Section 7: Programming in Emergencies

7.2

Case Study

SMS project in Isiolo, Kenya

Since May 2011, ActionAid has been partnering with a consortium called Infoasaid, the aim of this initiative was to:

  • Mainstream communications with disaster-affected communities in our emergency preparedness and response.

  • Strengthen the capacity and preparedness of ActionAid to respond to the information and communication needs of crisis-affected populations.

  • Provide rapid responses to select emergencies in partnership with ActionAid to inform and support their two-way communication with affected populations.


As part of the partnership, ActionAid began implementing a pilot project in Isiolo, Kenya, where ActionAid (in collaboration with the World Food Programme) provides vital food rations to over 80,000 people every month. Distribution of the supplies is handled by community members themselves through self-organised ‘Relief Committees’, and overseen by field officers employed by ActionAid.

Broadly, the project aims to help combat food insecurity amongst communities affected by the 2011 drought. It uses innovative technology – Frontline SMS and Freedom Fone – to transmit information simultaneously to multiple recipients from a laptop computer, and to provide a channel for communities to feed back to ActionAid staff.

The project provided basic mobile phone and solar chargers to 250 relief committee members, and 30 Java-enabled mobile phones to ActionAid field officers, regional office staff and others including warehouse owners and food truck drivers.

In July 2012, the project was awarded the Innovation Award in the 2012 Technology 4 Good Awards. Read more about the award here.

A recent review of the project found that it had brought benefits for both drought-affected communities and ActionAid, by:


Boosting household income

A man asked ‘how is the livestock price in Isiolo?’ I told him it is lower, he immediately called people in Nanyuki so that they could go to buy (in Isiolo) and sell in other towns. He bought so he could sell at higher price.

- Edward, Relief Committee Secretary

Improving relations between communities and ActionAid

We used to argue. The community wanted to know why I had not told them about the distribution dates. Now they have time to prepare. Within 30 minutes we are done. Before we had to ask neighbouring villages to help with off-loading – that could take two-three hours.

- Fatumah, ActionAid Food Monitor

Increasing the speed and efficiency of food distribution

There is a big change now. Long before, food used to stay overnight because there was no communication. Now we get information immediately even when the trucks are still in Isiolo. We are aware that food is arriving tomorrow, and we go ready for distribution.

- Community member in Oldonyiro

Field officers also report that the use of Frontline SMS has reduced the need for frequent travel to rural communities for face-to-face meetings – in one case from 24 per month to just 12 – saving time and money.


Enabling community members to better plan their time

In the past we saw the (food) trucks arriving and we might have gone to attend to other works. Now, we get (information) one or two days before, we can put off our jobs and come to collect food.

- Halima, community member

Enabling communities to link with the outside world

When one (child) was bitten by the snake we used the phone to call the vehicle to help take them to hospital

- Salesa, community member

Improving the speed and efficiency of data collection

The Frontline SMS forms are very easy to fill. They do not consume even 10 minutes. The information goes to the hub and…it is secure. Before, I gave the information on paper which can disappear.

- Thomas, Food Monitor

The review also highlighted areas for improvement, including:

  • Improving the way ActionAid shares, and responds to, information received from community members. Relief committees are using the phones provided by the project to report important information such as flooding, or disease outbreaks. A systematic approach for handling this information needs to be put in place.

  • Reviewing the benefit of the Freedom Fone hotline. Discussions with community members revealed that the Freedom Fone number is rarely used. In addition to some technical problems, there are significant cultural and economic challenges which are currently hindering its uptake, which ActionAid needs to investigate.


Since the project began ActionAid has received questions and complaints from community members relating to the humanitarian situation and response. These communications are received and processed by ActionAid’s Data Officer in the region. If the complaint does not relate to ActionAid’s work it is passed onto the relevant external contact. If it does relate to ActionAid it is handled by the ActionAid’s Project Co-ordinator. If the complaint is related to a serious matter it would fall under ActionAid’s complaints procedures as outlined in the Complaints and response mechanism framework for investigation and action. While no serious complaints have been received during this time, a number of queries relating to food distributions came in. In one case, community members used the mobile phones provided by ActionAid to communicate the fact that they hadn’t received food supplies for a number of weeks. When ActionAid’s Project Co-ordinator reasoned that this was because community members had failed to complete work on a food-for-assets project, the community again used the mobile phones to request that the Project Co-ordinator visit the site to see that the work had indeed been finished. Following the site visit, the Co-ordinator agreed that the work had been completed satisfactorily, and as a result the food distributions were reinstated.