The tool known as Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS) will be in use by the end of this year in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, according to researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) who are developing it.
Speaking during the launch in Kenya last month (29 May), experts said that with recurrent droughts and famine causing hunger, malnutrition and instability across Africa, there is an urgent need for innovations to help stop the vicious cycle.
“There is a need [for] proactive actions, which will require a shift in the way we forecast nutrition-related vulnerabilities.”
Mercy Lung’aho, CIAT
Mercy Lung’aho, a nutritionist and research scientist at CIAT, Kenya, tells SciDev.Net that despite progress in strengthening early warning systems for food insecurity, current approaches to detect declines in nutrition status still tend to be very late and are based on indicators that identify nutrition crisis after it has already begun.
“There is a need [for] proactive actions, which will require a shift in the way we forecast nutrition-related vulnerabilities and identify the key factors driving undernutrition, while building nutrition resilience to shocks that add to the fragility,” Lung’aho says.
Debisi Araba, regional director for Africa, CIAT, says that NEWS will use cutting-edge big data approaches to process large volumes of information from multiple sources to detect early signs of food shortages and raise the alarm about impending crises.
“The tool will use machine learning and artificial intelligence technology to process a steady stream of data to food and nutrition security, and will get smarter and become more accurate over time,” Araba notes.
He adds that it will complement existing efforts by offering a new level of precision and accuracy to assessments and predictions of food-related challenges.
“We will work with countries to ensure that NEWS adheres to national laws regarding data sovereignty, privacy and intellectual property,” Araba explains. Olufunso Somorin, senior policy officer, fragility and resilience unit at African Development Bank, Kenya, applauds the NEWS system, saying there is need for Africa to move away from reactive to proactive responses to crises.
He is calling for effective collaborations to produce knowledge that include not just warning signs of trouble but also options for interventions that have proven successful in similar situations.
“Research and capacity building play a critical role to build resilience within communities, especially by helping to ensure that our food systems can deliver more nutritious food, to reach people when they need it, where they need it at affordable price,” Somorin explains.
The researchers declined to reveal who is funding the development of the tool or the amount of money it will cost once it is fully developed.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.