The spread of digital technology in the Sudano-Sahel is transforming the way pastoral communities practice their livelihood in the context of growing environmental, social, and political instability. Although pastoralism is often viewed as a practice from a pre-modern era, it has always been adaptive, and pastoralists are now adapting to the digital age. The rapid spread of inexpensive mobile devices is enabling residents of rural areas the ability to communicate across distance and access valuable information. The penetration rate of mobile telecom (SIM) in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to reach 86% by 2025. In eastern Africa, pastoralists have been early adopters of mobile phone applications and in western Africa they have been the principal users of SIM-based climate information services.
Increasing access to new technological platforms and tools has the potential to reduce risks of conflict by strengthening the services available for mobile populations – from access to natural resources to protection against livestock theft (see Module -Rural Development). Direct access to geospatial data can help local leaders and individuals make more informed decisions about how to harmonize pastoral migration routes and farmland. Innovations in remote tracking tools for livestock can help authorities respond more effectively to theft in insecure areas.
While new technologies hold the potential to support peacebuilding, they are not an automatic solution. Investors and practitioners must be mindful of the limits of any new technology including the cost and scalability. Most importantly, efforts to introduce new technologies must be accountable to the needs of the local pastoralist or farmer who will use them. The most effective tools are not always the ones that are the most technologically innovative, but the ones that are accessible and useful to the communities they are intended to help.
This Module outlines several different types of digital technology that each have the potential to support peacebuilding outcomes. Many of these technologies are still evolving but are likely to play a substantial role in the future of pastoralism in the Sudano-Sahel.
Historically, local communities have accommodated pastoral migrations through shared understanding of the routes where herds pass through and places where they need to graze. However, in recent decades, greater resource pressure and changes in the timing of livestock movements have increased the need for stricter demarcation of migration corridors at a national or regional scale. Efforts to map and mark migration routes are complex and cumbersome, which has increased the need for technological support. The introduction of handheld global positioning systems (GPS) technology – such as in phones – and digital maps allow local stakeholders to easily access comprehensive and up-to-date information. GPS and digital mapping technology can be used to identify the areas where seasonal resources are available and where there is a need for corridors to connect such areas across agro-pastoral landscapes.
These tools can be used to facilitate more inclusive and equitable resource governance. In Sudan, for example, scientists and practitioners are using geospatial data collected from GPS and satellite sources to pinpoint the reasons why livestock herds begin their seasonal movements through areas such as Kordofan, which is the location of many large-scale farming operations that may block livestock movements. Identifying resources or migration corridors in a map makes it easier to promote public awareness of land use agreements and protect against misuse (such as cattle traveling into unauthorized areas or farms expanding into migration corridors). However, access to geospatial data and even handheld GPS devices varies across the Sudano-Sahel. It is essential for interveners to be aware of the risk that the transition into the use of new technology can reinforce economic and regional inequalities.
Interventions are designed to help rural communities develop a deeper understanding of their own resource constraints.
Maps are more than just tools to demarcate migration routes; they can be rich sources of information that is otherwise very difficult for rural residents to access. An individual pastoralist or farmer may intuitively understand the resource pressures they face but lack the larger-scale perspective that maps can provide. Cartographic data (i.e., maps) can help an individual pastoralist understand the changes in climate that are influencing livestock movements hundreds of kilometers from their own territories or visualize the extent to which land use has changed over time, not just where they live but in surrounding areas. For this reason, it is important that this data is made accessible to the public wherever possible. Programs to generate geospatial data should invest in translating that information into a language and format that does not require technical knowledge of cartography.
Maps are made accessible to all potential users.
Resource maps must be easily, reliably, and inexpensively accessible to the people who live and travel through that land. Users should not be required to access computers or travel long distances to view mapped information. Ideally, information is available via mobile phones, which pastoralists use frequently while herding animals. Placing maps on mobile devices opens the possibility to link that information to other services, such as weather conditions or security alerts. In cases when maps are not available online or in the public domain, trusted actors must be tasked with providing access to them. Municipalities or civic associations can act as regional hubs where users can come to access maps and see, for example, where the livestock corridor or grazing areas are located in a given community. This often requires a certain level of technological infrastructure such as computers, printers, software licenses, and electricity in rural areas. By making this information available, digital maps enable local municipalities to protect pastoralists’ legal rights to resource access, as has been observed in Mali.
Maps are consistently updated and revised.
Successful mapping efforts must be responsive to the dynamic nature of pastoral mobility and resources in the Sudano-Sahel. Land use and available resources change on an annual basis so there is a constant risk that maps become outdated and lose their utility for local stakeholders. The need to keep maps up to date is particularly important for larger-scale mapping efforts (district/national/regional) where maps do not capture fine-scale changes in resource use. For example, a livestock corridor that is critical for hundreds or thousands of animals may be as narrow as 50 meters in some places so it can easily be blocked by as little as one new field. In order to remain useful, mapping interventions should be implemented as a long-term investment, with a plan to regularly update the data and share that data with users.
Mapping interventions are complemented by consensus-building activities.
Efforts to map natural resources or pastoral migration routes can be contentious and often require balancing the needs and interests of groups who want to exercise a claim on a given territory. For example, local farmers may agree to demarcate a route for passing livestock in areas of low grazing value but prohibit it in places where pasture is most nutritious. Tools like GPS and digital mapping can provide more detailed information about the available resources and migration patterns, but that information will not automatically resolve the disagreements between local decision-makers. Interventions should continue to prioritize interpersonal consensus-building as a complement to digital mapping tools.
Interventions do not provide sufficient resources to ensure that maps are viable and up-to-date.
Mapping natural resources or pastoral migration routes is expensive, time consuming, and complex even with access to the latest GPS technology. Successful interventions must make substantial investments in technical expertise by engaging cartographers in the design stage and recruiting mapping teams who are familiar with the technology and local terrain. When maps are used to demarcate pastoral migration routes or land for grazing or cultivation, the final product must be validated and accepted by a range of stakeholders from local government to pastoral and farming associations. Validating maps and building consensus – particularly when engaging mobile communities – can be time-consuming and cost-intensive. Even once maps have been validated, they will only remain viable if they can be regularly revised and updated, which often requires securing long-term support from a state institution, local livestock market, or civil society network. Interventions will be unsuccessful or backfire if they take shortcuts.
Mapping interventions are siloed from one another.
There have been numerous discrete attempts to map resources and pastoral migration routes, from the local to the transnational level. Even when they cover the same territory, these interventions often involve different data sources, design processes, and stakeholders. The practice of parallel mapping process creates the risk that communities will have conflicting reference points for making decisions about resource management. It is important to encourage alignment and information-sharing among different mapping projects, and to ensure that maps designed at the national or regional level are reflective of those designed locally.
Mapping interventions spark new conflicts among resource users.
Resource mapping is a deeply political endeavor and agro-pastoral lands are often contested spaces. Creating geographic boundaries around local territories and redefining areas for livestock movement can lead to new conflicts if not done carefully. Land or water resources that have historically been accessed by pastoralists through customary rights may have been sold to private owners or may have an unclear status under the law. Interventions that attempt to formalize explicit boundaries can result in pastoralists or farmers being displaced from lands they believe they have the right to access, and thereby fuel intercommunal conflict. There are many documented examples of farmers quickly establishing fields within livestock corridors after their establishment in order to secure their access rights or signal their disapproval to local leaders and livestock keepers. Even as digital mapping efforts are scaled up to a national or regional scale, it is still essential that local communities have a voice in creating those maps and protecting the mapped resources.
Who should be responsible for maintaining digital maps? Keeping up-to-date maps often requires a level of infrastructure and technical expertise that may be out of reach for many local civil society leaders. In eastern Burkina Faso, the civil society network Le Réseau de Communication sur le Pastoralisme (RECOPA) developed a cartographic database of livestock corridors and grazing areas in 27 municipalities that can be accessed by local governments and members of their pastoralist network. RECOPA created this database with the help of their own geographic information system (GIS) experts and field agents and has sustained it at low cost by using an open-source platform and integrating with local livestock markets. The maps provide a necessary service to pastoralists, who rely on them to avoid cultivated areas during their seasonal migrations.
However, as a grassroots organization, RECOPA faces significant constraints in its use of technology. Hardware and software limitations prevent it from utilizing cloud-based data storage and deployment, which prevents rapid and efficient modifications to its maps. A lack of capacity building opportunities means that its agents do not necessarily gain exposure to best practices or technology innovations that could strengthen their practice.
Image: Cattle traveling along migration routes in the Sahel. Credit: Shidiki Abubakar Ali
To survive in arid Sahelian climates, pastoralists must be able to adapt to changing conditions in their environment. Understanding where to access surface water and pasture year-round, particularly during drier periods, is essential to the survival of pastoral herds. Pastoralists have traditionally coped with this uncertainty through non-digital approaches, such as sending out scouts ahead of their herds. However, digital climate information services can provide pastoralists with more detailed data on resource availability or weather patterns through a combination of satellite images, georeferencing tools, and informants on the ground. This information can then be transmitted to the public via radio broadcasts, SMS, call-in centers, or applications for mobile devices. These services frequently expand beyond climate data to cover a range of other relevant information including livestock prices, locations of veterinary stations and vaccination parks, disease occurrences, concentrations of cattle, and areas of conflict. Advances in cloud computing and user interface facilitate a seamless link between data source and local users. As a result, pastoralists in remote areas can access information to help them plan their migration routes, find necessary resources and, at times, avoid confrontations with farmers, bandits, or other pastoralists.
Climate data also has potential applications to guide investments in stabilization, development, and responses to conflict. Advances in data analysis tools enable experts to anticipate risks for drought or resource shortages that are likely to displace pastoralist communities and spark local conflicts. With this information, development agencies and others can take pre-emptive action to assist pastoral and sedentary communities before they are devastated by natural disasters and before conflicts escalate.
Programs are designed to foster local partnerships for data collection and dissemination.
Even the most sophisticated digital tools have their limitations. Climate information services work best when they are complemented by a network of local informants or associations who can “ground truth” the information derived from satellite images and capture information that cannot be remotely sensed, such as disease and market prices. Building information services that allow local partners to input their knowledge can add legitimacy to the service and ensure that it is responsive to the real needs of pastoralists, farmers, and others. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, at the suggestion of the pastoral network Réseau Billital Maroobé (RBM), Action Contre la Faim developed a platform to alert pastoralists in the Sahel about border closures, market closures, and price increases caused by pandemic response.
Information services are designed to be accessible to pastoralists.
For information services to be effective, the average user must be able to easily access and comprehend the available data. Information must be transmitted in local languages and presented in terms that are familiar to individuals who have not received a formal education (as many pastoralists have not). For illiterate populations, information should be provided over the radio or phone, rather than through text-based messaging. Interveners should design services that are suited to the devices that are already owned by pastoralists in their respective context – such as using radios and feature phones rather than mobile applications for smartphones. Services must be inexpensive for the user, as the vast majority of pastoralists in the Sahel live below the poverty line. In Mali, for example, the telecom company Orange subsidizes 80% of the cost of calls to the GARBAL platform produced by SNV Netherlands.
Services collect information that has a practical utility for pastoralists.
For information services to have practical value, they should cover a broad geographic range, be updated frequently, and include holistic information. In terms of geographic coverage, they should ideally extend for the entirety of pastoral routes, including across borders. The PEWS system, for example, extends across Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Senegal (see Case Study). Information should also be updated and/or disseminated with high frequency. Most operational and effective programs reviewed in the research for this toolkit update their platforms every 7 to 10 days. Finally, users will find more value in the service if it can provide information beyond water and pasture availability, such as market prices, cattle health, or cattle concentration which are also influenced indirectly by climate variations. In Kenya, pastoralists’ ability to access these other types of information via the AfriScout platform has contributed to reduced livestock mortality during the dry season.
Climate information services are designed to complement, not replace, current practices.
Climate-related information is not the only factor pastoralists consider when determining their migration route, and climate information services cannot replace traditional sources of knowledge. Information received through technology platforms will ideally reinforce personal understandings about climate and the migration route obtained through historical knowledge or local indicators such as plants and wildlife behavior. Pastoralist communities will likely continue to rely on scouts and personal networks to plan their route and negotiate access with local farmers, but access to information about available resources or risks of drought can save time and money by minimizing the number of places they send scouts. When socializing new information services, it is important that they are presented as building on, not subverting, these other practices.
Climate data is used to prevent conflict and guide development investments.
Data collected by climate information services can be used to anticipate shocks to the livestock sector and even heightened risks of intercommunal conflict. Using a system like PEWS, for example, governments and development agencies can track biomass production and send out early warning bulletins if they notice any abnormalities or mobilize relief services before livestock are lost (see Case Study). Or, if the data or informant networks indicate that herds are going to arrive before harvest and potentially damage crops, water and fodder can be provided to pastoralist to delay their movements until post-harvest. Using advanced analytic tools, experts can also use climate data to better predict the impact of climate change on local populations and develop data-driven solutions (see Case Study). Interventions to develop and socialize climate information services should be mindful of the multiple potential uses of the data they collect and should look for opportunities to make these technologies a part of the conflict prevention agenda.
Programs are designed with a short time horizon.
It takes time to develop, market, deploy, and scale up these kinds of systems. Socializing new technologies among pastoral communities who operate in remote areas and have high levels of illiteracy requires the time to build trust and troubleshoot problems with user access and interface. Interveners will need time to invest in partnerships with pastoralist networks and local informants, who are often essential for “ground-truthing” data and reaching the target audiences. Without sufficient resources and long-term commitment, these kinds of interventions will be less likely to take root.
Services are not designed for sustainability.
Climate information services are generally not a profitable business, particularly when these services need to be affordable to pastoralists, the vast majority of whom live under the poverty line. The long-term vision for sustainability should be addressed prior to program implementation, so that these services are not dependent on short-term donor funding and so that the cost for the users does not become so high that it is no longer accessible to the smallholder pastoralists who need it. Building public and private partnerships with telecommunications businesses, including radio stations and phone providers, is one step that some services have taken to ensure sustainability. However, since climate information alone is rarely profitable, platforms run by private companies often must be linked to other services or a part of something bigger, especially if they are partially subsidizing costs.
The Pastoral Early Warning System (PEWS) – developed by Action Contre la Faim – is an information service that shares data with governments, humanitarian actors, and pastoralists via email, local radio, SMS, and online bulletins. Satellite images provide information on pasture (biomass) and surface water availability and accessibility, and paid local informants submit weekly surveys via SMS on topics including pasture, livestock concentration, water sources, cattle health, market prices, bush fires, and conflict. Both sets of data are analyzed by artificial intelligence and further validated by local actors and government ministries. This system illustrates how digital data collection and local, experiential knowledge can be complementary and mutually reinforcing. By providing this information through public channels, PEWS can be used by pastoralists to support all kinds of decisions for managing their livestock.
While pastoralists in the Sudano-Sahel consistently adapt to uncertain weather conditions, severe events like flooding or drought can force them to migrate to new areas and bring them into conflict with local host communities. Using advanced data mining algorithms, the crowdsourcing platform Omdena designed a system to predict conflict hotspots in Somalia based on climate and migration data. These data mining tools (including Support Vector Machine and Random Forest algorithms) allowed Omdena and to predict where flooding or drought events are likely to displace large groups of people and push them into regions where conflict risk is high because of insufficient resources for both the migrants and host population. That information was provided to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian partners to inform their decisions about how to allocate resources.
Image: Pastoralists from the Southern Nationalities, Nations, and People’s State in Ethiopia walk their cattle through flooded areas that they have been forced to leave after severe floods in 2006. Credit: Abraham Fisseha/AFP via Getty Images
Pastoral livestock and the herders who take them on migration are frequently targeted for theft by bandits and armed groups, fueling the proliferation of small arms (see Module – Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism). Livestock are an appealing target, in part, because they can be easily hidden in an isolated area such as a protected forest or quickly sold in a nearby market. Once they are stolen, they are difficult to find and recover. The rampant increase in livestock theft across the Sudano-Sahel has increased the need for innovative technological solutions to policing pastoral rangelands. In Senegal, for example, the mLouma network allows livestock keepers to rapidly communicate theft incidents using internet and cellular networks to law enforcement authorities with the goal of making it easier to track and recover livestock quickly. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have also been used to monitor isolated areas where thieves may attempt to hide stolen livestock before they can sell them.
The most commonly used technology for keeping track of livestock is radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. RFID devices allow animals to be remotely tracked (over a limited distance) and allow for greater transparency in buying and selling livestock. RFID devices hold an electronic record of the ownership of an animal, along with veterinary records and other information. This technology makes it easier to regulate livestock markets and enable merchants to accurately verify the owner of a cow before it is sold. Using RFID devices in conjunction with tamper-proof electronic record systems (e.g., blockchain) has the potential to transform livestock markets by replacing paper records of an animal’s health or origin with more secure digital records. These tools can make the livestock trade more transparent and easier to regulate, which will diminish the market value of stolen livestock and make the industry more attractive to investors. However, within the Sudano-Sahel, each of the technologies described in this section are in limited use, particularly in regions that are outside the effective control of law enforcement.
The benefits of anti-theft technologies are clearly communicated to pastoralists and other users.
For tools like RFID devices or digital reporting systems to be effective in reducing theft, pastoralist users must be able to trust that the information they report to authorities will be used to investigate cases and identify culprits. Using these digital tools can reduce the risks for fraud or misinformation. Digital records can be far more secure than paper records, especially when the records from RFID devices are stored in distributed ledger systems, as some livestock markets have attempted. However, as illustrated in the case of CaTRIS, users will not adopt a technology if they are worried about how that information will be used (see Case Study). Interveners who are promoting the adoption of any new technology need to prioritize building confidence among potential users and clearly communicating the benefits of having reliable, neutral, and accurate digital records. Beyond providing potential protection against theft, having a traceable digital record of livestock health and origin can reduce the risk for buyers and encourage investment in the cattle industry (see Case Study). This is particularly important when engaging with certain pastoralist populations who would prefer to operate outside the eye of authorities and are reluctant to secure even paper registration.
Technology developers design tools for users with low levels of technological literacy.
The majority of pastoralists in the Sudano-Sahel have limited literacy and prior experience with sophisticated technologies. Devices must be designed first and foremost with the end user in mind. The CaTRIS livestock theft alert system in Nigeria, for example, went through several design iterations before it had a user interface that depended on visual symbols embedded in mobile phone text messages (see Case Study). The use of audio information, when possible, can also be used to overcome user constraints. If complex or costly traceability technologies become the standard used among livestock in a given region, there is a risk that the poorer and less-educated pastoralists will be disenfranchised from the market.
Technologies are not designed to suit the practical needs of pastoralist populations.
To be functional for pastoralists who migrate over long distances in remote areas, the tools and platforms profiled in this section must have a wide geographic range and long lifespan. Tracking signals for RFID devices and surveillance tools (e.g., UAVs) are most effective over short ranges. Digital platforms for reporting theft must be accessible across different telecommunications networks to cover the whole length of a pastoral migrations. Microchips or other identification devices often have a limited battery life, which makes them less effective for pastoralists who spend long periods of time in isolated areas. These constraints can make anti-theft measures costly or prohibitive for many livestock owners.
Anti-theft technologies are not backed up by law enforcement.
Cattle tracking, reporting systems, and remote surveillance can all be important tools to assist authorities and law enforcement who have limited capacity to monitor pastoral areas or prevent theft from armed groups. However, these technologies are only effective insofar as they complement law enforcement activities. In under-policed areas, criminals can quickly sell stolen livestock to be slaughtered or trafficked to urban areas and neighboring countries long before they can be tracked or recovered. Livestock theft frequently takes place in well-established black markets that involve the complicity of the authorities and other political actors. Efforts to increase the transparency of livestock trade will have limited impact as long as illicit markets are commonplace. The tools described in this section should be introduced where they can be properly supported by law enforcement.
New technologies are not universally adopted within the market.
Tracing devices like RFID are only effective in bringing transparency to the livestock market if they are widely used by both cattle owners and buyers. If no one checks the device when a cow is taken to market, then there is no opportunity to identify theft at the point of sale. Any initiative to promote the use of new technology needs to be complemented by robust regulations or social norms that ensure the technology is used properly throughout the market.
The cost of using the technology outweighs the benefit for individual users.
The viability of tools like RFID for individual pastoralists depends on whether it is financially sustainable for its users. Livestock owners must purchase individual tracing chips and pay for their occasional maintenance and replacement. Ingestible (i.e., bolus-based) tracking devices can cost up to $7.40 USD to register and $6-7 for annual maintenance. The most cutting-edge RFID tracking chip in use in western Africa costs $15 per unit and requires a $100 chip reader. Additionally, in order for RFID to be able to track livestock movements, it must be supported by a substantial level of technological infrastructure (data processing and storage) that may be unavailable in rural areas. All these factors can disincentivize individual pastoralists from using the system, even if it has potential benefits.
The Center for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), based in Kano, Nigeria, established a web-based system to provide officials and law enforcement agencies with real time alerts of cattle rustling. The Cattle Rustling Information System (CaTRIS), used social media based crowdsourcing and Ushahidi open-source software to collect information and communicate with users at minimal cost. The crowdsourcing platform enabled victims of theft to send out an alert to other users of the CaTRIS system along with information on the probable location of their stolen cattle and the markets where the livestock were likely to be taken. In order to make the system usable for illiterate populations, CITAD created a user interface based on symbols identified through focus group input. Despite the service’s relatively low cost (<$1 USD), the CaTRIS system had difficulties attracting users due, in part, to the fears of reprisals from corrupt authorities who are benefitting from livestock theft. Without revenues from user fees, maintaining the web infrastructure became financially untenable.
Image: A man takes a photo of his cattle in the Kachia Grazing Reserve in Kaduna State, Nigeria. Credit: Luis Tato/AFP via Getty Images.
Various livestock tagging and tracing systems have been attempted across the African continent, but often with limited success in scaling up into a universal practice. Livestock theft was a serious problem in Botswana until the country implemented a comprehensive livestock traceability system in 2000 to meet the sanitary standards of the European Union, the country’s main livestock market. The legal requirement that all cattle must be tagged and registered in the system’s database at birth has become a significant deterrent to theft. A key to the system’s success is sustained public sector support: the Botswana government has invested up to $100 million USD in the system since 2000 and it continues to subsidize the cost of tagging animals. The tracing system uses a variety of identification technologies including rumen boluses that cost up to $3-4 per individual tag.
Overall, traceability systems have had more limited success within the Sudano-Sahel. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) piloted a regional traceability scheme in eastern Africa, but it was limited to approximately 2000 head of cattle and did not scale up due to a lack of adoption by users and inadequate political support from authorities. In part, this system was limited by the insufficient cellular network coverage in many parts of the region. In Nigeria, private sector firms such as Livestock247 are attempting to replicate Botswana’s success, but have been hindered by the high costs and low level of demand. Nigeria’s unreliable electrical grid drives up the cost of using mobile technologies, and because livestock markets are mostly informal, the demand for costly traceability technologies is low because they currently do not translate into a higher price for livestock sellers.
Image: Livestock247’s RFID digital livestock traceability tool used in Nigeria. Credit: Livestock247.com