THE BLOG
10/10/2012 02:08 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2012

Food Distribution in the Horn of Africa Goes High-tech

Getting food into the hands of the hungry in the Horn of Africa is about to go high-tech. Seattle-based humanitarian organization World Concern is piloting a new mobile phone app in the drought-stricken region, aiming to streamline the process of tracking food distributed to hungry families and payment to local merchants.

World Concern has been distributing food and emergency supplies to families affected by the Horn of Africa drought since July 2011. As famine spread throughout the region, aid organizations struggled to reach millions of people, especially those living in southern Somalia. World Concern distributed vouchers to hungry families who were able to purchase food from local merchants. The system supports the local economy and helps ensure food reaches those in greatest need.

This method has been extremely effective, even in dangerous and hard-to-reach places. More than 30,000 vouchers have been distributed so far, each representing a two-week supply of rations for a family of six.

The new mobile app allows field staff to use a tool they are already carrying (a mobile phone) to record data in the field (instead of a pencil and paper), and negates the need for re-entry into a computer at a later date. This saves time and reduces the risk of errors.

The system tracks beneficiaries and the food they receive via bar codes that are scanned into a mobile phone. Merchants have an I.D. card with a bar code, which is also scanned so they can be paid via wire transfer almost instantly.

The mobile app was developed by Seattle startup ScanMyList, whose founder, Scott Dyer, created a mobile application to help retail businesses track inventory. When Dyer saw one of World Concern's vouchers, he realized the same system could help the humanitarian organization reach people during a disaster more efficiently and track aid more accurately.

Dyer traveled to the Horn of Africa with World Concern to kick off the pilot program, which will put the new technology into action in the field this month, as 4,000 food vouchers are distributed in Eastern Kenya and Southern Somalia.

"Not many people can say they've birthed an idea and seen it to fruition," said Dyer. "It's super exciting."

The real brain behind this technology is the custom database, which is not only programmed to receive data from mobile phones, but to "think" about what it receives. The database will identify possible duplicate entries, flag significant variations in data, and cross-check entry errors. Then, the database is programmed to generate custom reports in real time. World Concern staff can view these on a website, seeing exactly how many meals are distributed immediately.

"This technology will enable our staff to report on their life-saving distribution in real-time, increasing our ability to respond to immediate needs as they arise," said Chris Sheach, deputy director of disaster response for World Concern.

While the "famine" has officially ended in the Horn, the long-term effects of such a severe drought and crisis will be experienced for many years to come. As NGOs shift our response from disaster to development -- teaching pastoralists who lost their herds to farm and other forms of livelihood diversification -- there are still many hungry people to feed. This new technology will enable us to do this even more quickly and efficiently. It can also be used in other types of disasters, particularly in cash-for-work programs.