Exploring the use of mobile technology in participatory forest management

Forests play a crucial role in stabilising our climate by regulating ecosystems, protecting biodiversity, absorbing carbon, and reducing soil erosion. However, forests and forest-related livelihoods remain under threat from deforestation and forest degradation: 290 million hectares of forest were lost between 1990 and 2015, and 1.3 billion people are now trapped on degraded agricultural land. Consequently, halting forest loss and degradation, and promoting forest restoration, are central components of global climate mitigation and sustainable development strategies.

It is within this context that many low-and-middle income countries (LMICs) are focusing attention on community-led, or “participatory” approaches to forest management. These arrangements, through which local communities participate in rule setting, monitoring and restoring forests, are expected to establish sustainable forest management practices and allow adjacent communities to reap sustainable economic and environmental benefits from the forest.

Through funding provided by UK Aid, we have been able to conduct new research to explore how mobile devices and applications could be leveraged to strengthen PFM efforts in Kenya.

“Kenya’s forests are a crucial part in the fight against climate change. With just months to go to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, this report demonstrates how community projects can create jobs that last, using digital innovation leadership to deliver on climate and nature targets”

Julius Court, Deputy High Commissioner and Development Director, British High Commission Nairobi

Driven by the voice of local communities living and working in and around Kenyan forests, we used human-centred research approaches to understand the key challenges in participatory forest management (PFM) implementation. We also co-designed and tested three low fidelity prototypes for mobile tools that could help Community Forest Associations (CFAs) improve data collection and monitoring activities; access payments for their services; or share information and advice. Testing these prototypes with CFA members helped us understand how future mobile solutions will need to function, what risks they might bring and what benefits they will deliver.

We found that CFA members were enthusiastic supporters of digital innovation, particularly when they saw opportunities for mobile technology to increase the environmental impact of their work or increase the recognition they receive for their services. Participants also emphasised the important role all three prototypes could play in relieving the unsustainable pressure placed on forests by local communities, either by making it easier for members to deliver their PFM Plans or by motivating more people, particularly women and youth, to join their ranks. There was also broad consensus that the prototypes would create value not only for the CFA, but also for individual environmentalists, conservationists, researchers, and business owners.

Through our research we found a real opportunity for a digital solution to be developed with the support of mobile network operators (MNOs). Our research suggests that engaging in the design of PFM tools could help MNOs establish positive relationships with local government and partners, help expand the country’s mobile money ecosystem, create new revenue opportunities and support sustainability pledges or commitments. Furthermore, participation in PFM projects could build the business case for expanding network coverage into remote areas (in response to increased demand for connectivity), particularly if operators designed tailored data packages and other solutions for rural consumers who are currently underserved.

Our report sets out a three-staged approach for designing and implementing new PFM tools. At every stage, close collaboration between a multitude of organisations, including CFAs, community-based organisations, government stakeholders, MNOs and other technology organisations, will be critical.

As a next step, the GSMA ClimateTech programme aims to work with MNOs, PFM partners and other service providers to implement the actions and recommendations outlined in the report. In Kenya, our programme is now collaborating with Safaricom and 4RDigital to support the development of a new platform called CaVEx, which could help CFAs validate their tree planting activities and gain access to funding from voluntary carbon credits. Safaricom will support the project by testing how their mobile money platform (M-PESA) can facilitate payments to CFAs or individual tree-planters on the ground, and they will also leverage their existing network of partners and knowledge of CFA process to demonstrate how access to climate finance can help accelerate tree planting.

We are planning a webinar at the end of the month to share more insights from our report, and to showcase how other local organisations are leveraging digital technology to promote better forest management. Please subscribe to our newsletter if you would like to receive updates on this event.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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