Fighting Food Loss? There’s an App for That.

esa

Want to know exactly when to shield yourself from an impending downpour? There’s an app for that. Sick of sitting on hold? LucyPhone will do that for you. How about combatting food shortage in Africa? Now, there’s an app for that too.

Researchers at the researchers at the University of Twente’s Ujuizi Laboratories have developed Cheetah, a new smartphone app that provides transporters, growers, and traders with satellite information that helps them locate the fastest route, route with the least additional costs, or otherwise best route in order to reduce food waste. Cheetah presents both crowd-sourced information from Copernicus Sentinel-2 and MERIS and data collected from third parties to provide a clearer picture of route conditions and crop market value. Drivers are notified of areas in which certain factors caused delays for others, and then have the opportunity to make updates to this information.

According to researchers at the Ujuizi Laboratories, Africa sustains post-harvest produce losses of US $48 billion annually. Let’s do some math. A reduction in post-harvest loss by one percent could save US $480 million a year. That’s a lot of lettuce. Moreover, an estimated 20 to 50 percent of crop losses take place post-harvest, primarily during the transport of crops. Poor road infrastructure and frequent pressure on drivers to pay out bribes along their routes contribute to considerable delays during transport.

To date Cheetah has garnered significant attention from the tech community. The app won the 2013 European Space Agency’s App Challenge €10,000 prize and €60,000 business incubation package, but can Cheetah hope to have the impact that its developers envision? With available 3G network connectivity along most of the trans-African Highway and increased penetration of mobile and smartphone telephony Cheetah may succeed in achieving a significant reach. Indeed, the app’s design ensures that its increased use will improve the quality of the information available on Cheetah.

Still, as Laurie Walker Hudson of Frontline SMS notes, technology is only 10% of the solution in ICT4D initiatives. On the ground intelligence about poor road infrastructure and instances of bribery may help individual drivers avoid more costly routes but it alone will not direct funds toward road maintenance or transform lower transportation costs into lower market prices for consumers. It is important to avoid the trap of technological determinacy and assume that one app can engender accountability. Food shortages are often fed by political conflict, not just transportation challenges. Cheetah is a fantastic cost-cutting concept and a realistic application of crowd-sourcing technology, but that’s not all it takes to get to market.

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