AfriScout app guides East African shepherds to green pastures and water

9/5/2018 12:53:36 PM

Pastoralists and shepherds in East Africa now have a high-tech solution to their problems of finding suitable grazing areas and water for their herds. They take out their smartphone and check the AfriScout app. The new service, now available in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania revolutionizes traditional herding by use of the power of satellite and mobile technology. AfriScout is the shepherd’s ‘eye in the sky’.

To millions of pastoralists in Africa, finding grazing areas and water for their livestock is a daily worry. In dry season, herds need to migrate over large distances to find areas where enough food can be found. Scouting, word of mouth, and indigenous knowledge often gets them to these areas, but these methods can often provide information on conditions that have already changed. The quest for green pastures is getting more unpredictable due to climate change and its taking its toll on pastoralists who, on average, are losing a third of their herds per year.

Satellite images

The new AfriScout mobile service shows current water and vegetation conditions – derived from satellite images – on localized digital grazing maps the communities themselves help create. The smartphone app enables pastoralists to make more accurate and cost-effective migration decisions, improve pasture management and collaboration and reduce the risk of herd loss.

The service, initially distributed on ‘paper maps’, used by 669,000 customers, was developed by with funding by USAID and Google.org. It currently offers 29 mapped areas covering 239,000 km2 of traditional grazing land. About 5,000 pastoralists are now using the mobile digital AfriScout services, since the recent official launch in Kenya that was widely covered by the press.

Enormous potential

The AfriScout project was started by PCI (Project Concern International), an international non-profit organization that aims to empower people to enhance health, end hunger and overcome hardship. The potential for the app is enormous, says Chris Bessenecker, PCI’s Global Managing Director for AfriScout. “There are over 225 million pastoralists in Africa, where 43% of land mass is pastoral and livestock production accounts for 10-44% of the GDP in African countries. We first focus on Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, but pastoralism and the need for this tool extends across the continent.”

Preparing grazing maps

“Smartphone use among pastoralists was not particularly high, but the availability of AfriScout alone has been a reason for many to get one”, says Brenda Wandera, AfriScout National Managing Director in Kenya. When opening the app on the smart phone, pastoralists find maps that show designated community grazing areas, that is overlaid with current vegetation conditions using satellite imagery. As herding cattle is limited to certain regions – and land owner rights may not be harmed – preparing the grazing areas maps can be a difficult mission. Brenda Wandera (Kenya) explains: “To draw accurate maps, we need to check with communities that share common grazing areas. We sit down with local and county communities and land owners to draw accurate maps with the most current boundaries. Discussions about rights and verifying permissions can be time-consuming. 

New info by users

Chris Bessenecker: “In the end there is consensus and we have maps that show communal and traditional grazing areas where pastoralists know it is safe to take their herds to, enriched with satellite-based info about where conditions are good and water can be found.” Brenda Wandera points out that new info categories are added. “For example, the app can show information about issues such as existence of predators, diseases, conflict, lack of water, forbidden grazing and animal disease. This information is crowdsourced by the users and appears as alerts on the maps. Also, pastoralists can share vital information. AfriScout not only supports their profession, it also builds a community. 

The further development of AfriScout and the rollout to other parts of Africa requires time and money. Part of that money comes from the growing number of users, that eventually will enable AfriScout to stand on its own feet, as a business. When researching the pricing for the new app among future users, they found that most cattle owners are willing to spend the price of one goat – around $ 30.

Chris Bessenecker: “Funding by partners such as USAID and Google has helped us establish the proof of concept, build a prototype and launch the service in East Africa. To roll out this service among other pastoral-dominant populations across the continent, we will need to find additional partners and impact investors.”  

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