Dakoro calling

As global warming exacerbates food insecurity in Africa, satellites are bridging the communications gap in early warning systems that alert central authorities of looming food crises.

Oisin Walton

Climate change affects us all, but Africa is literally in the hot-seat. The continent warmed up by 0.7 degrees over the course of the 20th century, according to a report issued at last November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Nairobi. Without immediate and drastic action worldwide, says the same report, some 40 per cent of the continent’s wildlife habitat will be lost over the next 25 years, while crop yields will fall by five per cent.

For many Africans, however, such reports only confirm what they already know. For them, climate chaos is not some future nightmare that can yet be averted. This is their waking reality. In many areas, as rains diminish and the rainy seasons become fewer and more unpredictable, the types of crops that can be grown become ever more restricted. Water scarcity forces cattle and sheep farmers to move to more fertile regions, leading to conflicts over grazing land and water.

However, with enough advance notice of weather conditions, governments can make decisions that enable them to avert or minimize the food security crises that these circumstances can produce. Sadly, traditional systems of passing on such information to central authorities – especially from very isolated areas - often deliver news of worsening conditions far too late.

In response to this, we at Telecoms Sans Frontières, a France-based NGO that provides emergency telecommunications services around the world, have begun to implement satellite communications systems in parts of Africa, radically reducing the time it takes to pass on such vital, lifesaving information. In the summer of 2005, Niger was particularly badly hit by a food crisis, which followed an unusually dry season and a locust invasion. We were deployed in July of the same year to support the relief agencies and local authorities in the most affected region - Dakoro in eastern Niger. We soon discovered that while it was in place, the government’s food crisis prevention system had not been working fast enough to cope with the effects of the crisis. Information on livestock and on agricultural revenues from remote areas was not arriving at the capital, Niamey, in time since it was collected manually in each village, and a messenger was then sent by road to bring it to the capital. It would take weeks or even months for all the information to be compiled.

We talked to the government, the European Commission and one of our commercial partners, Inmarsat, to see if they would be prepared to fund a project to connect the most vulnerable areas of Niger to the capital. Once approved, the project connected 12 of the most remote areas to the capital between June and July 2006. Instead of the laborious process used before, the form is now sent digitally, instantly delivering detailed information on livestock and agricultural markets.

All the sites where we deployed the network are in what we call ‘uncommunicative areas’ - with no GSM network, landline, or internet connections - and hardly any radio communications. The only way of connecting these areas is through satellite. For this, we used RBGan terminals, which were donated by Inmarsat. Another partner, France Télécom, is supporting the project by paying the RBGan terminal subscription costs (€19/month). Local government staff gather information in local markets around the country through the SIMA (Système d’Information des Marchés Agricoles - information system on agricultural markets) and the SIMB (Système d’Information des Marchés du Bétail - information system on livestock markets). Each telecom centre covers a certain number of villages, and therefore markets as well. At each satellite terminal, we have a computer connected to a small data transmitter that sends the agricultural information gathered to the capital.

The system is currently up and running and the amount of information gathered exceeds the level of detail that was passed on before. Decision makers in the capital can now obtain, in real-time, data on the situation in the cereal and livestock markets, variations in stock of subsistence crops, modifications in the population’s diet, the development of sanitary and nutritional situations, variations in natural resources, and the dynamics of commercial trade. The forms sent to decision makers in Niamey also include information on the local health situation, based on information collected by government workers from every health centre.

Since information delivered through satellite communications, and particularly mobile satellite solutions, is paid for by volume, the information packets need to be as ‘light’ as possible in order to make the system sustainable, and ensure that information is sent on a regular basis. Therefore, with support from the Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour, France, we developed software that compressed the data sent in each form from around 300kb to 3kb. Similarly, communication costs at each terminal need to be kept to a minimum. While the European Commission paid for the equipment, the training and the initial communications costs, the Niger government will eventually have to bear the communications costs of the 12 terminals (approximately €75 a month). The stations themselves are manned by local staff, trained by TSF. Apart from the communications and remuneration for data collection staff at the stations, there are no other costs involved. The simplicity of the system allows it to be replicated relatively easily in other parts of Africa. In collaboration with the European Commission, TSF is currently exploring how the model can be expanded to cover neighbouring countries. With slight modifications, the system could be adapted to collate information relating to avian flu, AIDS, malaria and many other early warning or prevention system needs.

As the weather situation has been stable since the setting up of the network, the system has yet to be truly tested. This is likely to happen during the next dry season, particularly in the months of May, June and July.

In the coming months we will begin to see the real impact of our work.

Oisin Walton is the communications director of TSF.

15 February 2007

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