Catholic Relief Services uses FrontlineSMS to save Cassava Farming in Eastern Africa

A joint guest blog by FrontlineSMS and CRS manager Peter Mureith Climate change has severely affected the growth and production of crops on a global scale. Food security is a serious concern in many parts of Africa and Asia, and with a lower-than-expected yield in the US, unusually high rainfall in Europe and drought in the Horn of Africa, global food prices are expected to spike again in the coming year.

Catholic Relief Service (CRS) has long been using FrontlineSMS to work with communities in Eastern Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi - to support alternative ways to improve cassava farming. Cassava is a staple food in the region, with its stem, leaves and root all being put to use. In Congo, the average family consumes 5kg of cassava flour and 3kg of its leaves every day.

In the past, with higher rainfall and fewer destructive crop diseases, cassava farming was profitable and fed farmers' families. In fact, it took only 3 months to plant and harvest the cassava tubal and its leaves. Today, farming has become more challenging and costly. Lower than average rainfall and new crop diseases have reduced crop yields. Many peasant farmers have changed professions to labor-intensive and dangerous jobs such as mining, exacerbating food shortages. With lower incomes, families struggle to send their children to school and provide sufficient food, suitable housing and basic health care.

CRS began working with communities to address these problems and help alleviate food insecurity in the region. The Great Lakes Cassava Initiative (GLCI) works with 1.15 million farmers, researching best practices on curbing cassava crop diseases and working to create a seed tolerant to diseases and drought. GLCI worked through partners in each district to distribute seeds which would thrive in that specific area. Through research, GLCI discovered that isolating a cassava plant which has been affected with the new crop diseases wasn’t the solution – the problem would return if its seeds were replanted and would affect other neighboring farms. GLCI worked to build awareness and provide tools and skills that would lead to positive action among communities.

58 partners and 250 staff with 250 laptops were an essential part of the GLCI implementation strategy. CRS used FrontlineSMS to enhance their communication, ICT strategy and data collection, and assist communication with partners. Many were in very remote areas where Internet access would be unpractical, unreliable and expensive. CRS used FrontlineSMS to send reminders, schedules on training opportunities, deadlines, announcements and collect data. CRS also applied a troubleshooting solution to handle computer errors partners would encounter. Staff would simply SMS their problem to CRS and CRS would respond with a solution, via SMS.

Through GLCI, farmers increased their yield, increased their income and improved their livelihood; a positive impact that had a ripple effect to the region's economy and its food security. In one instance, a GLCI farmer* in Tanzania was able to improve his yield and income and as a result, was able to increase contributions to his saving scheme, which afforded him financial freedom to increase his farm from 0.25 acres in 2003 to 30 acres now. He is also the main distributor of cassava seeds in three main districts.

*name withheld due to confidentiality and third party rights