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Using Cell Phones to Monitor Food Security Threats – A Food Security and M&E Pilot in Malawi

Using cell phones only for calling people is *so* 2009.

Over the past year leading into this new decade we’ve seen new uses for cell phones in humanitarian work and through CRS programs. In Niger, people learn literacy skills through cell phone programs. In Ghana, farmers can gain valuable market information via text messages. People living with HIV can receive cell phone reminders to take their ARV treatments in Southern Africa, and people can transfer money to different bank accounts in Sierra Leone. Soon, in Malawi, people will be able to monitor shocks to their food security through mobile systems.

A new USAID-funded Multi-Year Assistance Program in Malawi, Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (WALA), aims to achieve improved food security for 214,974 chronically food insecure households in the southern part of the country by 2014. One component of this food security is to ensure that people are able to mitigate and, when possible, prevent severe impacts from shocks and emergencies that affect people’s livelihoods.  “Trigger Indicators” (TIs) are the mechanism through which emergency food resources can be accessed through WALA. A shock such as a failed maize crop may cause food security levels to drop to threatening levels, severely affecting households in the program area. In these cases, CRS and affected communities would recognize that such conditions “trigger” an emergency response, and valuable resources can be channeled towards the relief and support of these vulnerable households.

In order to measure food security levels of households quickly and accurately and determine whether a food security emergency is imminent, FANTA has developed a Household Hunger Scale (HHS). This tool consists of a series of three questions that helps field agents classify households as least, moderately, or severely food insecure.

WALA is beginning a pilot to test a mobile telephone application for a trigger indicator in two districts in southern Malawi. The pilot will test both the HHS as a trigger indicator and the use of a mobile application for the HHS to monitor changes in levels of actual food deprivation on a monthly basis. The pilot project will be undertaken in cooperation with collaborating partners and local government officials. The pilot test is expected to be completed by March 2010.

For the WALA pilot project, a data entry form will be loaded onto mobile phones. The users (field staff) will fill in the form and data will be processed by FrontlineSMS software and transferred to a database. WALA staff and other stakeholders have access to all the SMSs transmitted by WALA field staff using the web interface.

CRS will be exploring this and other information and communication technology (ICT) in an upcoming agency ICT summit, which will take place in two phases, in February and March. Through this process, CRS staff at all levels will develop a strategy for promoting and supporting ICT technologies and back-up support systems and processes that will enable ICT to facilitate our work in achieving impact at scale among the vulnerable people we serve. For information about the ICT summit, please contact Carol Bothwell (, Guy Sharrock (, or Dina Brick (

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