Google’s High Tech Approach to Offering Help in Ethiopia's Crisis of Drought and Hunger

Using high-tech approaches to benefit extremely low-tech regions of world is generally a crapshot for many reasons. Not the least of which is that many of these areas of the world, which are often remote, lack the infrastructure—e.g., electrical power—to support new technology. And at times, the intended beneficiaries, such as pastoralists, don’t easily buy in to new approaches.

How would you like if somebody came along and asked you to change the way they’ve been raising cattle for decades?

However, in some instances, technology may be the last, best hope for farmers hit particularly hard by adverse weather conditions, such as the protracted droughts in Ethiopia.

Farmers and pastoralists in Eastern and Southern Africa have been suffering through persistent weather-related problems due to both climate change and the El Niño oceanic warming pattern for some time. The U.N. estimates that due to drought and rising temperatures, over 36 million people across both regions face food insecurity.

According to the U.N.’s World Food Programme, over 10 million in Ethiopia alone are in desperate need of food assistance. There are different approaches to alleviating this crisis, as well as different funders working the problem. Among them is Google, which, unsurprisingly, is opting for the tech-driven effort with its support of Project Concern International’s (PCI) “satellite-assisted pastoral resource management program.”

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In 2014, Google gave PCI $750,000 in seed funding to support the expansion of its Satellite Assisted Pastoral Resource Management program or SAPARM. In a nutshell, SAPARM uses high-tech satellite imagery to help farmers identify potential grazing pastures for their cattle. Google’s seed funding allowed PCI to expand its program to Ethiopia and Tanzania. Now, Google is a generous funder, but it still wants to see results. At the time, Jacquelline Fuller, director of said, “We’re looking forward to seeing the potential impact of this innovation in 2015.”

That pilot phase has ended, and the news is good regarding the impact Fuller was hoping for. Over 70 percent of households participated in the pilot program, which is a significant buy-in. Using the map data provided by SAPARM, participating households saw their herd deaths reduced by half as compared to those who did not participate.

Google seems impressed, as PCI has received additional funding for its SAPARM program form, as well as further support from USAID’s Development Innovation ventures. PCI hopes that this continued support will extend its mapping technology to over 1 million people in Ethiopia and Tanzania and possibly allow for the program to expand to Burkina Faso and Mali.

People in many African countries often look down on pastoralism. Oftentimes, cattle and sheep farmers live at the margins of society, overlooked when it comes to global development funding. So while there are plenty of international NGOs paying attention to farmers or agriculturalists, very few are paying any mind to the pastoralist communities. But this shouldn’t be the case.

In Ethiopia alone, it’s estimated that pastoralists comprise around 15 percent of the country’s population, but contribute around 40 percent of the agricultural GDP in Ethiopia. It certainly stands to reason that pastoralists could help the country prevent what is already a disastrous situation from becoming a full-blown catastrophe.

See more articles by Sue-Lynn Moses.