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Turning livestock herders into citizen-scientists: the mobile phone leapfrog into the information age

By Dr. Andrew Mude
2016 Borlaug Field Award Recipient
Andrew Mude

Upon first sight, the Samburu pastoralists of Northern Kenya may not look too different than they did generations ago. The men still drape colorful blanket-like cloths across their torsos and loins as their principle attire and carry a spear in one hand with a short sword strapped to their midriffs. They still migrate with their herds of cattle, sheep and goats in search of forage and water to sustain their main assets, particularly during times of drought. The women, resplendent in their traditional garb and adorned in numerous beaded rings decorating their slender necks, still largely stay around the homestead with the children, tending to the smaller herd left to provide the milk that forms the bulk of their diet and one of their principle income sources.

Look a little closer though and differences become apparent. Women can often be seen cluttering in random points, hoisting mobile phones high into the sky to increase the likelihood of catching a mobile network signal in the hopes that city-dwelling relatives have kept their promises and sent money through the globally-renowned MPESA mobile banking platform that Kenya has been a world-leader in. And pastoralists trekking their herds are increasingly drifting off their traditional migration paths as they aim to pass by cellphone towers to get news from scouts on where to find denser patches of nutritional grasses, more reliable water sources or even to receive warnings of potential bandit hotspots. More advanced herders, sporting basic smartphones, may instead be seeking to get information from the slew of mobile apps arising that offer relevant services. 

Indeed, more recent conversations with locals aiming to understand their development priorities and needs now typically include increasing network density and cellphone tower proximity. As top-of-the-list requirements, these often displace the provision of food and cash aid, access to water and increased income-generating opportunities.

And around them things are also changing fast. A national electrification program and increasing use of off-the grid solar panels is bringing electricity and light to a greater swath of the previously remote and largely unconnected arid lands of Kenya’s north, comprising more than 40% of its landmass. Hundreds of kilometers of newly paved roads are opening up the hinterlands at a fast pace, increasing access to markets, commodities and services and bringing new income earning opportunities to a population for whom pastoral livestock herding has long been the dominant production system. And new innovations enhancing the productivity of pastoralists, and increasing its resilience to the frequent droughts that ravage the area are being adopted more and more.

One such innovation that is starting to have a demonstrably positive impact on pastoralists is the Index-Based Livestock Insurance (IBLI) program. Launched in the Northern Kenyan county of Marsabit in 2010 as a pilot initiative led by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and its collaborators, IBLI aimed to offer a solution to the boom and bust cycle that characterized the pastoralist economy due to regular devastating droughts. 

Drought, and the resulting forage scarcity, causes over 75% of livestock deaths in a system in which the average herding household holds 100% of its productive assets in livestock and where sales of livestock and livestock products constitute over 40% of total household income on average.

Using an innovation in the insurance industry that uses an external “index” to trigger insurance payments, the IBLI contract tapped into satellite data readings of seasonal forage availability to serve as an index for the likelihood of impending drought-related livestock mortality. Targeted toward a population ravaged by the vagaries of drought and desperate for a promising solution, the IBLI pilot has grown and is now being offered by a number of insurance companies in conjunction with government agencies across Kenya and Ethiopia with demand to scale further.

Earlier this year, as drought ravaged vast swathes of the Horn of Africa, massive payouts to IBLI-covered households served as proof of the value of the program. In Kenya, the government’s initiative to scale IBLI within a public-private partnership framework dubbed the Kenya Livestock Insurance Program (KLIP), triggered payouts valued at KES 215 million to 12,604 of the 14,000 households registered under the program. KLIP now intends to scale provision to at least 70,000 pastoralists by 2020. In Ethiopia, all IBLI covered pastoralists in the pilot region of Borana received indemnities with more than 30% of recipients receiving the maximum possible payout. Working together with the Ethiopian government, the World Food Programme has now signaled an interest to integrate livestock insurance with its toolkit for promoting resilience among drought-vulnerable livestock herders.

Since its inception as a research-into-development program, the outputs and impacts generated by the IBLI program have received widespread recognition, including several prestigious development and innovation awards. As head of ILRI’s IBLI program since its inception, I was also honored to be the 2016 recipient of the Norman Borlaug Field and Research Application Award.  But despite these successes, the path has been challenging and sprinkled liberally with a range of obstacles.

To get pastoralists to understand the value of IBLI, build trust in the system and catalyze informed demand and uptake, an effective public relations campaign that married learning with marketing was required.  But in sparsely populated areas with relatively deficient infrastructure, such a campaign proved daunting and unsustainably costly.  However, the phenomenal spread of mobile phone networks and use – with the number of pastoralists households in the area using mobile services at least once daily increasing from roughly a quarter in 2009 to just under 75% in 2015 – provided the opportunity for leveraging digital platforms to affordably deliver a range of important IBLI-related services to pastoralists and other IBLI stakeholders in otherwise remote and previously unconnected areas. 

To help tackle the challenges of costly and inefficient training, extension, and performance monitoring, the team introduced cutting-edge applications in instructional design  and launched an eLearning IBLI course for insurance agents, government extension workers and policy-makers that later formed the basis of prerequisite certification for insurance agents. Building on this, the team later worked with collaborators to develop a mobile-phone based application incorporating specifically designed curricula on IBLI for training insurance agents. This was introduced along with a randomized control trial to test the impact of the mobile training app—and a range of monetary and gamification incentives—on understanding and sales. The promising preliminary results show an almost three-fold increase in sales and considerable learning gains.

Mobile phones offer a vehicle for more than just improved training and tracking of performance.  Insurance companies are now using sales transaction applications for offline capabilities to increase the cost efficiency of transacting. This has resulted in more than a fivefold increase in the number of agents offering IBLI.  And now, the IBLI program is helping pastoralists become ‘citizen scientists’ and using mobile platforms as a means to source important information from the field in order to tweak IBLI contracts.  In a pilot launched in 2015, IBLI scientists trained pastoralist herders to crowd-source data on rangeland conditions so as to supplement and ground-truth the satellite data driving the IBLI model, providing greater precision. Over a space of three months in 2015, just over 100 pastoralists submitted over 120,000 images of the rangelands, complete with characterizations that are being used to train machine-learning algorithms to assess the conditions and livestock carrying capacities of rangelands through images alone.

While this work is still in progress, the study has already established that it is possible to train and incentivize pastoralists to submit important information about their environment. The study also revealed that it was possible to vary incentives to encourage herders to move to areas where little data is being submitted, in order to increase the geographical uniformity of the data generated, as well as to provide more information in areas where greater data density is required.

The phenomenal spread and use of the mobile phone network is generating considerable excitement about the potential of digital crowd sourcing platforms to facilitate the sustainable generation of reliable information on local livestock prices, commodities and even disease and conflicts outbreaks, drought early warning and the like. The mobile phone in the Samburu pastoralists’ hand may yet turn out to be a more significant revolution than appeared at first sight; equipping them with a vehicle to lend their voice, and the data that exists in their midst, to help shape policy and commerce while possibly earning income from the information that they choose to share.

12/26/2017 8:00 AM |Add a comment
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