Kenya

Two years on from the East Africa drought: Food Aid with a difference. Part One

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Natalie Curtis

Two years ago East Africa experienced its worst drought in 60 years, leaving 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. I visited Kenya where ActionAid is using text messages to help deliver food aid and empower drought affected communities.

As I stepped off the bus the first thing that hit me was the blistering heat, then a sharp surge of wind, stinging my eyes with course sand. The ground was rock hard and black. It was obvious Isiolo in northern Kenya had not seen rain in months.

I’d come to this drought-struck area to see a food aid distribution with a difference – the entire thing had been coordinated by text message.

In partnership with InfoAsAid ActionAid gave basic mobile phones and solar charges to 250 women in drought affected communities. These women, chosen by their own villages, have become the ‘point people’ for text message alerts, sent from a central computer at ActionAid’s Isiolo office.

ActionAid’s texts tell communities:

What food aid is coming, when and where If any substitutions have been made based on availability, like switching sorghum for wheat or beans for lentils.
The community’s texts tell ActionAid:

What food they need Which roads aid trucks should avoid in case of conflict or natural obstructions like trees on the road How the food aid distribution went and what could be done better.

Women-headed relief

The thought of throwing bags of grain off the back of a truck at needy people has always jarred with me. Where is the dignity in having food thrust at you, no matter how desperate you are? And how does an aid agency ensure the most vulnerable receive what they need amidst the scrum? Not to mention the security risks to both the community and aid workers if things go wrong.

ActionAid’s approach couldn’t have been further from this. The scene in front of me was incredibly well organised. Each family had arrived on time and laid out a plastic sheet, upon which they placed measuring jugs and their registration books, recording clearly how much food they had received and what they were expecting.

In the centre stood 38-year-old local woman, Cecilia. Holding her mobile phone in one hand, Cecilia calmly and with great authority began coordinating the pouring, weighing out and administration of a truck load of maize, rice and cooking oil, among other provisions. The whole thing was over in 30 minutes, with every grain accounted for and no disputes.

Award-winning work in action

Cecilia told me that by appointing women headed committees to coordinate food distribution, the community could guarantee that every member got its fair share. The women were accountable to the community, which reduced the risk of any food going missing.

This principle of accountability was weaved through every stage of the relief effort. The communities receiving the aid not only coordinated its distribution on the ground, they drove the vehicles, loaded the trucks at the warehouse and fed back to ActionAid staff on what could be improved.

For me this was the best example I’d seen of ActionAid’s Human Rights Based Approach in action and no doubt why the project won the Tech 4 Good Innovation Award in July 2012.

Over the past two years, ActionAid Kenya has provided general food support to some 419,799 people. We’ve given clean water to nearly 57,000 people and provided school feeding for over 46,000 children. But ActionAid’s work doesn’t stop there.

Long term food security

Find out in part two, how ActionAid is helping communities in Kenya also build long-term resilience to drought. I report back from the same community in Isiolo, on an innovative farming and water harvesting project, designed to help recipients of food aid make the long-term transition to self sufficiency.