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.

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. 

Postcard from Dakar

mVAM workshop participants all smiles after learning more about IVR WFP/Lucia Casarn

mVAM workshop participants all smiles after learning more about IVR WFP/Lucia Casarn

During the last week of June, staff from WFP HQ’s mVAM team, the West and Central Africa Regional Bureau, and Nigeria and Niger Country Offices met in beautiful Dakar to work together on Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems for two-way communication. (If you want to dig deep into all details IVR-related, check out the lesson in our mVAM online course!)

We’ve previously blogged about how WFP is responding to the needs of people who have been displaced due to Boko Haram insurgencies in both Nigeria and Niger. When we implemented these operations we also put communication channels in place so beneficiaries are able to contact WFP. In Nigeria, the Maiduguri Field Office created a hotline. Their operators receive an average of 100 calls per day from beneficiaries asking food security-related questions and providing feedback on the operations. The problem is the hotline is only available during working hours and has a limited number of people who can call in at the same time. To work around this they’re therefore looking at how an IVR system can support the call operators who are dealing with high volumes and better manage calls that take place outside of normal office hours. WFP Niger wants to set up a similar hotline system but without full time phone operators. Beneficiaries will call in to an automated IVR system and their queries and feedback recorded by the system and followed up by the Country Office. 

A Nigeria IT Officer working to install a GSM gateway for IVR usage in Maiduguri WFP/Lucia Casarin

A Nigeria IT Officer working to install a GSM gateway for IVR usage in Maiduguri WFP/Lucia Casarin

During the workshop participants were trained by InSTEDD on how to physically deploy IVR using a GSM gateway (a fancy tool that automatically places phone calls) and Verboice, the free open source software they’ve developed to manage these systems. The team also discussed the nitty gritty technical aspects of the system, including creating and modifying call flows (the sequencing of questions), scheduling calls and downloading collected call logs and recordings. Most importantly, participants had the opportunity to share their experiences and challenges with experts in this field and discuss best practices, alternative deployments and technical solutions.

The Country Office staff have now returned to Niger and Nigeria and they’ve already started testing the use of the IVR machines. We’re eager to begin logging data and hearing more from our beneficiaries. So stay tuned!

 

 

 

Voice calls in Niger: when basic works best

Niger 4

WFP/ Cecilia Signorini

As many of you know, mVAM has expanded considerably in the last few years and we are now present in 26 countries. You may be familiar with high profile places we work in like Syria, or those where we are testing out new technologies like Haiti. We therefore wanted to write an update on one country that we haven’t spoken about in a while: Niger.

What is WFP doing in Niger?

To give you a reminder of why we are working there here’s a quick rundown. Niger is a landlocked low-income country in the Sahara-Sahel belt with a population of over 16 million people. Every year the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) does a Human Development Index based on indicators of income, health and education indicators and Niger has ranked 188 out of 188 for the last few years. WFP estimates that 2.5 million people in Niger are chronically food-insecure. Increasing regional instability has only worsened the situation. Niger is currently responding to two emergencies: the recent Malian civil war in the north and Boko Haram in the south east whose insurgency and systemic violence has forced even more people to move, destroying community assets and food reserves. The volatility of this situation means that getting accurate food security information is both incredibly important and unfortunately very difficult. To get some more information from the ground we spoke to Moustapha Touré, who works on VAM and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) in WFP’s Niger country office. For the full interview (in French) watch out for an upcoming episode of our VAM Talks series, our podcast about how WFP sources its food security data.

Why mVAM?

The country office in Niger was keen to add extra dimensions to their food security analysis, and with insecurity rife in and around Diffa, it made sense to try remote monitoring.  Moustapha was the VAM officer in Goma where mVAM started in 2013, and when he arrived in Niger, his ideas and experience helped him to establish mVAM in the country, which quickly flourished. In our blog last September we wrote about how the team in Niger scaled up from their pilot surveys in the refugee camps working with a Niamey-based call center, iTelCom. This call center is pretty special – they are actually based in Niger’s first and only start-up incubator. By working with them, we are also contributing to the emergence of a local start-up specializing in digital engagement in vulnerable communities.  

niger-blog

WFP/VAM

The call center had begun placing calls to refugees from Mali in the camps of Abala and Mangaize in early 2015. One of the advantages of mVAM is ‘no boots on the ground’: we can conduct food security surveys without having to put anyone in the line of fire. When increasing attacks from Boko Haram meant it became urgent to get data from Diffa, the corner of Niger on the Lake Chad basin, our partner was able to ‘shift’ to this new area with relative ease, thanks to their prior experience.

mVAM and displacement

The complexity and longevity of the insecurity affecting Niger means that ‘displacement’ has many different meanings. Populations have been moving in and out of the country for so long that it’s sometimes almost impossible to define them as a ‘refugee’ a ‘returnee’ or an ‘internally displaced person’ (IDP). Many of the Malian refugees in the north are pastoralists whose livelihoods depend on moving around with their livestock so living in an enclosed refugee camp is even more of an issue. To try and solve this problem new areas have been designated as ‘Zones d’accueil des réfugiés’ (ZAR) or refugee hosting areas. Unlike a standard camp setting, they are open spaces where displaced people have room to graze animals, allowing them to continue their traditional lifestyle. In Diffa, recent Boko Haram attacks have caused a new wave of displacement in June raising the total to more than 240,00 displaced people in the region. All of this means that the questions we have in our food security surveys about a household’s displacement status is not nuanced enough to provide us with any useful answers. So we were wondering how the team in Niger is dealing with this complex landscape in terms of their implementation of mVAM.

Niger 5

WFP/Cecilia Signorini

Moustapha said one way of coping with this was making sure to “conduct face-to-face surveys before mVAM” to get some prior information about the households. This information serves as a base which they can use to monitor the movements of the populations. They also change their terminology, making sure they only refer to “forced displacements” to specify that they only want to know about the movements because of a specific shock rather than seasonal movements. The reason this works in Niger is because the only mVAM modality used is our live calls so more time can be taken explaining this terminology than with SMS. Sometimes basic really works best!

In fact, this baseline information has already come into use. One area that has suffered from a recent attack is Bosso, resulting in a large amount of displaced households. As Moustapha pointed out, via mobile phones we can maintain a direct line to the affected populations, wherever they happen to be. Based on their responses, “we can see when they moved, whether they moved just once or if they are constantly moving or returned”. This might sound a bit CIA but the information is actually really useful for WFP operations. With a better understanding of affected populations we can make sure distributions are in the best places.

Challenges ahead?

Niger 1edit

WFP/Cecilia Signorini

Whilst the system is working quite well there are always areas that can be improved. We spoke before about the challenges of mobile coverage in this largely rural context, so they are talking to the phone companies to try and get better coverage. There are also issues in terms of female responses. Less than 5 percent of women own their own
mobile
and some women don’t have the right to use a phone to receive a call without their husband’s permission, otherwise they could invite accusations of adultery or subversion of their husband’s authority. WFP’s West Africa Regional Bureau is working hard to try and solve some of these issues, exploring the possibilities of using female operators or using face-to-face recruitment.

We don’t think we will be using our fancy IVR and chatbots in Niger anytime soon, but it does look like mVAM is set to stay. As well as continuing the regular data collection in Diffa, Moustapha and the team plan to expand countrywide.