Connected Pastoralists: Designing a Mobile Application to Work in Rural Settings

By Jennifer Waugaman

In 2013 with funding from USAID, PCI developed an award-winning innovation that provides semi-nomadic pastoralists with satellite-powered maps that show the density of vegetation in their traditional grazing lands. With the map, pastoralists can make better decisions on where to take their livestock to graze—an imperative decision that has become increasingly challenging due to climate change. The pilot project tested the potential of the innovation by delivering paper-based vegetation maps to pastoralists in Ethiopia and found a 78% adoption rate and 47% reduction in herd mortality in the first year.

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While the results demonstrated that PCI had tapped a real need and could have a transformational impact, the next challenge was to develop a scalable delivery model so that more pastoralists could have access to the maps. Distributing the paper maps requires PCI staff or government representatives to print color maps and physically deliver them to remote villages through a cascaded protocol that involves local government and community representatives every 10 days. This continuous process is an investment in time, labor and resources that is susceptible to delays and breakdowns. For this reason, PCI sought to develop a mobile application to bypass the handoff and give pastoralists immediate and direct access to the maps as they update and pasture conditions change.

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But building a mobile application is something PCI has never done before. In our line of work, the typical process for developing a new project usually begins by looking at previous approaches and gathering information from the communities when possible, then someone designs a theory to either pilot test or implement once you receive funding, and concludes with an evaluation to measure the impact of the approach. In essence, learning doesn’t happen until you already secure funding and roll out the programming.

With Google.org as a partner on the current project, we were offered an alternative approach to learning, something Google Ventures developed called a “Design Sprint.” It is a popular process used to rapidly design, prototype and test an idea by locking all the relevant brain power into a room for five days. Essentially, in one week teams come out with answers from customers or beneficiaries and discover viable prospects without having to fully build and launch their ideas—same learnings, significantly less time.

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We jumped at the idea and invited key staff members, Hoefsloot Spatial Solutions (our satellite experts), Google techies, and traditional pastoralists from Tanzania. In early September, we gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, with some of the best in the tech community at iHub, one of the pioneering incubation and co-working spaces in Africa. For four days, we challenged each other’s ideas, sketched out solutions, voted on the best results and ultimately came out of the sprint with a mock application that we got to validate with other Maasai pastoralists in Kenya.

Check out this video on PCI’s Design Sprint at iHub:

By having all the right technical experts and actual pastoralists in the room together, we were able to dream up features that are most valuable to pastoralists. The future AfriScout mobile app will not only display up-to-date vegetation maps, but also geolocate the user and calculate distance to desired grazing areas. Pastoralists will also be able to look at previous updates from past months to see the changes in vegetation over time in their traditional grazing areas. If there are hazards in the area like disease, dried up wells, predators, conflict or restricted grazing, pastoralists can alert others using the app. Eventually the mobile app will also be able to detect surface water down to 10 square meters so that during dry season they can find ponds and streams that have not dried up.

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The first release of the will launch in January of 2017 for early stage field testing. We will be able to continue to challenge our assumptions and begin laying the foundations for this next phase of AfriScout. Eventually, pastoralists across the continent of Africa will have access to relevant digital content that they can use to improve their livelihoods.

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By Jennifer Waugaman, PCI’s Strategic Initiatives Officer

By | 2017-01-08T14:08:29+00:00 November 17th, 2016|Sustainability, Water Crisis|