On the brink of famine in Africa – how grassroots tech is trying to find solutions

Early last month, UN aid officials made an unprecedented announcement: not just one, but four African countries are on the brink of famine. Over the past decade, civil unrest and drought have plagued Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya, leading to mass displacement and skyrocketing rates of malnutrition-related deaths.


Somali men prepare to pray during Friday prayers in an IDP camp. Photograph by Dominic Nahr/National Geographic.

The effects of climate change are already devastating in this resource-lacking region. They are only compounded by military and terrorist presence. Corrupt officials have been known to block humanitarian efforts, aerial bombings have stalled economic growth, and diseases have run rampant in overcrowded migrant camps, with little hope of medical assistance. International aid officials say they are facing one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II.

For international humanitarian aid organizations, this news could not come at a worse time. With the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and President Trump’s pledge to cut foreign aid, assistance is spread thin. The UN says they are billions of dollars short on funds in order to properly respond to the famine.

But, perhaps due to increased frustration with the bureaucracy of the international aid system, or perceived lack of coverage by the global media, an emerging group of young African tech entrepreneurs have turned their focus to the crises in their home countries in hopes of helping at a grassroots level. Because of their intimate knowledge of the region and the problems it faces, these innovators are able to pinpoint more precisely what communities need, and the best ways to act.

Chowberry Website

In a recent interview with CNN, Oscar EkponimoI, founder of the app Chowberry, reflected on his childhood in Nigeria. “I remember most times there was little or no food [in the house],” he said. “I had to go to school without food and got by with snacks friends shared with me. I always said in the future I would do something to ensure others wouldn’t go through what I went through.” Now a software engineer, his app connects grocery stores in Nigeria, NGOs, and those below the poverty line and alerts users when food products are about to expire so they can buy them at a discount. Launched just earlier this year, Chowberry already sees roughly 3,000 daily visits. “There have been requests and demand,” he said. “People tell me we really want this, we’re relying on what you guys are doing.”

Crises Mapping, Abaaraha website

Mohammed Omer, who grew up in Somalia but now lives in Stockholm, was similarly drawn to action by the news coming out of his home country. Together with four of his friends, he launched the crowdsourcing platform Abaaraha, which translates to drought in Somali. Described as a crisis mapping system, Abaaraha provides on-the-ground information and analysis to aid workers, collected from a range of sources including social media, text, and email. Like Ekponimol, Omer saw a discrepancy in how organizations approached issues in his home country versus what really needed to be addressed. He is hoping his new platform will provide more transparency and allow aid workers to have a direct line of connection with drought victims.

“The international humanitarian system is at its breaking point,” Dominic MacSorley, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, noted recently. This is obviously a disheartening statement, but it could act as a catalyst to encourage increased grassroots home-grown innovation. Companies with the ability to rely on direct contact with communities and skirt the tangled web of global politics may have more success in addressing issues head-on and providing local populations with tangible change. And that’s something to feel hopeful about.

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