The idea was simple enough: start remote data collection by using mobile phones in a refugee camp in Niger. WFP had already carried out mVAM activities in numerous countries in east Africa and more recently the Ebola-affected countries of West Africa. The key task was to find a partner who could make phone calls to a refugee population that spoke several local dialects. Large, established phone companies didn’t seem interested in this low-profit activity. Fortunately, a technically savvy start-up company was discovered in an ‘incubator’ center in Niamey. A lot of prep work took place to launch the survey, but within a month, Itech Center was collecting food security data from the refugees in the Abala camp in the west of the country, sheltering refugees from Mali since 2013.
After a three month pilot phase, the mVAM survey was found to produce similar results to the standard, and yet costly face-to-face interviews, and was deemed successful. After expanding mVAM to a second refugee camp, WFP was able to start collecting food security data in July 2015 in the highly volatile region of Diffa, an area that has experienced an influx of refugees fleeing Chad and Nigeria due to recently conflict in the area.
What the mobile operators quickly realized was that reaching Diffa was not an easy task as the phone networks were often down. After weeks of trying to place calls during different times of the day, the operators figured that the best time to reach the respondents was early in the morning. To maximize the response rates, the phone operators would send reminders to respondents by SMS, informing them that they would receive the phone survey on the following morning.
Reach out and touch someone
In Diffa, mVAM is now yielding a great response rate with over 80 percent of the beneficiaries responding to the phone surveys. Respondents have also expressed their appreciation for receiving mVAM calls: through all the hardships that they have endured in the past months, it feels like someone is actually listening to and cares about them. Some of the respondents are even using the incentive money provided to them after completing each survey to call back the phone operators and thank them.