The fourth industrial revolution may be upon us but necessity remains the mother of invention just as it was four centuries ago.
As Zimbabwe faces its worst drought in more than three decades, its young innovators are turning to technology to mitigate the impact of future El Ninos and their concomitant droughts in southern Africa.
When the government put out a tender for a simple water and sanitation data base for its National Action Committee in 2012, tech entrepreneur Simba Musonza got really excited.
Growing up at his grandfather’s homestead in Chikomba, Mashonaland East province, Musonza now 30, had seen first-hand the struggle for water. Although 73 percent of Zimbabweans have access to safe water and 60 percent have improved sanitation, more than 60 percent of the rural water infrastructure is in disrepair and 40 percent of the population still practices open defecation, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“Those were really tough days,’’ Musonza said in an interview. “With my uncles it took us as long as an hour to fetch water from the nearest working borehole.’’
On brainstorming ideas for the project “…we thought: why not use mobile technology? Initially there wasn’t a lot of faith that we could do it,’’ he said.
The result was the Rural Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Information Systems (RWIMS), a web-based integrated information management system that maps, captures and manages water and sanitation data in Zimbabwe’s rural areas in near real time.
Musonza’s Integral-Edge System Design, a locally owned information technology company designed and developed the system with funding from UNICEF and development partners Confederation Suisse, the Swedish Agency for International Development and Cooperation, UK Aid and SNV of the Netherlands.
With the help of SNV, Integral-Edge launched a pilot programme in Chikomba in 2013 where it was easy for Musonza to work with the locals who remembered him from his time at his grandfather’s home. The project has since been piloted in Binga, Umzingwane, Tsholotsho, Hwange, Umguza and Lupane.
The system has three components:
– RWIMSFieldForce: an android based application that is used by the government’s field extension workers to map and capture data on WASH facilities at the village and institutional levels in Zimbabwe. The app also allows enumerators to update any status changes. All data captured is sent to the national database in real-time.
– RWIMSGeodatabase: the national geographic database that contains all the rural WASH data. This data comes from field extension workers who use the Android app to record. It can also serve as a data source for other sectoral systems, e.g. health information systems.
– RWIMSOnline: a web-based software system that authorized users can use to query, analyze and visualize data from the RWIMS Geo database as well as generate reports with ease. The web-based software also enables users to spatially view all mapped WASH data against a vector or satellite Zimbabwe base-map.
The data covers everything from the number of working boreholes and water sources to the number of households with sanitation.
Before “our data cycles were very slow and before you knew it the disaster had passed. We didn’t have current information,’’ said Shepherd Mutsiwegota, a UNICEF innovation consultant. “Now we can get this data in real time and we can plan responses in near real time. And we have really empowered communities.’’
Globally, UNICEF has been at the forefront of using technology to improve children’s lives through its Global Innovation Centre. In Zimbabwe, the local office is one of the partners for the government’s Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socioeconomic Transformation, in which it seeks to help identify and deploy innovations and technologies that can help mitigate risk and better assist children.
The organisation has an internal innovation team that reviews existing initiatives as well as exploring new avenues of innovation with the overall goal of reducing costs and driving operational efficiencies.
Its RapidPro open source application allows partners to build and scale mobile-based services. In Zimbabwe, the UN agency last year partnered with the government’s Food Nutrition and Security Council to gather and monitor information through SMSs on health, nutrition, social protection, hand-washing and agriculture.
RapidPro is also being used during the ongoing drought to monitor functionality of water points, such as boreholes. Informants at the village level collect information which is fed into the national system through the wards. Together with other data collected at the district and provincial levels, this is fed into the national system for analysis and interventions.
Beauty Munhenga, a WASH consultant says 840 informants have so far been registered with one informant per village. The goal is to eventually have 1,800 government extension workers. The informants will also be eventually tasked with monitoring the distribution of non-food items such as soap, jerrycans and buckets.
“Our communities are really embracing technology,’’ Munhenga said, citing participating rates as high as 67 percent. “This could be very useful in getting to know what is really going on. It’s going to give us real time data for monitoring’’ and help save lives, she said.