Information and technology: Improving food security in Uganda

June 23, 2014
Jennifer Kingsley

 

It is difficult to make good decisions without the right information, especially for farmers in water stressed regions of the world. People living in Uganda's cattle corridor used to rely on traditional knowledge to make decisions about planting, harvesting, and managing livestock, but weather patterns are less predictable these days, and droughts are more severe. Rapid access to reliable information is more important than ever; in fact, it is essential to food security. Until recently, good information was very difficult to get, but a pilot project that began in 2012 aims to change that.

Uganda's "cattle corridor" is a dry belt that runs through the middle of the country and comprises 40% of its land area. It is a major agricultural zone and critical for cattle herders who graze their animals there. The region is also struggling with extreme weather events, social conflict over land, and increasing water shortages. The Climate Change Adaptation and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) project, also called CHAI, chose four districts in the cattle corridor and piloted an information system that is already changing lives.

Spreading the news

Uganda has about 1000 weather stations – though only 60 of them are fully functional – and using them to gather weather information for timely dissemination has been a challenge. CHAI collects rainfall and market data from the sub-counties in the three intervention districts, which is then sent directly to a server at the Department of Meteorology for analysis. From there, the data is sent back to the districts, where it is translated and contextualized for the local population. Using mobile phones, local FM radio, and community loudspeakers, the up-to-date information reaches over 100,000 farmers across the districts of Nakasongola, Soroti, and Sembabule, with the fourth district, Rakai, being the control.

Over 100,000 farmers were reached through the project from FM radio broadcasts.Information includes a ten day weather forecast, a three month seasonal forecast, weather warnings, and information about low-cost adaptation measures such as water saving techniques. The service also includes current information on market prices, which helps farmers decide when and where to sell their products. CHAI has also linked farmers to “action resources” – agencies that can provide them with additional information, financial support, and access to services that can assist with implementing the acquired knowledge.

Community support builds trust

For the project to work, it is critical to build trust with farming and herding communities, which is where community leaders come in. Local chiefs, priests, and other authority figures who support the project help by sharing the information through their own channels. This reinforces the credibility of the information and encourages farmers to use it.

Information also flows both ways. Through SMS (short message service or text messaging) and call-in radio shows, local residents can give their feedback and/or share information about local conditions. This positive feedback strengthens the system.

Good information reduces risk

The results so far have been very promising. A recent study conducted by the project shows that up to 93% of the farmers in the participating districts found the actions they took based on this information to be effective for minimizing risks and increasing agricultural productivity. Also, crop loss and damage from drought in the project districts was 60% less than in neighbouring districts.

CHAI's day to day operations are jointly managed by Uganda Chartered Healthnet and the NGO FHI360, which also provides technical leadership. Project coordination and forecasting is supported by Uganda's Ministry of Water and Environment, including its Meteorology Department, and researchers at Makerere University provide support with statistical analysis, mapping, and the interface with policymakers.

The project was implemented using existing national and local government structures, and close engagement with the concerned agencies has been key to ensuring uptake of proposed solutions. The Ministry of Water and Environment is also interested in expanding the project across Uganda. Moreover, the project has attracted attention from the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a social and economic development organization with 19 member states, which may take it into other countries on the African continent.

In time, this network of information – made possible by digital technology – may provide many more people with the information needed to manage risk and to make informed decisions that have the potential to improve earnings, while protecting food security.

Jennifer Kingsley is an Ottawa-based writer.

Photos : Uganda Chartered Healthnet

Learn more about the project.

Watch an audio slideshow about the project
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