Aid Workers Turn to Text Messaging to Improve Food Aid Delivery to Refugees in the Western Sahara

Communication between beneficiaries and food aid providers in the Western Sahara refugee camps in Algeria suffers as the number of food distribution points increases. Rosa Akbari worked as an independent researcher funded by a grant from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) to explore better communication tools to be used within the camps. What she found was a society prepped for technological innovation. By using what was already in place – a mobile phone in each household – Rosa capitalized on existing flows of information as they worked without technology and used FrontlineSMS to ease the communication within the camps.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Gabrielle LePore, our Media and Research Assistant. You can follow Gabrielle on Twitter @GabrielleLePore

By Rosa Akbari

45˚C days and 0˚C nights – welcome to winter in the Sahara. In June 2012, I first visited the Western Sahara refugee camps in southwest Algeria to explore the potential for mobile technology to help improve humanitarian coordination within and around refugee camps. I returned in December 2012 to develop a system to connect beneficiaries and food aid providers using the lowest levels of technology possible.The camps house Sahrawi refugees fleeing from the conflict over the Western Sahara. There are five residential camps and one administrative camp called Rabouni. The Sahrawi people and expatriate authorities operate from Rabouni, while the actual organization of daily aid distribution occurs at local levels.


Charting out the flows of communication to help identify core information managers and their constituents. Photo by Rosa Akbari
Charting out the flows of communication to help identify core information managers and their constituents. (Photo: Rosa Akbari)


In 2010, the Sahrawi Red Crescent (SRC) – the lead humanitarian coordination agency in the camps – managed 27 food distribution points for nearly 125,000 people. They have since expanded to 116 distribution points: one per neighborhood. This made distribution logistics and staff coordination complex. Internal communication was unreliable at best and non-existent at worst, and beneficiaries wanted to know more from humanitarian leaders. As a result, my efforts evolved from technological experimentation to practical implementation using a text messaging (SMS) platform called FrontlineSMS.

The basic pilot established direct lines of communication between aid providers and beneficiaries that were both practical and easy to explain. While I considered a few SMS platforms, FrontlineSMS was the easiest to install and the most intuitive to use for a grassroots pilot. This became more apparent once I introduced the software to Sahrawi partners.


Agaila, Suleiman’s assistant, teaches her counterpart in the Farsia district how FrontlineSMS works. Farsia became the live test bed in which we piloted a communication flow from the food warehouses to the families. (Photo: Rosa Akbari)


The implementation process involved three steps: first, assess the need for technical innovation; second, build local trust in the innovation; and third, test the system’s performance.

In this instance, the Sahrawi were ready for innovation. Each family owns at least one cellphone, maintains consistent access to electricity via solar panels, and has a history of adopting new ideas, even those introduced by external parties. Also, after watching their mobile habits, it was safe to assume that employing SMS for humanitarian coordination would not require huge behavioral shifts.

Once we confirmed operational relevance, the SRC and I focused on one district, which has four neighborhoods that house 1,305 families. I worked closely with a core group of eight humanitarian coordinators that were stationed at various points along the distribution chain. They helped to improve training and implementation procedures. My goal was to make the group comfortable with FrontlineSMS because their buy-in was crucial to creating a sustainable system. Within a day of introducing the software, they were playing with it on their own.

Setting up FrontlineSMS was easy. I outlined who was involved in the distribution flow, suggested message content and estimated times for when to send the SMS. However, FrontlineSMS was not an end all solution: people had to improve communication habits regardless of the technological aids at hand. FrontlineSMS became the catalyst for people to think of better ways to get the right information to the right people.

I was able to work directly with Sahrawi authorities because I was an independent actor. Also, I lived with a family in the district in which I worked. This gave me the chance to witness distribution routines from both ends of the spectrum: working alongside the staff by day and discussing observations with beneficiaries by night. Some of the most important information I gleaned came from casual conversations with the women in my host family.


An incoming text, via FrontlineSMS, details the status of trucks leaving Rabouni. This was one of the first messages received from distribution managers without external prompting or assistance. Photo by Rosa Akbari
An incoming text, via FrontlineSMS, details the status of trucks leaving Rabouni. This was one of the first messages received from distribution managers without external prompting or assistance. (Photo: Rosa Akbari)


These two vantage points kept me one step ahead of the flows of information. For example, I found out about truck malfunctions in Rabouni as they were happening and waited to see when that news reached the beneficiaries. As a result, I was able to ensure that the beneficiaries’ perspectives were consistent with those at the SRC headquarters.

Technological innovation is rapid and unpredictable. It requires a great deal of adaptability and trust among the parties involved. The smaller the implementation group, the easier this is to manage.

The Western Sahara camps are unique in that they are wholly self-administered. The Sahrawi serve as both the aid administrators and the recipients. Organizationally, there is one agency responsible for distribution: the Sahrawi Red Crescent. For me, this meant working with one partner, which I found to be very helpful, especially since I was a one-person team.

It is most important to make sure there is a problem to address before proposing a solution. Is it necessary to introduce new technology? Often, people are wrapped up in the novelty of technology without critically assessing the context in which it will be applied. From my experiences, technology is never an end all be all. It only improves human processes if the time and place are right.

Finding the right people to work with is also crucial. Suleiman, the distribution field manager, was my go-to man. Zorgan, my host and translator, was my link to the community. And Buhobeini, the president of the SRC, was my link to the logistics behind it all; his willingness to let me explore was invaluable. None of this would have worked without their cooperation. I was just some kid with tech tools, but they opened their doors and encouraged the concept.

The escalating conflicts in Mali and the Sahara prevent me from visiting. While I am still communicating with the SRC, it is difficult to watch progress from abroad. However, they have a working pilot and FrontlineSMS is accessible, which opens doors to platforms that use basic mobile phones.

Refugee camps and forgotten conflicts will always exist, but it is only a matter of time before innovative solutions from the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) are applied to these contexts to project the voices of those most vulnerable. With tools like FrontlineSMS, it’s safe to say we’re just getting started.

Rosa AkbariRosa began her exploration of emergent humanitarian technologies while working as a research assistant for the US Department of Defense. In January 2010, she deployed to Haiti as part of a six-person civil-military unit tasked to augment basic communication networks after the earthquake. Upon return, she helped coordinate RELIEF, a quarterly field experimentation initiative focused on improving the technological field capabilities of first responders. In June 2010, Rosa visited the Western Sahara Refugee Camps to survey humanitarian logistics within a protracted crisis. She returned in December 2012 to run an SMS-based pilot in partnership with the Sahrawi Red Crescent. The project was funded through UNOCHA’s Humanitarian Futures Grant Programme. 

In March 2013, Rosa joined as the field manager for Dimagi, a company that uses open source technologies to improve healthcare in developing countries. She is currently based in Cape Town while she supports projects throughout southern Africa.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in “Digital Diversity” about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.