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Monday, December 4, 2023

Sahel: technology for nomads

Launched just over a year ago in Gao, Mali, a Dutch-funded cell phone service gives nomadic herders access to satellite information to help them cope with the consequences of climate change.

In the Sahel, more frequent and longer periods of drought are threatening the resilience of nomadic livestock breeders. Freshwater sources are scarce during the dry season, and many animals risk dying before they reach the next oasis, reports UN Environment in a field report.

In the event of drought, herders have to travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers to find a suitable place with sufficient water and vegetation to meet the needs of the many herds that congregate there.

"In order to decide where to go, pastoralists usually pay an emissary to check out the area they have in mind for their next destination, and the emissary reports back to them on the situation. A few days at best are needed to obtain the information by motorcycle, several weeks if the journey is undertaken by camel. It's expensive, slow and risky," says Abdoul Aziz Ag Alwaly, head of programs at the local non-governmental organization Tassaght, which works with pastoralists in the Sahel. He is also a founding member of the African Network of Bilital Maroobé Pastoralists.

Thanks to cell phones, this information is now available to the 21,000 pastoralists using the Garbal cell phone service. This helps them to move their herds in optimum conditions.

This private service operated by telecommunications company Orange Mali, was created as part of the STAMP (sustainable technological adaptation for Malian pastoralists) project in November 2017. It aims to improve pastoralists' resilience to climate change through access to and use of satellite data.

Telephones, satellites and local knowledge

To access the service, users connect by phone to a call center or send a digital request to a database for a small additional fee, and receive information such as surface water availability in a chosen area, biomass availability and quality, livestock concentration, and grain and livestock prices on local markets.

However, as satellite images are often incomplete, the multi-partner project funded by the Dutch government and implemented by SNV (the Dutch development organization) has anchored information verification in the communities, inviting villagers to check the quality and relevance of the information provided by satellites. For example, a water source that appears on the map after rainfall may disappear after a few days, i.e. in less time than it would take a shepherd to get there.

The Malian pastoralists' sustainable technological adaptation project is not a typical public-private partnership. It is a joint venture between the government, a multinational and a local organization.

The project is funded by the Dutch Space Agency through the Geodata for Agriculture and Water Facility. The Netherlands, via Hoefsloot Spatial Solutions, provides the satellite images, Orange Mali manages the call center and TASSAGHT, with its team of local pastoralists, collects and sends up-to-date information to complement the data from space.

"We worked with community leaders to select a few people per site, then trained them on how to collect data and then send it to us for validation before passing it on to people at the Orange Mali call center," explains Alwaly.

"We invited some of these pastors to Bamako for training. Some of them had never been to the capital. They felt like pioneers walking into uncharted territory, discovering new technologies," says Catherine Le Côme, coordinator of SNV Netherlands' Sustainable Technological Adaptation for Malian Pastoralists project. "It has been absolutely incredible to get such different people working together to achieve a common goal."

A great success

The service has been a great success: 98% of users are satisfied or very satisfied with the service, and 97.6% praise the accuracy of the information.

"The first phase of the project was completed in December 2018, but given its success, we are now looking to expand the service to other regions of Mali and beyond, and then add relevant services for pastoralists, such as advice in animal health and digital financial products."