Food aid, development and text messsaging
Online stories show how mobile phones are playing an important role in addressing hunger and food security around the world

MANILA, Philippines — Development intiatives in recent years have been using mobile phones to help alleviate hunger and improve food aid distribution around the world. 

Sharing their activities and experiences online, international and local agencies, groups and organizations engaging in humanitarian work have learned to incorporate mobile technologies into their projects to provide better access to food especially for hungry, impoverished and vulnerable communities.

Read more about some of these stories below.

Mobile phone food vouchers

In October 2009, the World Food Programme (WFP) introduced a 4-month mobile phone food voucher project to help some 1,000 Iraqi refugee families in Damascus, Syria. With SIM cards donated by a local service provider, refugees received electronic food vouchers on their mobile phone which they could exchange for food at government shops. Food items included cheese, eggs, fish, rice and wheat flour. Each month, family beneficiaries received a voucher per person worth US$22.

Mobile phone food voucher projects like this have been replicated in other countries to help communities challenged by food insecurity. The most recent one was established by WFP and partner agencies in Chad, as reported in October 2013. The food vouchers covered some 22,000 people in the regions of Guera and Batha, who needed aid to be able to access and buy food.

Text messaging for aid distribution

In Digital Diversity, a blog series run by anthropologist and founder Ken Banks for the National Geographic News, several stories demonstrate the power of mobile phones in improving lives in Africa.

A June 2013 post featured Rosa Akbari’s story on how mobile technology has played a key role in humanitarian efforts in refugee camps in Western Sahara, southwest Algeria. In 2012, she coordinated with local lead humanitarian agency Sahrawi Red Crescent (SRC) for a project that involved implementing FrontlineSMS, a text messaging platform. Akbari and SRC partners implemented the system and tested its performance in a selected district with 1,305 families, working with 8 humanitarian coordinators in using the platform.

Sharing her observations, Akbari said FrontlineSMS “became the catalyst for people to think of better ways to get the right information to the right people.” The platform enabled them to come up with text message content and a system that determined when these messages should be sent.

For instance, FrontlineSMS enabled beneficiaries to track the status of food aid delivery trucks coming from Rabouni, the administrative camp. The project was funded by the Humanitarian Futures Grant Programme of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

Information for farmers via SMS

In the Philippines, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) of the Department of Agriculture (DA) has created the Pinoy Farmers’ Text Center, which is a help desk that uses text messaging to provide rice-related information to agricultural workers, farmers and farmer-technicians.

In a July 2013 post in Digital Diversity, staff from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Skopje wrote about the agency’s experience in working with orchard farmers in Prespa Lake Basin, Resen, Macedonia to set up a system that would help monitor pests and diseases. Farmers needed information to determine the best time to spray to deal with pests and to avoid using pesticides too early, too late, and too much. Without local media in the area, however, they had to find a faster way of disseminating the pest data gathered by monitoring stations to farmers, who used to rely on flyers for information.

An SMS system by the University of Cyril & Methodius in Skopje funded by the UNDP has helped address this problem. Through updates via text messaging (and even Facebook posts), farmers are now informed about the best time to spray and to prevent the spread of pests in their orchards.

Cash disbursements 

In 2010, WFP and Globe Telecom, a local telecommunications company, introduced a mobile phone cash disbursement project in the Philippines. Through cash disbursement, WFP used the project to help beneficiaries of its Cash-for-Work (CFW) program. Using Globe’s GCASH micro-payment and money transfer service, the project aimed to support recovery and rehabilitation by distributing financial aid to some 2,000 households in Metro Manila and Northern Luzon that were severely affected by Typhoon Ondoy and Typhoon Pepeng. This allowed them to buy important food items.

Free SIM cards were distributed to beneficiaries and participants were informed about how they can access cash disbursements using their mobile phones. According to WFP, this is the first mobile phone cash transfer service in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia.

In December 2012, WFP also partnered with Save the Children, mobile service provider Airtel and the local government to establish a mobile phone banking system for farming communities in Lunzu, Malawi. Many farmers in the area do not have purchasing power for food and suffer when drought strikes or during “hungry season,” which often occurs while awaiting the next harvest.

The program involved over 100,000 participants who were provided cellphones through which they could receive cash from Airtel. –

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