Dust, sand, hospitality and technology

In her position as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer in Niamey, Niger, Marisa Muraskiewicz thrives on the opportunity to make a positive impact on women’s lives through mobile technologies… and in the process she quickly discovered that there is a lot more than meets the eye in Niger!


WFP/Marisa Muraskiewicz

My first time in Niger was in 2015 when I went on a three-week mission to the country as part of my work with the global Food Security Cluster based at WFP’s Headquarters in Rome. My first impressions of the country included a lot of dust and sand, but I equally took home with me fond memories of my colleagues and the dynamic work environment there.

About a year later, an opening for a Junior Professional Officer position came up in Niger and I jumped at the chance. For the past one and a half years I have been working on strengthening WFP’s mobile food security monitoring in the country and my work is varied and fulfilling.

We conduct bi-monthly phone surveys on household food consumption and coping strategies, and ask traders about the availability and prices of products on the markets. We have also completed three rounds of data collection on nutrition indicators. My job is to design the questionnaires, supervise data collection by the call center, analyse data, and produce reports in which we share our key findings and which enable WFP to respond efficiently and effectively.

But our goal is not only to collect data from communities that are experiencing food insecurity – we also want to share information that is useful for them. To that end, we’re currently setting up a two-way communication system using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology and a Free Basics website, through which we will be able to share, for instance, the market prices of various goods back to the communities.

Coordination between different WFP offices, government organisations, and companies is another key feature of my work here. For example, I’m currently working on creating a partnership between WFP, the government of Niger, and Airtel, a mobile network operator. Our goal is to be able to conduct analyses of call detail records (CDR) – key metadata from phone calls – which will help us to map the directionality and duration of migration events driven by conflict or drought. This will allow WFP to efficiently allocate resources and target assistance to the most vulnerable areas.

WFP/Marisa Muraskiewicz

WFP/Marisa Muraskiewicz

But it is speaking directly with people which has brought the most meaning to my work. Before we implement our mobile data collection technologies, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of how affected populations can be reached and what their information needs are. To this end, I have traveled widely within the country, including to the volatile Diffa region. Visiting some of the remote villages where mVAM activities are in place always leaves a lasting impression.

Recently, I interviewed 20 women in the Diffa region in their houses – each woman warmly welcomed us into her home, usually a single room house without electricity or effective protection from rainfall. Back in Niamey, the impressions of these encounters motivate me to work towards providing a service that can make a positive contribution in these women’s lives.

There are of course plenty of challenges along the way, including low mobile phone ownership rates and limited access to the internet. But these technologies are becoming increasingly affordable in Niger and offer a huge potential for people. They offer access to important information, such as distribution dates, entitlements, nutrition, and food prices, which can empower people to make informed decisions on food purchases and consumption. Internet access also increases opportunities for employment as people are, for example, able to set up websites to sell their goods. It is fulfilling for me to be able to contribute to the benefits that people can reap through increased access to mobile phones and the internet.

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.