Conservation Tools: Africa’s Tech Boom Could Aid Farmers, Sustain Ecosystems

This is the latest blog in Human Nature’s “Conservation Tools” series, which spotlights how cutting-edge technology is helping scientists explore and protect the natural world. 

GPS device, Tanzania

GPS unit at the Vital Signs training in Tanzania. (© Benjamin Drummond)

We’ve all heard of Silicon Valley, but on the other side of the globe a new tech hotbed is gaining traction: Nairobi’s “Silicon Savannah.” In the past decade, Africa has experienced its own impressive burst of technology growth, and people around the world have taken notice.

As the executive director of Vital Signs, a monitoring system that collects agro-ecological and social data and develops tools for decision-making around sustainability in Africa, I’ve watched this development with growing interest. And now our project is honored to be partnering with Ushahidi, a global nonprofit technology company founded and rooted in Kenya.

Ushahidi creates data management solutions that aim to change the way information flows and is visualized. Their goal is to empower people to make an impact. They do this by providing open source technologies like collaborative map-making tools and innovative data filters. They also emphasize cross-sector partnerships, of which the Vital Signs collaboration is the latest.

The Ushahidi platform has been used all over the world as a tool for disaster relief in places like New York, Haiti and Japan, and was even used in the last U.S. presidential election. They have partnered with clients like World Vision, the Huffington Post and the World Bank — and they want to make open knowledge contribute toward making development more sustainable.

GPS training with Vital Signs, Tanzania

Vital Signs conducts a GPS training in Tanzania. GPS units are one of the many tools Vital Signs researchers use to map ecosystems and learn more about their links to agriculture and human well-being. (© Benjamin Drummond)

I’ve known Juliana Rotich, the executive director of Ushahidi, since 2009, when we met in Finland at a meeting Nokia organized to discuss how to use cell phones to catalyze more sustainable societies. Ever since then, we’ve been scheming about the perfect project for us to collaborate on. Last year we reconnected at the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Councils meeting in Abu Dhabi, and our dream project became clear: Vital Signs!

Ushahidi is the perfect technology partner for Vital Signs. We collect data on agriculture, ecosystems and human well-being, and we need a way to analyze and communicate that data effectively to African and global decision-makers, from smallholder farmers to government ministers to global donors and more.

For some time, we’ve been looking for a group that can help us create a system that will transform our data and make it visual, demonstrating the value of nature for agricultural production and human well-being. Ushahidi’s visualizations help use integrated data to catalyze development decisions that are better for people, nature and farming.

So what will this work actually look like on the ground? Here’s one example. Together, Vital Signs and Ushahidi are mobilizing Vital Signs data to help communities in Tanzania apply for land tenure.

It turns out that one of the biggest obstacles communities face in getting land tenure is that they have to submit a set of maps with data about population density and distribution, land cover and land use, etc. We’re creating a platform so a community member can send a text message to Vital Signs with a latitude and longitude and an email address. Then the Vital Signs system will put a buffer around the point and automatically return an email with a PDF packet of all of the maps the community needs to apply for land tenure.

farmer harvesting potatoes, Uganda

Farmer harvests potatoes in Uganda. (© Benjamin Drummond)

After the week I spent last month in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania working with several Ushahidi developers, members of the Vital Signs science team and some of our Tanzanian stakeholders, I was absolutely convinced that Ushahidi will be a great partner. While meeting with Jennifer Baarn, deputy CEO of the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania, I asked Greg Omondi from the Ushahidi team, to explain the partnership to Jennifer.

Greg: Have you ever heard of 007?

Jennifer: Sure, everyone’s heard of 007.

Greg: What about Q?

Jennifer: (Pause) Is he the guy who makes all of the gadgets?

Greg: Exactly! Ushahidi is Q and Vital Signs is 007. We’re both committed to open access to information to promote social and environmental good — making a better world. Ushahidi is making cool technical gadgets so that Vital Signs can use those gadgets to capture information, change the way it flows, and ultimately, communicate it in a way that helps people make better decisions about how to manage the planet sustainably so that both nature and people — especially smallholder farmers — can thrive.

Jennifer: Wow … I never thought of Vital Signs that way, but now I can really see it. I totally get it.

I’m confident that our Vital Signs-Ushahidi collaboration will lead to better data and better decisions — both for people and for nature. I’m inspired by the groundwork we’ve laid so far, and can’t wait to see where this work takes us!

Sandy Andelman is a chief scientist and senior vice president of the Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans at CI. She is also the executive director of Vital Signs.

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