Burundi: Wireless System Keeps Tabs On Hunger

Handheld PDAs like this one are helping WFP staff in Burundi keep tabs on the country's food situation.

Copyright: WFP/Marc Neilson

WFP is taking advantage of Burundi's new wireless network to ensure it always knows how people are eating, how much they pay for food and where potential pockets of hunger are developing. Staff on fact-finding missions update the central database with palm computers.

BUJUMBURA – Burundi may be better known for years of civil unrest and extreme poverty than telecommunications, but it actually has excellent cell phone service thanks to the recent installation of a 3G high-speed wireless network.

It is not uncommon to travel through rural areas and see people using cell phones, even in remote villages – one advantage of being such a small country.

WFP’s country office in Burundi is embracing this technology by using PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) to stay on top of the country’s food supply.

Digital surveys

 "WPF staff will use their wireless devices to input data from Burundian families about what they’re eating and how much it costs," says Marc Neilson, a WFP programme officer in Bujumbura. So far, 34 devices have been handed out to field agents in the country.

PDAs have a number of advantages over their pen-and-ink predecessors, the most important being a reduced margin of error. Field agents have only to check an electronic box on their digital questionnaires, which are automatically transmitted to the WFP main office.

The PDAs are also a major time saver, eliminating the need to scribble and decipher handwritten notes, not to mention paper.

Phase One

In the first phase of the PDA project, data is being saved on memory cards and then uploaded at WFP’s main offices. Soon, however, the staff will begin reporting their findings via wireless uplink, providing a clearer and more up-to-date picture of Burundi’s food situation.

Burundi is not the first country in sub-Saharan Africa where WFP has armed staff with wireless technology. Prior successes with PDAs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique, two very large operations tasked with crunching massive amounts of data, have provided a solid working model for missions to other countries in the region.

Wireless technology is playing an ever greater role in shaping how WFP gets assistance to the people who need it. A scratch-card scheme in Zambia, for instance, has helped simplify the food voucher programme there, while many people in Iraq now receive "virtual vouchers" by text message. 

Cell Phones: A New Tool in the Fight Against Hunger

Wireless technology is playing an ever greater role in shaping how WFP gets assistance to the people who need it. A scratch-card scheme, for instance, has helped simplify the food voucher programme in Zambia, while many Iraqi refugees now receive "virtual vouchers" by text message.