Venkat Dheeravath, VAM Programme Policy Officer in Papua New Guinea, talks about implementing mVAM in a country where 850 languages are spoken, his journey with WFP, from South Sudan to Southeast Asia via Iraq, and a moment in the field that changed him: being stranded without food rations and with no means of communication
I grew up on a family farm in Andhra Pradesh, India. We grew vegetables for sale and I experienced the joys and hardships of farming while attending school. Little did I think then that I might one day be leading efforts to assess the food needs of vulnerable communities!
I studied Civil Engineering in Hyderabad City and worked in this field for several years before moving to GIS and Remote sensing, mapping croplands and completing my doctoral degree. Having also fulfilled my dream of working with NASA and the US Geological Survey, I asked myself “What next?”
I’ve long had a desire to serve humanity, and so my humanitarian journey with WFP started in South Sudan. As a GIS officer in Juba, I was meant to stay only for a short while – but in the end it turned out to be a five year stint! During that period, I assessed and mapped the entire South Sudan road network to assist the humanitarian community and the Government of South Sudan. There were countless times when while on mission, I had to sleep in the car on the middle of a remote road because our car got stuck in the mud – sometimes I had to survive only on muddy water!!
From East Africa, I moved to Iraq, where I helped set up and implement the country’s first mobile-based (mVAM) food security and market monitoring system. Then my journey took me, via Indonesia, to Papua New Guinea. Again, I was only supposed to stay for two weeks to support WFP’s response to the El Niño drought – but I’ve now been here for almost two years!
Since coming, I have successfully implemented mVAM in Papua New Guinea – even though many people did not believe it would work in a country where there are over 850 languages spoken. The context for WFP’s work here couldn’t be more challenging: data is scarce, the health, transport, and communication facilities are very basic, and accessibility and security problems make large regions of the country a very expensive place to operate any programmes. With 80% of the population living in very remote areas that are difficult to access, conducting food security monitoring through traditional face-to-face data collection methods would have been close to impossible. mVAM’s remote food security monitoring approach offered an alternative, viable option.
But we as the mVAM team also had to make sure that we would be able to effectively reach the people. Because of the large number of languages spoken in the country, we created our survey in two of the most common languages (English and Tok Pisin) and hired operators from different regions who could also speak various dialects. The second problem – no network coverage in some parts of the country – initially seemed hard to overcome, but, upon closer inspection, people in these regions are used to traveling across wards in order to catch a signal and communicate with relatives and traders pass by, so it was in fact possible to reach people who lived in areas not covered by a mobile signal. Our cooperation with the mobile network operator Digicel, which has solid network coverage and close to 100% of the market share, further helped us to reach a decent sample from the most drought-affected areas.
In February 2016 mVAM was first implemented in Papua New Guinea. In cooperation with the country’s National Disaster Centre, WFP launched a telephone-based survey to assess the effects of the El Niño-induced drought on food security and livelihoods. Our survey became the most comprehensive assessment of food security in the country. The findings then formed the basis for the design of WFP’s emergency response, helping us to provide food assistance to 268,107 of the country’s most vulnerable, food-insecure people.
For almost a week during the El Niño crisis, I travelled the ocean on a small dinghy with a life jacket to see the food insecurity situation on the remote islands of Milne Bay and subsequently led the distribution of food assistance with the Provincial Government. I am proud to say that I did not leave even one family behind on the outer islands and atolls, of which there are 110!
However, my dinghy trip was by no means my greatest adventure Papua New Guinea held in store for me. I recently travelled to a very remote area called Kira Station in Oro Province, located on a steep mountain in Waria Valley to validate the findings from our most recent mVAM survey, which classified the area as one of severe food insecurity. The only way to reach Kira Station is to use a private airline, which flies twice a week – provided there are enough passengers.
Our journey there went smoothly, but after two days, when we were supposed to fly back to Lae city, no plane came to pick us up. We were stranded with no means of communication. My satellite phone did not work because of technical issues, and there was no mobile signal in Kira Station. We had to walk through mountains for a day and a half before we were able to catch a very weak signal in one of the wards which borders Morobe Province, which allowed me to send a text message to the WFP regional office during a night of thick clouds and heavy rain. Every day, we looked up at the sky waiting for the plane only to see other planes flying over us.
We ran out of food rations. Most of the communities around us were consuming only one partial meal a day since the crops had failed. So I also ended up surviving on greens (Choko leaves usually grown in the wild bush), poisonous nuts (which have to be processed carefully before consumption and are only eaten when no other food is available), spring water, and a few coconuts. In the ten days I spent stranded without rations, I truly experienced how much hunger can affect you!
Finally, we decided to walk to reach the nearest airstrip in Garesa in the neighboring Morobe Province, assisted by four local community leaders from Kira Station. We hiked through mountains, rivers, valleys, swamps, and steep cliffs, for another day and a half, during which we survived on greens and river water. The mountain paths were very slippery, but happily the rivers were not flooded so we managed our journey without any incidents except for a few falls on slippery tracks. On arrival at the Garesa airstrip, we were lucky that a plane landed shortly afterwards and the pilot agreed to take us back to Port Moresby although we would only be able to pay for the fare on arrival.
We continue our commitment to ensure that vulnerable communities get the support that they need, currently we’re focusing on establishing a two-year food security surveillance and analysis programme in partnership with the National Disaster Centre, the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, and the National Statistics Office. A lot remains to be done in Papua New Guinea, but I strongly feel that technology can play a major role in connecting and ensuring the food security of remote vulnerable communities.
Also published on Medium.