Project: Simplifying Microfinance Reporting

The problem:

Like anyone in any job in the world, my colleagues don’t like paperwork. But it’s not just them who suffer while they maintain countless records; borrowers do as well. My organization’s greatest strength (ideally at least) is its mission to not just act as a lender, but also as a support system for borrowers. And if my colleagues are busy recording payments and making spreadsheets, they aren’t following up with borrower’s businesses. However, the paperwork is necessary. Borrower payments must be recorded, statistics kept, and reports sent into headquarters.

The Solution:

I came up with a database that automates all of those repetitive reports. Now, for example, when a borrower makes a payment we write down a few pieces of information (name, amount, date) and we’re done. After entering those simple fields, we can now generate dynamic reports for individual borrowers, the region, or eventually even for the entire country with a single click.

After we had that basic functionality in place, we added all of our other information into the database and added a few more  features. For example, we can now see breakout reports for borrowers who received loans in specific years, view those who pay bi-annually versus monthly, or see all of the borrowers in certain cities or certain professions. We’re also keeping track of how often we’re meeting with each borrower (minimum of once per month, but the more the better). Perhaps most importantly the automatic reports ensure accurate calculations – which had been a problem previously. Since we have a substantial amount of other information stored as well, we can continue to add functionality as other needs arise (look for an upcoming post on what we’ll be doing with geo-mapping).

Since MS Access is a new application for most of my colleagues and even my fellow PCVs, I spent a lot of time thinking about creating a simple design to try to make the project as sustainable as possible (see some of my thoughts on that subject here). I made lots of buttons, and included shortcuts for each option on each form so that the user doesn’t have to use any tables or queries. I also wanted to make it easy to edit data in case of input error. I think I’ve come up with a good first effort, and the plan is to use the database for the next month in my region to work out the kinks. Once it’s operating smoothly, we’ll head into Ouaga to show the director and hopefully take it nationwide.

More screenshots (with dummy data):


6 Responses to “Project: Simplifying Microfinance Reporting”

  1. 1 Kristin
    June 22, 2011 at 22:21

    wow scott!! that is some amazing work. youve not only created a way to save people from hours and hours of tedious work that could ultimately comprise the services they are trying to render but youve come up with a systemic way to reproduce usable and reliable data- empowerment at its finest. I think often people underestimate the power that concrete data has for groups and organizations- for example, donors all want data, hard facts that indicate what you do works especially now in the era of evidence/results based approaches to development aid. I do understand your personal dilemma with whether this is development or a “band aid” and I agree with you that most situations do in fact require both on some level. There are certainly no easy answers in the world of development but this is truly something you can hang your hat on, so to speak. Very proud of you!

    • June 23, 2011 at 06:03

      Thanks Kristin! That certainly means a lot coming from you. I hesitated before making it, but I’ve come to realize that my organization is pretty on top of things, but are missing a lot of general management tools to help them make decisions or just be more efficient, so I went for it. Hopefully they implement it and actually use it (always the tough part, amiright?)

  2. 3 andtheseashalltell
    June 25, 2011 at 03:09

    I’m assuming you’re in SED? If so, hopefully we will have the chance to meet once I’m in country?

    This looks really interesting and happens to be right up my alley. I’ve done a fair bit of database work in my day and would love to help if I can. That being said, I have a few questions, please excuse any ignorance/newbishness. I’m just trying to get a better idea of how things work…

    1. What kind of penetration do you see this having? Just a few national offices? Regional? Something else?

    2. How much training do you envision to use this?

    3. Is it portable? Is this something that can be accessed from a phone in the field? And if not, is that feasible?

    4. Is there anything I can do on this end (ie in the land of plentiful Internet and computing resources) to save you time/make things easier?

    • June 25, 2011 at 07:05

      Sounds like you’re coming in the fall training group? And yup, I’m a SED volunteer and would love to meet up (never thought I’d be talking databases in the PC, but happy it’s worked out that way). I’m always happy for any input, and we could always speak over skype if you’d like to be able to talk earlier (username: sworthy10).

      Per your questions:

      1. There are 13 regions in Burkina and FAIJ is set up so that it has offices in each regional capital. Most regions currently have around 100 borrowers, though Ouaga has around 300. My plan is to have all 13 offices using the database. I plan on having the HQ in Ouaga handling the more laborious data entry of new borrowers (which they already currently do in Excel in a more limited way) and then each regional agent will be responsible for filling out the forms for tracking payments, noting meeting dates, and recording GPS locations of borrowers/taking photos (I’ll be posting about the GPS project in the next day or two).

      2. Using the database is very easy. I’m planning on doing a one day training at HQ with all of the regional agents, then solicit the help of the 3 other PCVs working with FAIJ in other regions (we plan on adding a few folks from the fall training group as well) who could help with another day with each agent at their home offices. I’m wagering I’ll need a few days with the FAIJ IT coordinator at HQ, plus a few monthly follow-up visits to make sure everything is running smoothly.

      The most time consuming part will be preparing all of the currently stored data to be able to move into the new system and adding a few new categories that they don’t have. That’ll probably just involve me, the IT coordinator, and the head of our follow-up department.

      3. It is currently not mobile, though like the idea of adding this functionality. FrontlineSMS has a Forms feature that could be used for entering data which I’ve thought about working to employ (though may take some extra syncing steps). And while I personally think it would be cool, obviously a lot of thought would have to go into thinking about the equipment, training, and cost that would go into it. For example, HanDBase for Android or iPhone sounds like it has some potential to access the DB on the move, but we’d have to find a a way to supply 13+ fancy phones, pay for data usage every month, and integrate the workflow so everything is always in sync – not easy tasks.

      4. First, let me just thank you for offering to help! Though I have the internet here, slow speeds make online research a pain. For now, I’d really appreciate anything you could contribute on the mobile front after taking in the above considerations (even if it’s just pointing me to some links). And when you get here, I’d love to collaborate on additional functionality if you were so inclined.

      • 5 andtheseashalltell
        June 29, 2011 at 22:43

        Yeah, as things currently stand I stage October 12 and arrive in country on the 14th. I’ve been doing the usual homework, but that’s mostly just to fill time; except for the French practice, I can’t imagine that anything I do here will really prepare me for the reality, so I’ll just wait and see what comes.

        I’ll be happy to do as much or as little online research/work as you feel is appropriate. Is there anything in particular you wanted researched?

        As for the mobile access…

        First, let me get a little background info:

        1. BF phones use GSM, correct?
        2. AirTel is the major carrier?
        3. I could probably get the phones donated (probably not brand new…think refurbished iPhone 3G or Android equivalent), as long as they can be GSM and you think it’s worthwhile. I live in one of the wealthier suburbs in the country and I already have lots of people trying to donate money. I also have a friend at CreditSuisse who would like to help. Payment for data…I leave to your expertise.
        4. How likely is a mobile app to be useful (I can probably code one to do what you’re describing, if I can get a copy of your DB setup to work from. I have the free time, and a friend has the developer’s kits. I could probably do it even if I have to wait until I’m in country)?
        5. If it were feasible for me to develop a mobile app (shouldn’t be too hard), would you recommend iOS, Android, or Blackberry?
        I don’t know what’s commonly used there. Similarly, if I *could* get the phones donated (90% sure I can), which would be best?

        I dint want to tread on toes or cross any lines (ie, if some of this is stuff that should wait until I’m actually sworn in, let me know), but I would love to help. And if you’re down, I think some Skyping might be order, although it should probably wait until after the 4th. It’s a busy week here.

  3. July 4, 2011 at 09:25

    Glad to hear you’re on route this fall. Certainly shoot any questions my way if I can answer anything for you re: Burkina, Peace Corps, or anything else. And I’d love to learn how to make mobile apps if you have any reading material or other links you’d could pass my way.

    Regarding all of this mobile stuff, I’ve think I’ve come to realize that the important part is to figure out what kind of functionality we need. For example, do we want to:

    1) Collect simple data (payments, meeting dates):
    If all we’re after is to enter data (sans location) we could simply just have agents text in payments. (BorrowerID, Amount, Check No.) to a dedicated phone at HQ. That data could be entered into the database. Simple. Cheap. A somewhat more advanced version would be the Frontline SMS Forms feature I mentioned above (though we’d need java enabled phones).

    2) Access to the database (look up borrower info on the fly):
    If we want our agents/PCVs to be able to look up borrower information in the field then we’d need a smartphone app that either has a local copy of the db stored on the phone, or can access the db through the net.

    3) Be a front end to the google map:
    If this is all we want, then we could choose any smartphone with an internet browser and gps to act as a frontend to the google map. Potentially an app could be made to offer additional features.

    What do you think about these options? Of course in an ideal world, we could integrate all of it into one super app, but I sadly don’t have the chops. I’m personally leaning towards option one, but this is something I’m going to want to discuss with both agents and HQ as well.

    Airtel is the major carrier (and the one Peace Corps uses) but there’s also Telmob (the one FAIJ uses) and Telecel. They’re all GSM. If we did make an app, I think I’d argue going Android, though I’m quite the iPhone loyalist, it would probably be easier for us to make/distribute our own app and have increased hardware availability.

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