Using mobile phone data for food security

  • July 10, 2018

  • Kampala, Uganda

Originally published by Dalberg Data Insights, this blog is part of a series on several applications developed by UNCDF using mobile phone data and how this data can guide decision making and improve service delivery to the most vulnerable. Read more on the ‘digital and financial inclusion’ application here.


Short video in which Emmanuel Aturinde from Hunger Fighters Uganda explains what he uses the food security application for.

Poverty in Uganda is closely related to food insecurity and malnutrition, with 36% of children in the country chronically undernourished or stunted. For development actors to effectively respond to crisis adequately, they must be able to understand which communities are most vulnerable in real-time and at high geographic granularity. Food security intervention planning however often relies on outdated survey data, which harms the efficacy of these interventions.

Recent research indicates that mobile phone data can be linked to food insecurity because mobile phone usage patterns reveal shocks to household expenditure. That is why UNCDF, in partnership and Dalberg Data Insights and Hunger Fighters Uganda, developed an application where certain changes in spending serve as further indicators for changes in food spending. The Food Security Application allows development actors to pinpoint where food shortages and malnutrition may occur so that food security actors can better distribute resources to the most vulnerable communities.

Hunger Fighters, a Uganda-based NGO with a vision of a hunger and malnutrition free Uganda aims to create empowered, food secure communities. Their key programme areas include food and nutrition security, humanitarian support, agriculture and sustainable livelihoods and research and advocacy work. Hunger Fighters also works in partnership with the World Food Programme on a Food Basket Monitoring project with refugees.

Hunger Fighters’ strategy faced several data challenges:

  • Needed access to real time data for decision-making
  • Relied on surveys for data, with small sample sizes and geographic homogeneity
  • Needed oversight on wider geographic trends, to aid with resource allocation of a small team
  • Needed a central platform with a way to clearly visualize and analyze data

Food Security Application
This interactive tool tracks mobile phone top-up spending as a non-food household expenditure, and market prices of crop staples across the Greater Kampala Metropolitan Area.
The methodology of the app is based on a research paper by Decupyer et al (2014), which compared several telecom variables to different food security and poverty linked indicators. High correlations (0.6 – 0.8) were found between top-up related indicators and expenditure on food or consumption of certain vegetable types.

These results suggest that telecom data can be used as a real-time proxy for certain food security indicators, thus anticipating and identifying at-risk food insecure communities.

Real-time information on expenditure
Hunger Fighters Uganda is using the tool as part of their Edible Cities project, which is aimed at enhancing resilience, urban food security and livelihoods in urban areas, to:

  • Provide information for better decision-making on resource allocation and intervention programmes
  • Monitor long-term trends and anticipate shocks in household spending patterns
  • Increase engagement in evidence-based advocacy to goverment

Next Steps
While analyzing mobile phone data is a first step in understanding food shortages, the integration of data sources will allow the development community to more effectively identify the early warning signs of food insecurity. Satellite imagery, for example, can help map the location of crops and estimate crop yields.

It is essential to build trust among the development community and work in partnership to close the data gaps. Together, we can unlock data’s true potential by using intelligent insights to monitor and predict food shortages in the fight towards zero hunger.