Case Study: Assessing Food Security During An Ebola Outbreak

FEWS NET used mobile phones to track ongoing trends in food market functionality


FEWS NET, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, is a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity. Created by USAID in 1985 to help decision-makers anticipate humanitarian crises, FEWS NET provides objective, evidence-based reporting on more than 36 of the world’s most food insecure countries.

As the Ebola outbreak of 2014 continued to spread, FEWS NET had a need to ram up their ongoing monitoring of food security in the affected countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Population movement, quarantine, and other factors had diminished food availability and disrupted markets. However, due to the contagious nature of Ebola, FEWS NET was unable to conduct in-person market assessments in these countries. With an urgent need for data, FEWS NET turned to GeoPoll to conduct remote SMS surveys in Sierra Leone and Liberia. FEWS NET analysts hoped to create a panel of market traders in each country who they could survey on an ongoing basis about market sizes, activities, operating costs, stock levels, and agricultural activates.

The SMS-based survey results serve to corroborate key partner reports on market activities, serve as inputs to FEWS NET’s food security analysis on the impacts of the Ebola outbreak, and are used for emergency planning in response to the outbreak.


From November 2014 to October 2015, GeoPoll and FEWS NET conducted bi-weekly surveys in all 14 districts of Sierra Leone and 15 counties in Liberia.

In the first round of data collection, GeoPoll was tasked with building a panel of traders or merchants who trade palm oil, cassava, imported rice, or local rice. To do this, GeoPoll sent survey invitations to a random sample of its database of over 1,615,000 in Liberia and over 1,844,000 in Sierra Leone. This sample was asked if they are a trader or merchant of one of the previously mentioned commodities. Those determined to be eligible were added to the panel and asked initial questions about the typical amount of their trading, weekly inventory compared to others in their area, and where their customers and suppliers were located at time.

In the following rounds of data collection, the panel was sent bi-weekly surveys asking about the opening status of markets in their area, food availability, quantities of palm oil, local and imported rice, and cassava in markets, and where most suppliers and customers were located in the past 10 days. Questions were also asked about opportunities to earn wages on farms, crop cultivation methods, and cocoa, rubber, and coffee sales in their area. Each round of data collection included responses from between 300-500 market traders, allowing FEWS NET to view longitudinal data from the same group of respondents.


Findings demonstrate that the Ebola outbreak impacted food availability, market operations, and agricultural activities. Throughout data collection, the situation grew starker in Sierra Leone, where there was for some time an official ban on markets. At the beginning of data collection, market closures in Sierra Leone were reported at 10%, which dropped to only 5% by round ten. However, regularly 40-60% of traders reported markets operating at reduced capacities. In later rounds of data collection, around 60% reported reduced opportunities to earn wages, and just 30-40% reported that agricultural activities were proceeding on time.

In Liberia, only a very few traders indicated market closures (less than 1%), and between 20-30% reported reduced capacities at markets. However, in the most Ebola-affected areas between 25% and 40% reported that food availability did not meet local needs. 45-50% reported agricultural activities were going forward as normal and on time.

Below are findings from several rounds of data collection. Data and reports can be viewed in more detail on the FEWS NET pages for Sierra Leone and Liberia.