WFP pilots SMS food distribution

A new pilot project by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Syria has come up with a novel way of getting food aid to Iraqi refugees. WFP claims the project is a world first.


Under the pilot scheme, 1,000 Iraqi families (3,500 beneficiaries) living in Damascus are to receive vouchers worth US$22 per person sent to their mobile phones every two months. These vouchers are redeemable against certain goods in government stores in Jaramana and Saida Zeinab, areas with high Iraqi populations.


Beneficiaries continue to receive 50 percent of their rations under the usual handout system. However, if successful, the pilot could replace the traditional food handouts from distribution centres for all refugees.


''The main goal of the scheme is to allow for a more diversified diet based on personal choices and the preferences of the beneficiaries''

How do SMS vouchers work? WFP distributed new SIM cards to the Iraqi refugees. The new number is registered to the refugee and their $22 voucher is sent with a personalized code to the phone every two months, coinciding with the normal food distribution cycle. If they need to buy something, they take the phone with its voucher number to a designated shop, where it is verified by the shopkeeper and purchases can be made.

The phone


Any make or model of phone capable of receiving text messages works for the scheme, according to WFP. SIM cards for the pilot were donated by MTN in Syria, which also provides the text messages for free. According to Selly Muzammil, spokesperson for WFP Syria, without the donation the scheme would still cost less than 1.03 SYP [$.02] per head to run per food distribution.


Beneficiaries do not have to spend their $22 voucher all in one go. Everything is computerized, so once a transaction is made in the shop, the system automatically updates and beneficiaries receive a text message with their updated balance.


Beneficiaries were given two days training on how to redeem their vouchers. The voucher can be used by persons other than the beneficiary but WFP says there is little risk of fraud owing to a system of double verification of the voucher code and value by the shopkeeper.


Photo: Selly Muzammil/WFP
An Iraqi refugee delights in buying eggs with his mobile phone voucher

The shops


Under the pilot only two government-run shops are participating in the scheme, but WFP says in future the number of shops could increase, and include private shops. When beneficiaries make purchases, the shop sends the electronic invoice to WFP. This is then verified and the shop is reimbursed. The shops are not paid extra for their services and the food is not subsidized.


The food


The foodstuffs included in the scheme are: rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, vegetable oil, cheese, eggs and canned fish. The list is more extensive than for handouts: It allows the purchase of certain fresh foods which cannot be stored for food distributions.


Non-food items distributed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which are not redeemable with a voucher include nappies and sanitary towels. Currently, tea, dates and sugar are still physically distributed to beneficiaries on the pilot, but potentially they could be included in the voucher scheme.




There are advantages of the scheme for both refugees and WFP.


“The main goal of the scheme is to allow for a more diversified diet based on personal choices and the preferences of the beneficiaries,” said Muzammil.


Refugees interviewed by IRIN at the food distribution centres frequently complained about the lack of fresh food. They said they often sold rice under market value in order to afford to buy products such as cheese. The choice given by the new scheme, albeit limited, is likely to alleviate this complaint.


Another advantage is the ease of access. “People will no longer need to queue at food distribution points or travel long distances to distribution centres,” Muhannad Hadi, WFP’s country director for Syria, said.


Development experts say this new simpler process gives refugees more independence and dignity.


Photo: Selly Muzammil/WFP
Iraqi refugees in Damascus show off the groceries they bought with WFP mobile phone vouchers

For WFP, the advantages are a more efficient system.


“Agencies benefit from lower delivery costs from schemes such as this,” food aid expert Chris Barrett of Cornell University told IRIN. WFP has no figures on the costs but says it expects the service to be more efficient.




Distorting local markets, not reaching the most vulnerable and the potential for fraud are the biggest issues facing the scheme.


“If local availability is limited, then vouchers merely fuel local inflation and cause real harm,” Barrett told IRIN. This could be more of an issue with the pilot scheme because there are limited shops involved and limited items eligible for voucher use. “It will be important to monitor the price effects, if any, of this scheme,” he said.

If those most in need do not have secure access to mobile phones, then phone-based voucher transfers will miss those who most need assistance.

Measures are already in place to prevent misuse of the SIM cards but Abeer Etefa, WFP’s regional public information officer for the Middle East, stressed that this is a pilot programme, in which the agency is attempting to discover whether the system is vulnerable to abuse.

There are more than 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, according to government figures. About 130,000 regularly receive food aid from WFP and get complementary food and non-food assistance from UNHCR. Experts say WFP’s pilot project would be easy to upscale to this number. The technology could also be transferred to comparable situations.