Getting to know Goma

Blog entry originally posted in November 2013 on the Humanitarian Innovation Fund website.


In this month’s entry we explore the results of the face-to-face survey in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and provide an update on the process of getting our call centres set up.

Earlier this month, our colleagues in the Democratic Republic of Congo finished the face-to-face assessment that serves as the mVAM baseline. These face-to-face assessments allow us to understand the profiles of our respondents, and request permission to call prospective survey respondents in the future.  The assessment was carried out in a camp hosting internally displaced persons near Goma. A total of 333 households were visited. The methodology followed standard WFP guidelines for camp settings.

In addition to the core set of questions on household demographics, food consumption, and coping strategies, the respondents were asked if they would like to participate in the monthly mVAM voice surveys. Some 90% (300 households), expressed their willingness to receive phone calls from WFP.  This is the same proportion of households that agreed to participate in central Somalia, the other location where this survey method will be piloted.

According to the GSMA’s report on mobile telephony, unique mobile phone penetration is below 20% in the Democratic Republic of Congo – well below the 30% average for Sub Saharan Africa, and below Somalia.

The findings of the face-to-face survey show that only 24% of respondents in the camp near Goma own a mobile phone. Another 33% reported not having a phone, but that another member of the household owned one. These figures explain why basic mobile phones should be distributed to all who had signed up for the mVAM surveys in Goma. Note that this is different to the approach in Somalia, where high mobile phone ownership rates make phone distribution unnecessary. During the monthly data collection rounds, it will be interesting to compare response rates under these two scenarios; how much of an issue does using WFP-provided phones become (re-charging, lost/stolen phones etc.).  Further insights to the results from the face-to-face survey in the Democratic Republic of Congo follow below.

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‘Can we call you and what’s your phone number?’

Household characteristics

Households participating in the mVAM surveys have an equal number of female and male headed households, 50.3% and 49.7% respectively, with an average of 5.5 members in the household. The great majority (89%) of mVAM respondents have been displaced and in the camp since 2009, with 41% arriving in 2012 when conflict in North Kivu increased. Almost all (94%) of respondents said they had received food assistance during the past month.

Coping behaviour

As in Somalia, we are curious to know whether the statistics we will collect through voice calls reflect the situation of the population at large. One of the key indicators we will collect through our calls is the reduced coping strategies index (rCSI), a quick and simple indicator that reveals how households manage or cope with shortfalls in food consumption.

The mean rCSI for the households that volunteered to participate in mVAM was 24.57, compared to 25.42 for the general population. A difference in means test, shows that there is no statistically significant difference (p=0.49) between the two groups.  The rCSI result of the mVAM respondents is also reflective of the overall IDP population that was surveyed, thanks to the high percentage of households that agreed to participate. We realise that it will be a challenge to ensure that all of these households respond to our calls.

A mean rCSI of almost 25 is high, in keeping with high rCSI values commonly observed during previous surveys in the same area. A high CSI indicates that people are using a lot of coping strategies to deal with the lack of food or resources to purchase food. The most frequent strategies used were consuming less preferred or less expensive foods, reducing the number of meals in a day and eating smaller quantities of food.

Expenditures on food and debt

The respondents’ main income sources are daily labour (25%), petty trade (15%) and agriculture (14%). A huge amount, 83% on average, of monthly household expenditure is spent on food. The amount is even higher than with the case of our mVAM survey respondents in Somalia, who spent an average of 76% of their monthly expenditure on food. At the time of the survey, 65% of the respondent households were in debt and 85% of households had accumulated debt in the past 12 months. In three times out of four, the reason for getting into debt was to purchase food.

Household assets

Similar to the baseline in Somalia, this assessment showed that the prospective mVAM survey respondents generally owned very few assets, the most common ones being a hoe/axe/machete (42%), mobile phone (24%) and radio (14%).  Only very few respondents owned productive assets such as chicken (8%) or goats (3%). It’s acknowledged that the distribution of mobile phones in asset-poor settings raises challenges – this was discussed with the community and WFP partners at the camp and will be monitored during the project.

Updates on other developments

This month we also conducted three training sessions, training a total of 14 WFP staff in headquarters, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. The training involves showing users how to use Verboice and set up a SIP channel to do calls. After about an hour, colleagues in Rome and in the field were able to place phone calls through a SIP channel, using Verboice. This confirms our earlier insights about the user friendliness of the software.

The recruitment of our call centre operators is still ongoing in both countries; operators should be on board by January. In the meantime over the next few weeks, we will be drafting the operator’s manual. The document will describe how to manage the process of placing live and automated calls.  We’ve also just finished buying the modems and servers that we need to set up for the Interactive Voice Response system for both countries.

Somalia and DR Congo: two very different guinea pigs

Blog entry originally posted in July 2013 on the Humanitarian Innovation Fund website.


Somalia and DR Congo: two very different guinea pigs. Initial insights on IVR software.
It’s been a busy month of July – this blog entry provides the field perspective on mVAM from Somalia and DR Congo. We’ve also moved ahead with the IVR configuration process, trying out different pieces of software and doing a lot of test calls.

Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo
Since our last blog post, the mVAM team has conducted scoping missions with WFP offices in Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo. The idea was to come to grips with the challenges of implementing mVAM at the country level, contact partners, assess the technical challenges and develop work plans.
As we initially suspected, implementation challenges are very different in Somalia and in DR Congo. In Somalia, the project will be able to leverage strong information technology and telecommunications capacities in neighbouring Kenya. In DR Congo, the project will take place in an environment where telecommunication services are somewhat less advanced. This is likely to remain a running theme throughout project implementation. The mVAM project will be implemented with ‘two very different guinea pigs’, in the words of Angie, VAM Officer at WFP Somalia.

In Nairobi, Amit, Marie and Angie brainstormed implementation. In Somalia, it looks like we will be implementing the mVAM surveys in the area of Gaalkayo and, perhaps, on a small sample of pastoralist households in northern Somalia. Calls would most likely be placed from Nairobi – no problem finding Somali-speaking telephone operators in Nairobi. The cell phone network in Somalia is well-developed but quirky: calling one network to another is not always possible; dealing with this challenge will likely cause a few headaches for setting up the IVR system, including implementing complex call scheduling routines and managing a series of SIM cards. In Somalia, we will not distribute phones to our survey respondents at first, considering that access to cell phones is considered very high (reportedly 60-70% own a phone, whereas nearly everyone has access to one), and that cell phone distribution introduces complications in the field. It seems that VOIP calls are out of the questions for Somalia as call quality is unreliable. Another insight from the mission was that the project is too ‘small’ to attract interest from the big telecoms companies in Nairobi — we would try an in-house IVR solution, and working with ‘smaller’ partners (e.g. start up companies) for live calls. A lot going on at the Nairobi iHub, a cluster of over 100 tech companies that could support the deployment of mVAM for Somalia. A real incubator, there’s even a restaurant serving Mexican food.

In DR Congo, Koffi and Moustapha identified the IPD camps of Goma and Katanga as potential areas to try out mVAM mobile surveys. We had initially considered the new refugee camps in Equateur as a target area, unfortunately network coverage there is just too unreliable. Interestingly, the Goma IDPs receive mobile money cash transfers from WFP; a test in Goma could show us how to integrate voice surveys with existing mobile transfer programs. Access to electricity seems to be an issue in DR Congo, the pilot would therefore be implemented in places where respondents have access to recharging services. Here again, the distribution of cell phones would take place but only to households without a device; at the national level, it’s now estimated that 47% of Congolese own a cell phone. Interestingly, in DRC, the market for telephony services is nascent; no iHub equivalent in Kinshasa. We seem to be the first people to enquire about call center or IVR services in Kinshasa. A quick test of VOIP calls worked well. We’ll be looking at that solution.
In both countries, we will be able to piggyback on existing face-to-face surveys to profile respondents prior to implementing voice calls. These surveys are scheduled in September and October.

Software for IVR configuration
‘Translating’ the standard WFP questionnaires into a series of automated voice questions is perhaps the most immediate challenge we have. It means streamlining the complex questions we have commonly used for years — the trick is to fit a clear instruction for the survey respondent into a snappy audio message. We also spent some time testing software that can run the IVR calls.

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Writing IVR code in .vxml

In July, we tested Voxeo, an industry-standard voice technology platform; Amit’s code-writing skills were an advantage. Voxeo uses the .vxml language.  Souleika, our colleague from Djibouti, recorded the questions in Somali. Marie did the same in French for DR Congo.  Try out the demo Amit put together here (in French, Skype needs to be running on your computer). Voxeo seems free for demos on up to 2 simultaneous calls.

The people at Instedd, who specialize in technology solutions for the humanitarian community, gave us  a demo of Verboice, a free and open-source IVR software. Verboice offers a sleek interface and seems to do many of the things we want to do – design call flows, manage lists of phone numbers, schedule calls and provide call logs.  The interface is very easy to use, Jean-Martin was able to set up a 20-question call flow in a morning of work.  Verboice seems to be the type of software accessible to WFP field officers. Now, the challenge will be to have one of these run calls in the field, a lot more testing lies ahead.

In the next update we’ll tell you more about our test calls and preparations for the face to face surveys.