Tech innovations help build food security

A Mercy Corps member reviewing a participtants paper work in Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement.
In Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, participants took part in a pilot programme using solar-powered cookstoves. Photo by Guya Francis.
28 August 2023

Every meal tells a story. For many of those in rural communities, that story lives in the lengthy and sometimes perilous journey to collect firewood for cooking fuel to feed families. In rural Uganda, firewood must be either purchased or gathered manually to start a cooking fire. Women and girls travel miles on foot to locate firewood daily, far from their settlements. Not only can these exhausting journeys take hours, gatherers are at risk for experiencing violence in more isolated areas. Every hour spent gathering firewood is an hour in which women and girls miss out on school and other income-generating activities.

A solar-powered cookstove appliance is helping alleviate these issues. In partnership with local and international organisations, Mercy Corps’ Technology for Development team (T4D) works to harness the power of technology to bring food security and water security, peacebuilding, and economic opportunities to people across the world. Mercy Corps collaborated with Pesitho, an organisation that developed a solar-powered cookstove called the ECOCA, and developed a pilot programme in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in Northwest Uganda that is home to more than 270,000 South Sudanese refugees.

When fully charged, the ECOCA has enough energy to cook three meals a day. The need for time-intensive firewood gathering disappears, as does the carcinogenic smoke and pollution produced by wood fires. Women have more time to attend community meetings, socialise with friends, care for their families, or invest in income-generating opportunities.

The ecoca solar-powered cookstove by pesithoatop its heating element.
Mercy Corps’ Technology for Development programme pilots tech solutions like the ECOCA solar-powered cookstove.

In addition, the stove is equipped with two USB chargers and two portable lanterns. Families can now use light after the sun goes down for more activities and charge small appliances. Since cell phone charging is also costly, families can save money charging at home or provide the service to their community. Mercy Corps and Pesitho introduced the pay-as-you-cook model to subsidise the capital costs of the ECOCA, allowing families to pay off their stove in small installments. Participants have shared that the stoves have allowed them to prepare meals for their large households, strengthening food security one family unit at a time.

Further south in Uganda, near the shore of Lake Victoria, another technological tool is helping people access food and necessities more easily. The digital basic needs wallet, developed by Mercy Corps and Sempo, links a person to funds quickly, allowing users to redeem digital cash for basic goods like rice, maize, flour, cooking oil, and soap at participating vendors.

A person displays some of the items from their shop that can be purchased with a basic needs wallet in in kampala, uganda.
In Kampala, Uganda, Khada (left) displays some of the items from her shop that can be purchased with a basic needs wallet. The majority of her customers are refugees.

The basic needs wallet isn’t a physical wallet, but instead is a digital platform accessible via mobile phone. Ugandans are becoming more connected than ever with rapid growth seen in mobile phone adoption and mobile coverage. An estimated 65.7% of Ugandans own a mobile phone, and 3G and 4G mobile broadband networks now cover 80% of the country. Though smartphone adoption is only at 16%, below the Sub-Saharan average of 30%, the basic needs wallet was designed with a humanitarian context in mind to accommodate lower-feature phones.

The basic needs wallet uses near-field communication—a short-range wireless connection that enables two devices to communicate, similar to how a credit card machine can read a chip. This method of cash assistance allows people to get money quickly, with fewer barriers that can occur with traditional humanitarian cash assistance.

In Kampala, Uganda, Mercy Corps and Sempo piloted the basic needs wallet. About two-thirds of the participants were refugees, and the other third were Ugandan citizens who were also experiencing food insecurity. One participant said, “We have enough food for the household, and now I have the strength to stand up and walk around because I feel much stronger.” Based on feedback to the pilot programme, Mercy Corps hopes to update the project to provide access to more diverse goods and redeem cash at more vendors. The global cost of living crisis and the ongoing shocks of climate change means many families have experienced a lack of food security, but with digital cash and voucher assistance, families are once again given the opportunity to determine their essential needs and access them in a timely manner. Through the pilot, some families found that the redemptions allowed them to eat an extra meal a day rather than subsisting on light meals like porridge.

Mercy Corps is using innovative technology to help communities build a more resilient future and become more food secure so that they can serve as active decision makers in charting their own futures. Innovations in solar power, digital cash and voucher assistance, and more are providing communities with increased economic opportunity, renewable energy access, and information at greater speeds. Through the ethical and responsible application of frontier technologies, we can advance humanitarian programming to deepen impact, extend reach, and improve services for vulnerable communities.

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