Kenyan herders turn to grazing app to cut drought risks

A Kenyan herder shows his smart phone with the Afriscout app installed. (Photo courtesy of USAID)
Updated 07 May 2018
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Kenyan herders turn to grazing app to cut drought risks

  • The Afriscout app uses satellite images to identify where there is grass and surface water.
  • The app was developed by Project Concern International (PCI), a California-based development organization.

ARKAMANA, Kenya:  During times of drought, herder Buchu Boru has to walk tens of kilometers in search of pasture for his animals — with no guarantee he will find it.
“Somebody tells you by word of mouth that there is pasture but on arriving you don’t (find) any,” said the 60-year-old, who has had to walk from his home all the way across the Ethiopian border to find grass some years.
But next time the rains fail — an increasingly common problem in northern Kenya — he hopes a new mobile phone app will help him move his livestock to fodder without too much cost or waste of time.
The Afriscout app, which uses satellite images to identify where there is grass and surface water, “is better than what we are used to,” he said.
As climate change brings longer droughts and more unpredictable rainfall, herders often need to travel further and to less-well-known areas to find grass and water for their animals.
Technology that reduces the uncertainties associated with the journeys can help protect herds and incomes, making families more resilient to the harsher conditions, experts say.

Wrong advice
Boru and his neighbors normally rely on word-of-mouth to determine where to go, or they phone others in the region, or pay a scout to travel on a pasture-seeking mission.
But the hunt is time consuming, and sometimes goes wrong.
Boru vividly remembers, during a 2016 drought, traveling five days with his cattle, sheep and goats to Ambalo, 80 kilometers away, where he had heard there was pasture.
But “on arrival at Ambalo, there was no pasture. It was dry. I lost 13 cattle in total, some on the way and others in Ambalo,” Boru said.
With the app, “we will not be gambling with our livestock,” he said. “We will be very sure where the pasture and water is and we will just head there.”
Afriscout, developed by Project Concern International (PCI), a California-based development organization, launched in Boru’s area in February.
As well as providing detailed grazing maps showing water and grass conditions, herders can contribute information about livestock diseases, predators and conflicts.
The app so far has about 3,000 users in Kenya, though PCI hopes to increase that to 4,000 once it finishes mapping Samburu County, home to the Samburu herding community.
The app is already used in Tanzania and Ethiopia and PCI plans to deploy it in Niger soon, said Brenda Wandera, the organization’s acting representative in Kenya.
Twenty kilometers north of Boru’s village of Arkamana lies Kukub, where Liban Waqo lives with his 40 cattle, 30 goats and a dozen camels. The 57-year-old complains that drought is becoming more frequent and severe in his area.
“We have tried digging boreholes, some even 290 meters deep, but we were not successful. Fifteen boreholes have been dug but we found water in only one,” he said.
Now he has installed the PCI app on his phone and hopes that it will come in handy when the next dry season starts.

Few phones
The new app faces a few challenges, including limited mobile phone connectivity in some areas, and broad use of durable old-style mobile phones rather than more fragile smart phones.
So far, few herders in the region own smart phones — but that may change if they find the app useful, said Andrew Mude of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
“We have seen evidence of pastoralists accessing smartphones when they recognize the value it delivers,” said Mude who helped pioneer the use of satellite imagery to trigger insurance payouts for herders when forage is scarce.
Mude says the app could be improved by including a broader range of information — including data about the market price of livestock.
The app could be part of a broader push to protect herders from worsening drought, helping them cut livestock deaths even as a government livestock insurance program helps them recover from unavoidable losses, he said.
This year, in Arkama village, spring rains have transformed the drought-scorched land and brought some respite. Once-empty ponds and dams are now full and there is enough grass to keep the villagers’ animals fed for at least another two months.
But herders say they cannot count on such conditions anymore — though they, and their animals, are happy this year.
“Now they do not have to go far for grass and water,” Boru said.

(Reporting by Anthony Langat)


Google looking to future after 20 years of search

Updated 24 September 2018
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Google looking to future after 20 years of search

  • Google was launched in September 1998 in a garage rented in the Northern California city of Menlo Park
  • The name is a play on the mathematical term ‘googol,’ which refers to the number 1 followed by 100 zeros

SAN FRANCISCO: Google celebrated its 20th birthday Monday, marking two decades in which it has grown from simply a better way to explore the Internet to a search engine so woven into daily life its name has become a verb.
The company was set to mark its 20th anniversary with an event in San Francisco devoted to the future of online search, promising a few surprise announcements.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin were students at Stanford University — known for its location near Silicon Valley — when they came up with a way to efficiently index and search the Internet.
The duo went beyond simply counting the number of times keywords were used, developing software that took into account factors such as relationships between webpages to help determine where they should rank in search results.
Google was launched in September 1998 in a garage rented in the Northern California city of Menlo Park. The name is a play on the mathematical term “googol,” which refers to the number 1 followed by 100 zeros.
Google reportedly ran for a while on computer servers at Stanford, where a version of the search had been tested.
And Silicon Valley legend has it that Brin and Page offered to sell the company early on for a million dollars or so, but no deal came together.
Google later moved its headquarters to Mountain View, where it remains.
In August 2004, Google went public on the stock market with shares priced at $85. Shares in the multi-billion-dollar company are now trading above $1,000.
Its early code of conduct included a now-legendary “don’t be evil” clause. Its stated mission is to make the world’s information available to anyone.
The company hit a revenue mother lode with tools that target online ads based on what users reveal and let marketers pay only if people clicked on links in advertising.
It has now launched an array of offerings including Maps, Gmail, the Chrome Internet browser, and an Android mobile device operating system that is free to smartphone or tablet makers.
Google also makes premium Pixel smartphones to showcase Android, which dominates the market with handsets made by an array of manufacturers.
Meanwhile, it bought the 18-month-old YouTube video sharing platform in 2006 in a deal valued at $1.65 billion — which seemed astronomical at the time but has proven shrewd as entertainment moved online.
The company also began pumping money into an X Lab devoted to technology “moon shots” such as Internet-linked glasses, self-driving cars, and using high-altitude balloons to provide Internet service in remote locations.
Some of those have evolved into companies, such as the Waymo self-driving car unit. But Google has also seen failures, such as much-maligned Google Glass eyewear.
Elsewhere, the Google+ social network launched to compete with Facebook has seen little meaningful traction.
In October 2015, corporate restructuring saw the creation of parent company Alphabet, making subsidiaries of Google, Waymo, health sciences unit Verily and other properties.
Google is also now a major player in artificial intelligence, its digital assistant infused into smart speakers and more. Its AI rivals include Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.
Despite efforts to diversify its business, Alphabet — which has over 80,000 employees worldwide — still makes most of its money from online ads. Industry tracker eMarketer forecast that Google and Facebook together will capture 57.7 percent US digital ad revenue this year.
In the second quarter of 2018, Google reported profit of $3.2 billion despite a fine of $5.1 billion imposed by the European Union.
Google’s rise put it in the crosshairs of regulators, especially in Europe, due to concerns it may be abusing its domination of online search and advertising as well as smartphone operating software.
There have been worries that Alphabet is more interested in making money from people’s data than it is in safeguarding their privacy.
Google has also been accused of siphoning money and readers away from mainstream news organizations by providing stories in online search results, where it can cash in on ads.
It is among the tech companies being called upon to better guard against the spread of misinformation — and has also been a target of US President Donald Trump, who added his voice to a chorus of Republicans who contend conservative viewpoints are downplayed in search results.