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!

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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.

“I experienced how much hunger can affect you”

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

Venkat leading a food distribution in the remote Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, for a community affected by the El Niño-induced drought

Venkat leading a food distribution in the remote Highlands region of Papua New Guinea, for a community affected by the El Niño-induced drought

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.

Digicel Call Center in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, from where the mVAM survey interviews are conducted

Digicel Call Center in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, from where the mVAM survey interviews are conducted

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.

On the mission to Kira Station to validate the mVAM survey findings

On the mission to Kira Station to validate the mVAM survey findings

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.