Dar es Salaam — Tanzania has devised a new system to help pastoralists and cattle traders track real-time market information on livestock, while keeping them abreast of weather conditions likely to affect their animals' wellbeing.
The system allows livestock dealers to monitor prices and volumes in markets across the country, while being alerted to the onset of drought and diseases that could affect herds.
The Livestock Information Knowledge System (LINKS) is an online platform that uses global positioning system (GPS) technology, text messaging and web-based computer analysis, providing information to pastoralists via mobile phones or the internet.
"We decided to establish this system because we value the contribution of pastoralists to our economy. However, more education is needed to enable them to make better use of (it)," said Saning'o Ole Telele, Tanzania's deputy minister for livestock development and fisheries.
The project was launched in 2013, and so far 53 out of 369 cattle markets have been connected to the system, with a target of covering them all. Changes in trade patterns and market trends allow LINKS to identify and provide early warning of critical food shortages for animals, deteriorating grazing conditions and disease outbreaks.
The system - which is funded and run by the Tanzanian government in partnership with the United States Development Agency, USAID - monitors major domestic livestock, including cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and horses.
Around 90 percent of rural Tanzanians depend on income from livestock and agricultural products, according to the government. That means timely access to reliable livestock market information is needed to help pastoralists and traders make good decisions.
There are around 28 million registered mobile phone subscribers in Tanzania, and the expansion of private telecoms companies has made it possible for people in remote areas to communicate at lower cost.
The country has 22.8 million head of cattle, the third highest in Africa after Ethiopia and Sudan, according to a 2011 animal census conducted by Tanzania's statistics bureau.
The government estimates that over 70 percent of livestock are kept in semi-arid areas in the north, centre and west of the country. These regions suffer frequent drought, forcing herders to migrate in search of water.
MANY MORE IN THE KNOW
Under LINKS, monitors drawn from government institutions collect information at various markets, which is then coded and sent to a database by cell phone or email.
"These monitors are adequately trained in how to approach sellers, traders and brokers so that they can collect reliable data effectively," deputy minister Ole Telele said.
Market monitors at Pugu cattle market in Dar es Salaam told Thomson Reuters Foundation the introduction of an electronic system has simplified their work, allowing them to reach thousands of pastoralists and cattle traders in a short time.
"All the information is at our finger tips - our job is to make sure it gets to the intended audience, and since we use electronic gadgets, it is much easier to send," said monitor Japhet Mosha.
The main objective of LINKS is to increase the household income of pastoral communities in East Africa by boosting the efficiency of livestock markets.
"The use of a reliable market information system creates transparency and enables pastoralists to make informed decisions," said John Lymo, an official at the ministry of industries and trade, which runs the project together with the livestock development ministry.
Another aim is to determine the application and usefulness of information and communication technologies in improving Tanzania's livestock trade.
The market data, which pastoralists can access on their phones for free, helps them decide when to send their animals to market. Monitors also get printouts of market and climate data, which they distribute to herders.
"It was a bit tricky when I first used this service, but now I am used to it, I can easily retrieve the data by sending a message. The information is useful because it gives me an idea of which markets offer better prices," said Andrea Malingumu, a livestock keeper at Pugu market.
Livestock prices and volumes are collected through interviews with traders at the peak of the market day. The monitors also collect data on animal breeds, classes (categorised according to age) and grades (categorised according to size).
Average prices for each are then calculated, along with the total volumes of livestock by animal kind. The data is coded and sent to the LINKS database using SMS and email, or posted directly on the web.
In many markets across East Africa, livestock are bought and sold on the basis of visual assessment of the animal's body condition rather than weight. But under the LINKS grading system, they are put in uniform breed groups to reflect price differences based on frame size, muscle and weight.
Minister Ole Telele said the project aims to ensure that all markets use weighing machines, because that would help pastoralists realise better returns on their produce.
When information is requested by livestock keepers or traders, they input a specific code assigned to each market that prompts a response with the data for the given market and region. A shorthand SMS text coding system was devised to accommodate the limited number of characters permitted in a single SMS.
Similar systems are operating in Kenya and Ethiopia, whereby pastoralists who have traditionally relied on middlemen to get market information can now retrieve it directly via their mobile phones.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.