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How livestock data helps counter food and climate shocks

In the drylands of East Africa, a new initiative is using livestock data to enhance drought prediction, preparation and response, and climate resilience.

By Peter Ballantyne, Chantelle Pattemore, and Bob Koigi 

Data and information drive early warning systems that alert policy makers and communities to emerging food and climate shocks.  For communities in arid and dry areas of East Africa, livestock are a critical asset, providing food and livelihoods as well as being safety nets in emergencies. However, there are significant gaps in the data on livestock that is collated and used to guide early action against food insecurity.

At the recent Livestock Data for Decisions (LD4D) community meeting, the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action hosted a virtual session to examine ways to enhance the contributions of livestock data to counter food and climate shocks in the drylands of East Africa. 

Watch the session recording

Framing the issues in East Africa's drylands

Starting the discussions, Guyo Roba, head of the Jameel Observatory, highlighted why livestock are essential in the face of climate shocks. “Livestock are a convertible liquid asset,” he said, explaining that different animal species each play important roles in supporting household income in the dry lands. Animals are not just stores of wealth, “historically, people view their animals as safety nets in times of need.” 

Livestock-associated data can be used to monitor environmental conditions and droughts and, in turn, in the planning and execution of appropriate early actions. For example, data on livestock condition, along with grazing and water levels, is often used to create livestock ‘indexes’ to inform awareness of environmental conditions and to help identify when – and how – to intervene. 

While helpful, there are limitations with such data. For instance, the markers used to determine the physical condition of animals vary between data collection systems, and migration patterns are measured differently with varying values. The result is often a lot of subjective data that is difficult to compare and create bigger pictures. Getting this data out to communities is also challenged. “We need mechanisms to communicate early warning information to households,” Roba said. “Currently, there’s a dissemination link missing.”

Rupsha Banerjee from the International Livestock Research Institute highlighted some of the data challenges in its livestock drought index insurance programs.  Data collection in the drylands, she said, is particularly tricky. “Data is subjective and dependent on who you ask.” What one farmer believes is a ‘healthy’ herd could be assessed differently by other farmers. This means that similar animals may be self-reported in contradictory ways – skewing wider analysis, comparison and results. 

Partly to overcome these challenges, ILRI launched a mobile phone application to collect data on market prices and market operations, along with livestock conditions. “Having high frequency data gives us a better understanding of how things are changing and moving in this extremely dynamic space.” However, she added, more investment is needed into data from communities that can be shared and obtained via mobile phones.

Livestock data opportunities

Generally, most drought monitoring systems focus on crops and given the importance of livestock to pastoral communities, agencies should give much greater attention to data on the impacts of drought on livestock. This should cover the effects of drought on the animals themselves as well as implications for household nutrition and livelihoods status. 

Before stakeholders can look at how data can be used to make a difference, we need to understand what data is needed. For example, what livestock-related data specifically makes the most difference to early action outcomes? And what information is more important to collect? Should we prioritise the conditions of livestock, pasture, water or all of them? Data on water was suggested to be a weak point. We also need to recognize the significant costs involved in collecting large data sets from remote communities spread over huge areas.

Complementing technology-driven data with insights from communities was also highlighted. Incorporating knowledge from communities – who have their own mechanisms to deal with shocks – could add extra possibilities to the data ecosystem, enriching the global picture available to planners and agencies. A priority for regional stakeholders is to look at ways to make data collection and dissemination a two-way process.

In all of this, we need to overcome mistrust around data collection. Pastoralists are sometimes concerned that Governments will use drought information to displace them, or that personal information will not be properly safeguarded.

Livestock-tracking devices were suggested as a potential mechanism to enhance data collection. They are being used by researchers to track grazing – and potential overgrazing – patterns and, for instance, whether these changed when children or adults worked with them. 

Putting data into use

Irrespective of the collection methods, getting the data and information out and communicated is critical. While phone ownership and usage in pastoral areas is growing, we may also need to explore other channels like radio that may reach target people better. 

The challenge, according to one participant, is that livestock can be a sustainable way to exploit the drylands, “but the bottleneck is making the transition from data to decisions.” 

The Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action is an international partnership led by the University of Edinburgh collaborating with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Save the Children, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and Community Jameel. Based at ILRI in Nairobi, Kenya, it combines the local knowledge and concerns of communities facing on-the-ground threats of hunger with innovations in data science and humanitarian action; teaming up to devise solutions that can predict, prepare for, and overcome food and environmental shocks in dryland areas.

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Peter Ballantyne is Communications and knowledge sharing lead for the Jameel Observatory. Chantelle Pattemore and Bob Koigi are science writers at WRENMedia

Header photo: A pastoralist moves his Somali sheep and goats near Berbera (Somaliland). Photo: P. Ballantyne (ILRI). (Source)