Hard-pressed to find efficient ways of delivering aid, humanitarian agencies are turning to new technologies.
One such innovation involves mobile phones to send cash. One such project was piloted in Baringo North and Pokot East Districts of Kenya's Rift Valley Province during post-election violence this year.
"They [local residents] were exposed to cattle rustling after security was withdrawn to deal with the post-election violence," said Anne O'Mahony, Kenya country director for the NGO Concern Worldwide. "There were also high levels of poverty in the area after the conflict."
The target beneficiaries selected by the community from among the most vulnerable, were women who would receive fortnightly cash transfers of KSh320 (US$4.70) per household member via short message service (SMS).
The service used a mobile cash transfer service, known as M-Pesa (mobile money), which is a joint venture between multinational giant Vodafone and Kenya's largest mobile phone company and Vodafone affiliate Safaricom, and allows cash to be sent over the Safaricom network.
Safaricom set up Concern as a corporate user to allow for bulk transfers to the targeted beneficiaries. Normally, M-Pesa is designed for one-on-one cash transfers with a maximum transfer limit of 35,000 shillings (about $583) per transaction.
However, most potential beneficiaries were illiterate or did not have the identification documents required to collect the cash. The targeted households were, therefore, clustered into groups of about 10. Members would nominate one literate person as leader to collect the money on behalf of the group, O'Mahony said.
Of the 571 targeted households, 225 (39 percent) owned a phone. Concern provided 45 handsets to enable the clusters to share one handset between them, along with 60 solar chargers.
At the same time, Safaricom organised agents from the nearest towns of Iten or Eldoret to travel to the local Kinyach police station, which was selected as the money distribution point. The Safaricom agents were available to disperse the cash on local market days.
"This system enabled the beneficiaries to get easy access to the cash and they could buy necessary food immediately," O'Mahony said. The cash was supposed to meet at least 50 percent of household food requirements.
Photo: Anne Ejakait/Concern Worldwide
|Residents upon receipt of their money at the Kinyach Police post.|
"We thought the best way of getting effective aid to these people was cash," she said. "If the markets work, there is no point in us buying goods, taking them to the area and distributing them - we might not get the type of goods required right and there are also issues to do with trucking food ... Cash made much more sense."
In the past, O'Mahony added, Concern had bought food in Eldoret town but found it was 18 percent cheaper to give people money to buy what they needed.
"These people are mobile so they can go wherever they can get cheap food and the mobiles reduced their isolation," she said. "If there is money the food will come ... merchants will come. People suffer because they can't buy."
Panuel Luker, one of the beneficiaries, said the wider availability of mobile phones had also improved communication in another way: they were useful for warnings about cattle rustling.
O'Mahony said there were plans to scale up the project to reach at least 16,200 vulnerable families, depending on funding.
In future, the ratio of mobiles to families would also be increased, along with the development of a way to deal with lost SIM cards. "We found that one mobile phone per large group of people is not enough, we will need to get more phones," she said.
"Most of the projects that have used the mobile-phone technology have been small in scale and preliminary probably due the high costs of developing and deploying mobile technologies," according to a 2008 report by the UN Foundation–Vodafone Group Foundation Partnership, titled 'Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use'.
An evaluation of the Concern project, however, found that M-Pesa was better than food distributions, "provided the difference between wholesale and retail prices is within a certain range, local food markets are actually functioning and that the cash transfer programme is long enough to justify the costs of the equipment (phones, chargers etc.)".
Qualitative evidence indicated that about 70 percent of the transfer was spent on food, with the remainder going on transport and other non-food essentials.
According to the evaluation, inflation and early warning data on food prices should be considered when deciding on cash transfer values as food prices rose during the Kenya pilot programme.