informants may want to speed up the survey and don’t think carefully about their answers. We need to remember that volunteers who provide information are often very busy providing assistance to the local communities and may not have much time to speak over the phone!

Burundi pic

WFP/Silvia Calo

The second objective of our trip was to improve the mMarket data collection, which uses information from traders in different geolocated markets in the country. We added some commonly consumed food items to the questionnaire, as well as some non-food items, such as the cost of fuel, which serves as an early warning indicator for a rise in food prices.

Both SAP and mMarket yield large amounts of data at a high frequency. Since the added value of mVAM is providing valuable information in as close to real-time as possible, we always try to find new ways of speeding up the data analysis process and the publication of bulletins. As key informant surveys like SAP and mMarket deliver qualitative, rather than quantitative information, there is no magic statistical formula that can be used to make sense of the data. Hence, the only way to build a story around the data is to look at the data itself. We go about doing this by using data visualization tools like the software Tableau. Rather than simply looking at tables, we used dashboards and triangulated the indicators we collected, which enabled us to track how the food security situation is evolving. In the future, we might also use Tableau to produce interactive bulletins, so that users can explore the data we collect in more depth.

Starting in November 2017, our revamped questionnaires will be used and we will publish new bulletins, which will include interactive data visualizations. Stay tuned!

South Sudan: communicating both ways

South Sudan1

WFP/Hagar Ibrahim

We are back in South Sudan, where, in June, we identified two main areas of opportunity for employing a mobile Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (mVAM) approach: using it to monitor urban food security and applying it to improve early warning systems.

This time, we are pleased to announce that the project is moving forward, we are collecting more and more numbers and are getting closer to piloting an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, which will both boost the capacity of our in-house call center and enable beneficiaries to access information and get answers to their questions.

South Sudan2

WFP/Hagar Ibrahim

The food security situation in urban areas in South Sudan has been deteriorating. According to WFP’s latest urban food security assessment in Bor town, 85% of households are food insecure (of which 44% are severely food insecure, and 41% moderately food insecure). As the urban food security situation needs to be monitored frequently and there is better mobile phone coverage in urban than in rural areas, mVAM is stepping in to collect the data.

Through face-to-face assessments and via our partner agencies on the ground, we have collected over 400 phone numbers and used some of them to conduct food security live call interviews with households in urban centers mostly across Greater Equatoria.

South Sudan map

WFP/Map 1: Number of surveyed households by county, September 2017

However, the context for conducting phone surveys in South Sudan continues to be challenging due to the low mobile phone penetration rates and connectivity problems. We had already reported last time that the main mobile network operators downsized their businesses due to recurrent conflicts. In our most recent round of phone surveys, we found that nearly 40% of the numbers were not reachable. Nevertheless, we were able to talk to over 240 households and ask them about their food consumption, negative coping behaviours, and the food security situation in their communities.

The goal of our latest mission was to provide technical support and assist with capacity building at our in-house call centre. We have configured an interactive voice response (IVR) system, a technology which allows users to access relevant information using the phone keypad and speech recognition. Through the pre-recorded voice response option, the system will be used to answer beneficiaries’ questions relating to, for example, the registration process, food distribution dates, and technical issues, such as lost or damaged vouchers. Users will also be able to record their questions, upon which WFP gets back to them. The IVR system can also initiate calls automatically and direct them to an operator only when a respondent picks up the phone, thereby saving the operators time. This will help address a challenge that mVAM operators in South Sudan have had to grapple with all this time.

The next steps for mVAM in South Sudan will involve deploying and improving the IVR system and expanding our contact information database of potential survey respondents with the help of WFP units and our cooperating partners in the field. Until the next time!


Designing a new communication channel – the Food Bot

Kenya blog 2

WFP/Lucia Casarin

After missions to several field locations (including Nigeria, Haiti, and Kenya) aimed at assessing the feasibility of deploying chatbots in WFP’s operational contexts, the mVAM team concluded that they offer great potential for both the sharing and receiving of useful information on food security.  It is now time to take a step forward and actually build a chatbot for WFP – the Food Bot!

In case you haven’t been tracking our work on chatbots (about which you can learn more here and here), here’s a quick refresher. A chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users over the Internet; imagine an invisible robot living inside the Internet asking you questions.

Tailoring the chatbot to its users

The first step needed in designing a new tool is to garner a strong understanding of its users – who will be using the chatbot and for what purposes?

In our case, we are working simultaneously on two levels:

  1. Chatbot builder tool: this is an interface where WFP staff will be able to design, deploy, and manage customized chatbots. The primary users of the chatbot builder tool will be WFP staff in the field, who will use the platform to design contextually-appropriate chatbots for their location. As you can imagine, each WFP Country Office envisions using the chatbot for a specific purpose. In Kenya, for example, colleagues are eager to deploy a chatbot to share updated information about WFP food and cash distributions as well as other programmatic details. In Nigeria, on the other hand, staff want to share details on how to use nutritional supplements provided by WFP.
  2. Contents within the chatbot: this refers to the information the chatbot provides and the dialogues between the chatbot and its users. Targeted users for the chatbot are people living in marginalized and food insecure communities who can use the chatbot to receive information from WFP. They can also ask us questions about WFP’s programmes in their area and provide their feedback and complaints. WFP will develop different chatbots for different locations and target populations.
Kenya blog 3

WFP/Lucia Casarin

To get to know our users better and start defining the design of the Food Bot, WFP and our technical partner InSTEDD (who has extensive experience designing innovative mobile tools) travelled once again to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, located in Western Kenya, where we spent a few days collaborating with WFP staff and refugees to understand how to create a user-friendly chatbot to meet their needs.

We first worked with a small group of refugees to better understand how they use the chatbot technology. To do so, we employed a popular prototype technique called ‘Wizard of Oz’. Under our supervision and guidance, refugees were asked to visit a Facebook page and start a conversation with what they believed was a WFP chatbot. Instead, they were actually chatting with our colleague. Through this type of human-centered approach, we were able to quickly learn what types of information the Kakuma refugees were interested in receiving as well as how they were asking questions. During the field test, we also confirmed our hypothesis that chatbot conversations need to be as light as possible (not using many pictures, menus, or emoticons) in order to minimize data charges and make conversations possible when network coverage is weak or the user is employing Messenger Lite.

We then spent some time with our WFP colleagues in the Kakuma and Nairobi Offices brainstorming the ways in which the chatbot could complement existing activities and provide useful information for our work.

Kenya blog 1 edited

WFP/Lucia Casarin

An iterative design approach

We are now dedicating the next few months to developing the chatbot builder and refining the chatbot contents for a larger pilot project in Kenya. Building a new platform will require a lot of trial and error, and we know that we’ll not get everything right on the first try. For this reason, we have now begun an interactive, iterative design approach, meaning that we will carry out multiple field tests along the way to further refine our product. This will allow us to collect valuable feedback from users at each stage of development so that we can mitigate potential issues early on.

Stay tuned during the coming months as we share additional information on the development of our very first Food Bot!

Hearing from people in the ‘other Congo’

WFP/Jeanbaptiste Pasquier

WFP/Jean-Baptiste Pasquier

Last week, our team went to the Republic of Congo for the first time. What? How is this our first time in Congo? You’re probably thinking: “I have read loads of blog posts about mVAM in Congo”. True, but they were referring to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the country where mVAM first started 4 years ago. This time we went to its neighbour, the ‘Other Congo’. The Republic of Congo (RoC) is rarely in the headlines but WFP is actually very active in this country of only 4.2 million inhabitants. We have our head office in the capital, Brazzaville, and five offices in the field.

Map RoC PNG2 (002)

In July, the UN declared a humanitarian emergency in the Pool region of RoC. This region, south of Brazzaville, is the scene of violent confrontations between rebel forces and the army. WFP is assisting thousands of families who have escaped the fighting and are seeking refuge with host families in neighbouring regions. Due to security constraints, it is difficult for WFP to conduct traditional food security assessments in Pool and get information about the situation on the ground. How many families have remained in the region? Are there still supplies in the local markets? Are prices too high? This is where mVAM comes in. RoC has one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates in Africa – 113 cellular subscriptions per 100 people (source: World Bank) – but the WFP Country Office wanted to know if they could find reliable key informants in Pool whom they could call regularly to get fresh updates on the situation.

The answer is yes, thanks to our partners. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Humanitarian Action (MASAHS) has a dense network of local civil servants that follow the humanitarian situation on the ground very closely. MASAHS is a key partner in the crisis response and the Minister herself offered her help to leverage this network! Unfortunately, even tapping into this network did not provide us with enough respondents, as in some of the most affected districts, MASAHS workers have also had to flee to safe cities. We therefore reached out to the international NGO CARITAS who were able to fill the gaps and provide contacts in almost all the affected localities.

RoC pic 1

WFP/Jean-Baptiste Pasquier

To ensure that the questionnaire we are going use to call our key informants provides a full picture of what is going on, we travelled to Bouenza, a region bordering Pool, to meet with displaced families. Talking to them, we learnt that food is often available in Pool at reasonable prices. However, because farmers had to flee their lands and settle in urban areas they lost their source of income and are struggling to buy the basic commodities they need to feed their families. To get a clearer picture of the situation, we decided to add questions about earning sources in addition to food availability and prices in our mVAM questionnaire.

The Country Office is now piloting voice calls to adjust the questions and evaluate the reliability of the information gathered. Data will come in the next weeks and OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) – a data sharing platform with an office in Dakar – offered their help to visualize and disseminate the findings. Understanding more specifically what people’s needs are will help us to improve our response to the crisis.

A new mVAM baby in Mali, weight: 7800 respondents!

WFP/Sebastien Rieussec

WFP/Sebastien Rieussec

This week we’re reporting on our latest news from mVAM in Mali. In this landlocked country in the Sahel chronic food insecurity and malnutrition is widespread – WFP has been present in Mali since 1964. In the last few years Mali has been coping with numerous shocks – such as droughts, floods and a military coup – that led to a political and security crisis and increased food insecurity in the country: by 2016 around 3.1 million people in Mali were food insecure. Households are particularly affected during the lean season, between June and September; and this year WFP estimated 3.8 million people affected by food insecurity, of which 601,00 people in urgent need of food assistance.

To monitor the food security situation, the Government of Mali, with WFP support, does two nationwide face-to-face surveys, in February and September each year. However, in between these times and especially during the lean season that takes place during the summer in Mali there was no data collection – so mVAM was there to fill the ‘data gap.’ We’ve previously blogged about the Mali mode experiment we did comparing data collected by live calls and face-to-face data. As the results showed that there was little difference between the modes, in August the Country Office rolled out mVAM nationwide so that they could get food security information from households affected by this particularly difficult period of the year. During the previous face-to-face survey phone numbers were collected…out of the 13,400 numbers we collected we reached over 7,800 households – mVAM’s largest-ever survey!

With each survey comes different country-specific ‘problems’. There are many different reasons why people might not want to take part in a phone survey – but in Mali, we found one of the biggest was mistrust. People are not used to doing surveys via mobile phones and are sure that there is some form of trick behind them. Many reported that they know that there are lots of mobile phone scams and worry that the call from an unknown number purporting to be from WFP is just another one of these. One of the reasons why they were suspicious  was due to the fact that there was a long time gap between the number collection and the phone survey. This was actually a deliberate choice by the Country Office to ensure that the survey was not just a ‘follow up’ survey to face-to-face data collection like our mode experiment and was getting new information during this specific time period. What wasn’t foreseen was that this meant people forgot that they had given WFP their number and may have not fully understood why they did so in the first place.

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WFP/Nanthilde Kamara

To get around this issue, the Country Office is planning to use several tactics. As well as using SMS and national radio to advertise the survey, the next time that phone numbers are collected, there will be more time spent on explaining exactly what the purpose of the survey is. The annual September face-to-face food security survey is currently ongoing, so enumerators are now explaining that they might be called by WFP later on this year. The call centre that supports mVAM in Mali calls everyone with the same unique number, this number will be shared with community leaders just before the survey so that they can inform people that they will be rung by this specific number and that it’s an official call from WFP. Respondents will then be able to save the number in their phone so they know when they get the call exactly who it is and it won’t be just an unknown number.

The analysis is still ongoing: We’re looking forward to the results!


New places, new tools: what’s up next for mVAM?

KOICA pic 2

We’ve just got back from Rwanda where we were holding a workshop on using mVAM to expand real-time food security and nutrition monitoring with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugee populations. The project, which is made possible by the support of the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), will be implemented in ten countries in sub-Saharan Africa where WFP works.

What’s the project?

The KOICA project has two aims. First, it aims to empower information exchange with marginalized populations, specifically IDPs and Refugees. Secondly, it supports the collection of food security and nutrition data using the latest mobile and satellite technologies. This will happen in ten countries in Sub-Saharan Africa: the Central African Republic (CAR),The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda.

How are we going to do this?

As you know, two-way communication systems are an important part of our work. As well as getting information that we can use to inform WFP programmes, we want to ensure that the line is open so that people in the communities we serve can contact us and access information that is useful to them. We’ve already been using Interactive Voice Response and live calls to share information with affected populations, and are now expanding our toolbox to include new technologies: Free Basics and a chatbot.

Remote data collection isn’t just done by mobile phones – VAM already uses other sources, such as  satellite imagery analysis – to understand the food security situation on the ground.  Under this project, we’ll also help countries incorporate similar analysis which will complement two-way communication systems to provide a fuller picture of the food security situation.

Finally, we’re going to harness our knowledge of Call Detail Records analysis: de-identified metadata collected via cell phone towers about the number of calls or messages people are sending and which towers they are using. We have already used this technique in Haiti to track displacement after Hurricane Matthew, and we’re really excited to transfer these ideas to another context to ensure we get up-to-date information on where affected communities are so we can better target food assistance in the right locations.

What happened at the workshop?

Representatives from all 10 country offices, three regional bureaus and staff from HQ came together to discuss the three main project components. During the workshop, the different country offices had the chance to learn more from members of the mVAM team about the specific tools they can harness and ensure their collected data is high quality, standardised and communicated effectively. However, the best part about bringing everyone together was that country teams could share their experiences about how they are already using mVAM tools. We heard from the Malawi country office about their Free Basics pilot, and Niger and Nigeria explained how they’re implementing IVR so affected communities can easily contact WFP, even after work hours. Sharing their different experiences and learning about how different tools have worked in each context not only gave everyone an overview of what mVAM is doing so far, it also helped everyone understand the implementation challenges and how to overcome them.

What’s next for the KOICA project?

We’re really excited for the next stage of the project. Each country office has now planned what tools they’re going to use to increase their communications with affected communities and how they will improve their existing data collection systems. It’s going to be great to see the impact these tools will have not only on WFP’s response, but also how they will empower the communities we’re serving. 

How Can Chatbots Help Us Respond to Humanitarian Crisis?


WFP/Rein Skullerud

Kaukuma refugee camp in Kenya (WFP/Rein Skullerud)

At the moment, The World Food Programme (WFP) and the wider humanitarian system are #FightingFamine in four countries. In Somalia, Yemen, North-Eastern Nigeria and South Sudan 20 million people are on the brink of starvation.

Our recent study “At the Root of Exodus” found that high levels of food insecurity lead to higher levels of migration across borders; UNHCR estimates that there are 65.6 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. The stakes are high, we need all the information we can get.

Who Needs a Humanitarian Chatbot?

Based on our previous experiences and secondary sources, we knew that some displaced people could potentially access our humanitarian chatbot. But, of course, the reality on the ground is incredibly complex.

They could be refugees who have travelled to a different continent or Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who’ve moved within their own country. Some may have just arrived in a camp or settlement a few months ago, others may be adults who were born in the camp and spent their whole lives there.

Within the same camp there might be different nationalities, languages, family demographics and education levels- the list goes on. These huge disparities mean that extensive in-country, context-specific research is needed to confirm any initial design assumptions. Only then can we really design the best tool to reach our target population.

This was very clear when we spoke to IDPs in Maiduguri, but also during our visit to Kakuma Refugee camp and Kalobeyei refugee settlements in northern Kenya where we conducted some focus group discussions about the possibility of using a humanitarian chatbot.

There are currently more than 200,000 people living in the two refugee settlements we visited in Kenya, including Somali and South Sudanese refugees, so we spoke to various groups in each of the settlements to get a broad overview of what different people felt could or couldn’t work.

Our research was therefore constructed around four fronts: phone usage, Internet usage, information needs, and a product review of the chatbot.

Refugee Phone and Internet Usage in Kakuma

First, phone and Internet usage. For people fleeing their homes phones can be their lifelines. They’re the way that they communicate with friends and family, get updates on the situations at home and even receive remittances or money from WFP.

It therefore wasn’t a surprise that a lot of the households, particularly in the older and more established camps, had access to a phone, and many also to the Internet. Kakuma refugee camp was established in 1992 so many of the young people we spoke to had lived their whole lives in the camp.

Here people told us that nine out of ten households had a phone (either basic or Internet-enabled) and they had good network coverage- encouraging news if we want to contact them with this channel! They confirmed our assumption that young people were most likely to have access to the Internet, either owning their own smartphone or by borrowing one from friends and used social messaging apps. But of course this wasn’t the only story.

The enormous increase in refugees means there are actually four different ‘Kakuma’ camps all of which are now full. To cope with ever-increasing numbers the Kalobeyei settlement was set up a few kilometres away to host new arrivals in an integrated settlement with the host community. The differences in people’s responses were stark.

Here people reported that only one or two out of ten households had handsets and it was very difficult and expensive to charge them. The young people also said they had Facebook profiles and knew how to use the Internet but they had no way to access it.

They pointed out that it’s now nearly impossible to get a Kenyan SIM card because as refugees they don’t have the necessary ID and aren’t eligible to legally work. Clearly whilst our assumption that a chatbot could be a good way of communicating with young refugees or IDPs was correct – there were some serious limitations.

Would Refugees Actually Use a Chatbot?

During our visit, we did not only want to check the feasibility of the chatbot and identify potential users, we also wanted to find out how to make it a) useful and b) interesting enough to hold users’ attention.

From our focus groups we learnt that refugees wanted to get more information about WFP programs. WFP already uses many different media like posters, hotlines, desks and even loudspeakers on cars to speak to people in the camps but a chatbot could act as a complement that sends outs updates immediately.

Refugees also really liked that they could have a direct feedback channel – they didn’t have to wait in line to send a message and WFP staff were happy they would have an automated way of handling these messages. Nevertheless there are limitations. Both staff and refugees reiterated that the chatbot isn’t the right communication channel to ask sensitive questions about security issues.

Two Surprising Findings

These interviews also gave us insight into some basic communication designs. Initially we thought that to reach the most people we needed to translate the bot into Kiswahili, Somali and Dinka (the most commonly spoken language by South Sudanese refugees). However, after talking to the refugees we soon realised there was no need as young people, our primary target audience, spoke English or Kiswahili.

In fact, the biggest takeaway was that the chatbot could be a springboard for other channels. By its nature a refugee camp is a very close-knit community. Even if not everyone has access to the Internet, young people said that they would still be able to share the messages they receive verbally with their friends and family.

Our trip to Kakuma therefore reiterated that context-specific research is the only way that we can produce a great communication tool for our target audience. There are challenges that we’ll explore in the next phases of our rollout, particularly as we explore using our chatbot in other countries and camps. Nevertheless, the future looks bright for the chatbot!

This blog was originally published on ICT Works