Got Maize? Using Free Basics to reach millions in Malawi

WFP/Gregory Barrow

We have said it before: open data is not really useful unless it’s also accessible to everyone. WFP maintains an extensive food price database that is accessed by a lot of people, but most of our visitors happen to be donors or agencies in North America and Europe. We feel that in order to achieve Zero Hunger, information needs to be accessible for people living in the most vulnerable geographies.

free-basics-app-exampleWe’ve already experimented with ways to share food price information with vulnerable communities using SMS and IVR in Somalia and DRC. Recently, an interesting opportunity came up: sharing our data through Facebook’s new internet platform Free Basics.  This initiative aims to provide the 2/3 of the world’s population who do not have internet with basic web access and is currently available in 53 countries. Certain websites with “basic” content like news, employment opportunities, health, education and local information are available for free with no data charges. We’re always interested in exploring how new technology could help in the fight against hunger, so this month, we began testing our first Free Basics website in Malawi.

 Malawi: Our first test for Free Basics.

Why did we choose Malawi? Along with other countries in southern Africa, Malawi was affected by a drought that has affected agricultural production and caused food prices to soar. In late 2015, WFP set up a phone based market monitoring system that helps us track food prices all over the country on a weekly basis. Current forecasts estimate that 6.5 million people won’t be able to meet their basic food requirements. Households at risk of food insecurity can spend anywhere from half to three quarters of their budget on food, so sharing the data we have about food prices with the population might help people make informed decisions about their food purchases.

Introducing ‘Za Pamsika’

We’ve been working with the Praekelt Foundation incubator to set up a Free Basics website that shares this weekly price data for all of the districts we get the data from. We’ve called it ‘Za Pamsika’ literally ‘things you can find in the market’ in Chichewa, the main language in Malawi. It’s a really simple website. You click on your region and district to find out food prices in your area. You can also compare prices at nearby markets if you’re in an area with many market options.

The great thing about Free Basics is that you don’t need a smartphone to access our data for free – just an internet-enabled one from a participating MNO. The project therefore has the potential to provide food price information to all Malawians who have mobile phones with internet browsing capabilities. It’s also not even necessary to have a Facebook account! While we know that by only contacting people who have internet-enabled phones, we may be missing the most vulnerable households.  But it will still provide useful information for a large section of the population. Essentially, we see it as a step in the right direction toward making our data accessible to everyone.

The site has now been live for 10 days, and we’ve started seeing some results coming in, both the number of visitors and the demographics. As we’d expected, most of the people who’ve visited so far have been male and under 25.

It’s great to see that we already have some users, but we still have to make sure more people are aware of the site and it’s useful for them. We’ll be heading to the markets covered in the site with the WFP Country Office team, to speak to people first hand about the site and learn how we can improve it. Ultimately, the feedback we receive from people on the ground will help us to evaluate Free Basics as a tool to share data about food with the communities we serve.

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