Technology in the Field: the Future of Microfinance
Varick Schwartz | KF18 | Kenya
When I applied to the Kiva Fellows program, I knew I’d be spending some time ‘in the field’, but I didn’t know I’d be out there transmitting Kiva profile information from a mobile tablet to Google’s Open Data Kit (ODK) platform! After writing an automated survey interface and configuring the Android device, next I was on the farm with a loan officer collecting borrower responses, which were uploaded straight to the internet, Kiva photo included. Well done Juhudi Kilimo (my assigned MFI) for the foresight and motivation to put this in play, well done Kenya for providing the comprehensive mobile platform and welcome to the future of microfinance!
Gotta love open source – an affordable way to do business in the field! And good thing some previous Kiva Fellows supported me during my learning phase, while I assimilated xml tricks, mobile device settings, GPS performance attributes and form management into my workplan. The loan officers I worked with during testing were actually the most thankful: they can’t wait to get beyond paper and agree that their increased efficiency and reporting capability will justify the upgrade.
As far as what questions to ask the borrowers, Kiva training had prepared me well: emphasize children’s schooling, family benefit from the loan and ‘why’ microcredit as a business solution. I also included a question about what the borrower had learned during Juhudi’s required loan training and of course I added “what are the farm animals’ names?” since so many of us love our pets! The best names collected so far have been ‘Super’, ‘the one with the white forehead’, and one Kiva borrower named her cow after herself – fund that one for sure!
Kiva’s workplan for me put a high priority on this project, because while Juhudi built their ODK site in 2011, they haven’t been using it due to a programming resource shortage. I became the ‘bridge resource’ to get them into production, and starting with Kiva profiles made sense. For Juhudi it’s also important, enabling them to start replacing the current process – paper form completed on farm then carried back to office, then sent by courier to HQ, data entered and manually matched to MIS at HQ and finally sent again by courier back to the branch to be put into a binder – with a new, more automated approach.
Juhudi also wants to use this platform to capture full client appraisals, ‘Progress out of Poverty‘ metrics and GPS coordinates. How is poverty measured in a way that allows global comparison? By recording metrics such as type of roof, cooking fuel source and number of mosquito nets. The ability and desire to collect this information implies a level of commitment and sophistication that is the ideal for microfinance. Also impressive is the way Juhudi plans to use its mobile geotagging data – to map all group meetings and sales leads for analysis related to branch locations, officer efficiency and staff planning. That future at this MFI is in sight and from what I can see, it’s innovative, efficient and nearly paperless! One caveat – digital John Hancock’s are not yet approved for contracts in Kenya, so paper signatures are still required.
Check out some of the profiles that have been generated so far with the new process:
How long until these procedures are the norm across the micro landscape?
From my perspective, Juhudi Kilimo is pretty advanced in Kenya. This is partially due to Kiva: when Juhudi was experiencing liquidity issues a few years ago, Kiva supplied an important source of capital that propelled operations forward and helped Juhudi attract further funding. It is also because of Juhudi’s CEO – a forward-thinking, socially conscious entrepreneur from Colorado who inherently knows how business is done in the USA, including the efficiency that is possible.
To ‘level set’, Kenya mobile networks largely outperform those in the States. No matter how remote I’ve been I’ve still had good coverage. Also, at this MFI technology is already part of field work: an ace programmer from Google volunteered his time last year to write a custom app for Juhudi, one that looks up client repayments from the loan officers’ phones, so that during a group meeting the officer can confirm what is being reported. Finding programmers is a hurdle for micro-innovation in Kenya. Good programmers are available here and multiplying, but not ubiquitous. And in the USA we almost take it for granted to be able to use whatever device we need, but costs here are steep ($200 = 10% of Kenyan per capita GDP). From what I’ve seen, microfinance is rapidly expanding and inefficiency is becoming a huge cost to operations, whereby adopting this type of process is a good business decision.
With this mindset, Juhudi let me customize their open source repository and then off I went into the field for testing and loan officer training. On a personal note, ‘disappearing’ for weeks at a time to visit family-owned farms here and test my app has been some of the most enjoyable travel I’ve ever done! And without a doubt, so far the data we’ve generated plus the ease of process adoption are promising! Given the need for on-site agricultural appraisals, volume will still be constrained by transportation time, but the use of technology in the field will only march forward across the rolling hills of Kenya. Kudos to Kiva for seeing this potential and choosing a more technical Fellowship for me. Juhudi will now be able to more efficiently collect better information, and I think the profiles on Kiva will help improve the standard on the site and be a step into the future!
Kiva Fellow Varick Schwartz served in Nairobi, Kenya with Juhudi Kilimo.