Editor’s Note: Sarah Arkin is a freelance journalist and a graduate student at Georgetown University. This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.
By Sarah Arkin - Special to CNN
“We don’t steal cattle,” said Benson, a Maasai in the south of Kenya. Instead, he explained, they merely recover them. The Maasai believe that Ngai, their God, blessed the Maasai people with cattle “herding,” and only they are allowed to do it. Of course, the government of Kenya, not to mention other pastoralist tribes throughout the country who also rely on cattle and other livestock for their way of life, don’t find this a compelling argument.
Cattle-rustling, a catch-all term which in includes the pillaging and pilfering of cattle, sheep, goats and camel is pervasive throughout Kenya, and in the Rift Valley in particular. Though pastoralists have been stealing each other’s livestock in a never-ending pattern of “revenge attacks” for centuries, the introduction of small arms, primarily AK-47s and other unreliable soviet-era weapons has increased violence and the death toll of such raids.
This resource-based conflict is prevalent and predictable. When there’s drought, herders of the Maasai, Samburu, Turkana, and Pokot tribes are forced to move their livestock to greener pastures, often trespassing on fluid and non-delineated territories of other tribes and clans. If drought or famine is threatening the lives of animals and by extension the herders, there will be raids on others’ livestock.
Recognizing recurrent conflict patterns isn’t rocket science. Resolving them has been a bit trickier, but innovative uses of relatively simple technology are immensely aiding the cause.
In 2005, a unique partnership between the Kenyan Administration Police, the Ministry of Social Research and a host of NGOs emerged to develop Peace-Cop, a project aimed at institutionalizing conflict management and resolution tools for resource-driven violence in the Rift Valley. It quickly became clear that eliminating a centuries-old practice wasn’t going to happen overnight. But if police, tribal elders and other community leaders could quickly track, identify and return stolen livestock, there was a high chance of reducing violence and revenge attacks.
“We realized we had a communication problem,” said Chief Inspector Mark Leleruk, the director of Peace-Cop, in July.
Enter Nick Ngethe, the founder of GoGreen Kenya, a technology consulting firm with links looking for a high-impact project. Ngethe, a native Kenyan, wanted to do something about the cycle of violence in his country. If he could “provide a deterrent, other than arms,” he thought, that might staunch the flow of cattle-rustling, he could make an impact. “It’s a mindset,” he said.
While many people have cell-phones, reception is spotty at best in the sparsely populated areas of Kenya. So if your livestock is stolen you race to the chief, the person in your area most likely to have a basic communication system. By the time the report of theft gets to the police or other law enforcement, it will likely be five or six hours, and then there are the logistics, which could take another four. Should helicopters be mobilized? Jeeps? Where are they going to head? By the time anyone gets there, “you’re looking for a pin in a haystack,” said Ngethe, as the stolen animals could easily have been integrated into the stealing communities’ livestock.
But if you could report theft quickly, and you could somehow easily identify where your cattle went, the response time would be quicker, and would-be rustlers might think twice about raiding. Which is exactly the system that Ngethe and Peace-Cop have developed.
“You provide tools and redundancy,” explained Ngethe, using phones, satellites and base transmission stations (BTS). BTSs are fixed assets in certain locations that allow phones equipped with 3G, 2G or even 1G networks to utilize a GPS system and transmit their location. In rural areas, satellites can serve as back-up.
“The infrastructure is not there, so you use what you can.” Using base stations, Peace-Cop and GoGreen can build a mapping circumference in which herders can take their cattle. Of course, nomadic herders are not particularly stationary, but working closely together ensures Peace-Cop invests in the right areas and that the herders know where their phones will work. “And you don’t even need 3G for all of this to have an impact on what you’re doing. You can take pictures, video, and send them via satellite. You can even send sound from bound rural areas,” explained Ngethe. A Peace-Cop officer sitting at a computer anywhere in the Rift Valley can then see where the herders are.
Airtel and Safaricom, two of Kenya’s largest mobile phone companies have been working with GoGreen on data transmission and shortcodes; three-digit alert signals that are free and go straight to the appropriate police officer.
So now herders could get in touch quickly with law-enforcement officials, solving half the problem. The other is getting the livestock back. Ngethe, a long-time enthusiast of solar and alternate forms of energy, looked down at his own solar-powered, portable charging device from Dutch company ToughStuff and thought “why not put this around a cow’s neck and add a GPS tracker.” If a few cattle in a herd of hundreds are tagged, it’s unlikely that a would-be rustler would have the time to go through each one looking for the tracker, if he knew they were there in the first place. As the cows are pilfered away, a Peace-Cop officer sitting in an office with an Internet connection can open Google maps, follow the cows and quickly dispatch the closest team.
The solar-panels also solve the problem of a lack of electricity infrastructure and can serve as cell-phone chargers. A package of 500 units of the solar trackers is $80 has a shelf life of six years.
Over the past decade or so, both mobile phone technology and, to a lesser extent, conflict mapping have become valuable tools for conflict management and tracking violence. However, to the best of anyone involved in the project's knowledge, this is the first endeavor explicitly bundling different technologies to address a specific type of routine conflict and directly and quickly link conflict-affected people to security forces to prevent an escalation of violence. And it's definitely the first to utilize a solar-powered GPS tracker around a cow's neck to prevent violence.
“The challenge is keeping it going,” said Ngethe. The partnership is exploring a few different options. The most obvious is support from the Kenyan government and the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK). Another is foreign funding; organizations and governments engaged in conflict prevention are one obvious option. A promising and perhaps surprising partnership is also the Kenya Tourism Board. When tourists arrive in Kenya they can sign up to receive alerts from the board about anything from weather conditions to security threats for a nominal fee of about $5, which would go directly to sustaining the cell phone/solar tracker conflict mitigation project.
“We are ready to move forward,” said Leleruk. In July, Peace-Cop and GoGreen presented their plan to officials in Nairobi, and hope to receive support from the government.
“What you really have is a two-pronged technology approach: solar trackers and phones helping to reduce incidents of violence in the Rift and reduce their impact,” Ngethe explained in July. Peaceful people interact a lot more, he reasoned, and when there is less fear about your neighbor attacking you, more positive and sustainable relationships based on trade and other interactions can flourish. Overall, he said, this "makes the whole job of keeping people harmonious much easier.”
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Sarah Arkin. Visit cnn.com/innovation for more pieces on the subject.