Posts Tagged ‘Projects


Project: Bringing Solar Lights to Burkina With Unite to Light

I’m excited to announce that I’m teaming up with Unite to Light, a non-profit aiming to establish markets for its low-cost reading light in the developing world. My goal will be to try to find NGOs, local associations, or even individuals here in Burkina Faso who are willing to be re-sellers of Unite to Light’s low-cost solar reading lamp.

Unite to Light’s president, Claude Dorais (pictured on the left), was kind enough to meet with me in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and equip me with some sample models to bring back to Burkina. The light itself is really neat, and was designed by UC Santa Barbara’s Institute for Energy Efficiency. It packs a 4-6 hour battery life after an 8 hour charge and it’s lightweight flexible neck comes in handy when hanging from a ceiling fan or attaching it to a bike, among other uses. It’s sturdy, and designed with intense equatorial UV rays in mind. The light should last years, and even be able to survive being left out in the rain, and runs off a replaceable rechargeable AA battery.

For those without electricity, the light would be a welcome arrival. Since Burkina lies not too far from the equator, the sun sets around 6:30pm year-round, which doesn’t offer much natural light after school hours or for stores that want to stay open into the evening.

Janet, another PCV here in Burkina did an informal survey and found that the families often went through 1-3 cheap batteries a week on their flashlights, thus resulting in a 4-6 months payback period if the pricing works out to my estimates. The dificult part will be convincing customers that it’s worth it to pay4-6 months of battery costs up front, as they’ll have free light for years thereafter.

Even though I have electricity, I’ve been using my light routinely during frequent power outages, late night reading where a huge fluorescent tube would be a bit overkill, lighting up my shower (which has a wall between it and the light fixture), nighttime bike riding, and even for lighting up the courtyard while filling up water one night.

I’ve been able to drum up quite a bit of interest here out east, though haven’t yet convinced anyone to buy a shipment of 120 lights to resell. Thankfully a few other PCVs have taken interest in the project and I hope one of us will be able to find willing partners. There will likely be a few difficulties with customs and duties, but I’m determined to bring these incredibly useful lights to Burkina.


Burkina Bike Tour

Biking is big here for PCVs here in Burkina. Our Trek bikes are our constant companions, and one just has to look for the required helmet to identify whether another foreigner is a PCV (we’re the only ones wearing them). I’d be lost without my bike as I use it for every trip outside my house – to the office, market, etc. My site is pretty spread out, so walking isn’t really an option. I even bring it with me when I travel and cram it under or on top of whatever mode of transportation I happen to be taking.

For one week in September however, I’ll be using it as my sole mode of transportation, as I’ll be participating in the final week of the 2nd Edition of Le Tour de Burkina! I’ll be biking from Fada N’gourma in the east to Ouagadougou (through an indirect southern route) and staying with other PCVs along the way.

The Route (click to enlarge, image credit: Rob Hartwig)

As you can see on the route map, the tour itself will be starting all the way in the southwestern corner of the country two weeks before getting to me out east. Most riders are just doing a few days worth, but a dedicated group is planning on doing the whole thing (sadly my vacation plans prevent me from doing the rest). The tour will traverse approximately 1,740 kilometers (that’s the distance from New York to Orlando) and pass by 32 volunteer sites. We’re hoping each stop can also tie in community events/awareness campaigns as well as promoting Peace Corps in our 50th anniversary year. At the same time, we’ll be fundraising for our volunteer-run Gender and Development (GAD) Committee. GAD gives grants (up to $120) to PCVs who want to start their own projects that promote gender and equality. For example, some past projects have included:

  • Maternal and Child Health
  • Family Planning
  • Girls Camps
  • Marketing Techniques
  • Small Business Management

This year we’re aiming to top $6,000 in total donations. All 100% tax-deductible donations will be through the Peace Corps Country Fund and will go directly to funding volunteer projects. And in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, even a small donation can go a long way. As we get closer to the start of the tour I’ll  put up more information as to how you can help out.

The tour will end in Ouagadougou and coincide with a huge PCV-run fair and the swearing in of 50 new PCVs (who arrived in country a few weeks back). The fair will feature many of the people we work with, who will be selling their various products, giving trainings, and enjoying themselves. Floby, perhaps Burkina’s most famous musician, will be performing and even introducing a new song written just for Peace Corps.

So there you have it – Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary and 50 new volunteers, all in the 50thanniversary year of Burkina Faso’s independence - pretty amazing, huh?


Lessons on Accounting

Last Friday I gave an accounting training to a group of students who attend my borrower’s tailoring school. In fact, a lot of my work here centers on accounting. Many don’t do it at all, while most others only do a partial job. The most common technique seems to be keeping a receipt book and then totaling revenue at the end of each month, which is not enough.

The tough part is finding the right balance between having enough information and being overly complicated. My current preferred method is focusing less on the actual act of accounting and instead trying to be interactive and use a story or example to emphasize the need for accounting. For example;

Why do we do accounting?
It’s keeping score in business. It’s like playing a soccer game where there were many goals but never writing down which team scored them. How do we know who won at the end of the game?

What do we need to keep track of?
I asked the class for a list of all of the costs that go into making a custom shirt order. They answer with fabric, thread, buttons, etc. I then ask about their time. What if that custom order includes intricate embroidery? It will take more thread, but also a lot more time, which must be taken into account. Also, it’s rare for someone to remember to include their indirect costs of rent, utilities, or depreciation of assets (such as their sewing machines).

Check out a few photos from the training, and see what I have to do when we do accounting by hand rather than with Excel (that hand-drawn table is huge though, right?)


Zidisha: True P2P Microfinancing

There’s a new(ish) mircrofinance website out there these days, called Zidisha. It’s similar to Kiva, but a key difference is that Zidisha is the first to have no intermediaries between borrowers and lenders. This way, the borrowers receives the funds directly and does not deal with a local MFI (microfinance institution). By doing this, Zidisha has gotten rid of the overhead associated with MFIs (loan officers, buildings, etc) and can offer low interest rates. Typical rates are about 8% compared to the global average of 35%.

For lenders, the idea isn’t really to make money (though you certainly can), but instead to have a philanthropic bent to simply make capital available to motivated borrowers, and then be paid back. Borrowers propose interest rates and lenders can choose agree to the same rate or propose a different rate (even 0%), though there is a service charge of 5% and one-time sign-up fee for borrowers. Zidisha is quick to point out that it won’t be like US banks during the housing bubble who simply originated loan after loan to shaky borrowers, as the fees are:

…used to cover operating expenses only… This is deducted from borrower repayments, rather than from loan disbursements. Linking fee income to repayments means that Zidisha’s financial interest is in facilitating the financing of quality loans to small business entrepreneurs who are capable of repayment, not in maximizing lending volume at the expense of quality.

Just last week Zidisha has added their first borrower in Burkina Faso, a man starting up a restaurant near the entrance to the waterfalls I visited in the south-west a few months back. My good friend James, another PCV, is working closely with him and is actually acting as a guarantor in this situation because it is the first loan in-country.

I encourage you to take a look at the site, sign up, and make a loan. Even a small loan can go a long way here, and the current repayment rate is 100%. Plus, if you loan to the Burkinabé borrower I mentioned, there’s an incredibly capable PCV working alongside him. I just signed up myself and made a small loan at a 3% interest rate (he’s currently 70% funded for his $1,128 loan –July 21st update: the loan is now 100% funded). For more information, check out the Zidisha FAQ.


Google Mapping Burkina Faso

While cooped up inside over the weekend due to rain (with low temps in the 70′s!) I decided to play around some more with maps on Google Fusion Tables. The image above is a screenshot from the results of my work – a fully interactive google map of Burkina Faso departments (analogous to US counties). Darker colors represent a higher population and it’s quite evident that the Kadiogo department (containing the capital of Ouagadougou smack dab in the middle of the country) is the most populated. WordPress isn’t yet set up to allow me to embed the map here on the site (Fusion Tables is a bit too new apparently), however, I’ve made the raw data available to the public where you can click around on the map to your heart’s content and/or make your own mashup. You can create views to look at the data by province or region as well (just aggregate on either field), or just check out my separate provincial or regional boundaries/populations data tables.

Rather than inserting simple points like on my borrower map, this time I was able to map areas. I found GPS boundaries for Burkina Faso’s 13 regions and 351 departments here, and for it’s 45 provinces through some more searching here. Google Fusion Tables accepts .kml files*and I was able to easily add the data online. Then I made the data more useful by including other metadata about each department/province/region and stripping out extraneous points. Now, for example, you can click on a a department and see it’s associated, province, provincial capital, region, and regional capital. The trickiest part was using Wikipedia’s list/maps of Burkina Faso departments to be able to give a names to all 351 (Wikipedia only had 301). Also, .csv files don’t like french accents, so there was some cleanup there as well. I eventually tracked down some available Burkina Faso population data from a 2006 census report as well as the official breakdown of departments.

You could stop there, but I found the slick FusionTablesLayer Builder tool to be able to modify the look of the map (size, color, etc) and also be able to add a drop down or search box to allow users to filter results for when I put the map on the web.

While researching all of this, I found a few other tools that I plan on using in the future, such as this example on an on-map legend. Also, I found that it’s easy to add charts to the info windows by using this chart tool to modify and create chart URLs. Simply make a  new column in your data and put in the custom URL for each record. I also stumbled across Google Refine, which will greatly cut down the time needed to play around with messy data (like the Wikipedia list of departments). Check out some demo videos here. The smart grouping tool (where the program will automatically make groups of like names, such as “FBF” and “Friends of Burkina Faso”) alone would have saved me weeks of man hours at my last job.

Miraculously, my internet connection was sufficient to watch a few Google presentations from Google I/O 2011. I don’t know much programming, but these videos have inspired me to learn some JavaScript so I can work with the MapsFusion Tables, and Charts APIs in the future.

So, what will I do with all of this you ask? This exercise was a sort of proof of concept, and I think I’ve shown that these tools make it very easy to create interactive maps and charts all dynamically based off a fusion table, all with very little or no coding. Plus, since I’ve made the data public, I hope others will use my maps to map other things in Burkina Faso. For my organization, I plan to make an internal dashboard webpage where all of this data will be geared towards borrower activity. For example, we could view trouble areas for repayment rates, dynamic graphs of historical payments, and other summary statistics.

As an aside, the past few days of work also made me realize how great my job is. I had the time to explore and learn these tools without feeling time pressure, and have the leeway to create/research new features as I see fit. Thanks for the opportunity, Peace Corps.

Plan on using this data? I’d love to hear from you about your implementation.


*If you have a .kmz file, extract the .kml file from the .kmz file by changing .kmz extension to .zip and then extract.


Pitching Headquarters

Data and Follow-up - Automating and Simplifying Follow-up

This past Wednesday I traveled to Ouaga to formally present my database and map projects to the FAIJ Director-General and other department heads in hopes to scale both projects nationally. I’m happy to report that the presentation was a resounding success and I was asked to help get the systems live within the month. We plan on putting the map up on the website (though it will be password protected).

The theme of the presentation was to increase the efficiency of our field agents, opportunities with increased data availability, and the preservation of institutional memory. I stressed that our general follow-up process will remain the same, and though it may seem like a large change to switch over our data to a new system, the database would merely be a more streamlined and flexible version of what we already had. I then demonstrated all of the new features and solicited the group for additional functionality ideas and implementation details.

The keys going forward will be implementation, data management, and version control as we attempt to find the best way to timely record updates from the field with sporadic internet connections. I’ll be working a lot on new integrating the current database and working with the Follow-up and IT departments so that they can manage the system on their own. In addition, my direct colleague and I will likely be traveling quite a bit as we help the other regions with some hands on practice with the system.

One of the best results of the presentation came from the ability to have some good discussions both in and out of the office with FAIJ Director-General Parfait Désiré Ouédraogo. We discussed our development philosophies, the origins of FAIJ (which started as his doctoral thesis), and his incredible personal background as a chess champion, pianist, and linguist (I know of at least French, English, Mooré, Latin, Greek, and his current study of Hebrew). I accompanied him to the US Embassy’s Independence Day event where he was kind enough to tell both my Peace Corps supervisor and Ambassador Dougherty about his happiness with my work. The Ambassador was even kind enough to mention this to me himself as we were leaving the event.


Project: Putting Clients on the Map with GPS and Google

click to enlarge (data for illustrative purposes only)

Electronic maps, wide availability of GPS devices, cellular data speed increases, and the increased accessibility of data in the past few years has allowed for an uncanny ability to accurately map our world. In fact, some are calling it a geospatial revolution, as mapping has been used for more and more aspects of life – everything from staying safe of the way home from the bar to tracking international NGO locations, for example.

My interest in maps  started with my desire to be able to find all of the 44 nearby borrowers. Even if I had met a borrower at his/her place of business, it can be difficult to re-find locations. Street names don’t exist here and a lot of the buildings look alike. But then, I realized the map could have many more uses. There are plenty of names and faces to keep track of, and I also need to know loan details. Plus, the plan is to have ~26 PCVs working with FAIJ in 12 regions over the next six years. Wouldn’t it be nice for them to walk in on day one with a tool to instantly pull up borrower locations, information, and photos so they can hit the ground running? And FAIJ could use it for a variety of planning and tracking uses as well.

So I embarked off to the internet, and was inspired by some wonderful stuff already out there, such as the Disaster Preparedness Capacity Map by Development Seed, crisis mapping by Ushahidi, and the new Stats of the Union iPad app. Sadly, I don’t have the computer science chops needed to make something quite as pretty as those examples, but I did discover two non-technical tools out there; GeoCommons and Google Fusion Tables*. While GeoCommons has the ability to make nicer looking maps, I ended up choosing to use Fusion Tables for its ability to customize the info window (the bubble that pops up when you click on an individual marker) and the ability to keep the data private. GeoCommons allows everyone to see your data – normally fine – but not good if you have confidential loan information.

Visiting everyone took some time, but what I have now is each borrower’s exact location placed on the map, along with a handy info window that contains the borrower’s name, photo, contact information, plus a whole lot of other meta-data about the borrower’s specific business and loan details. Like my database project, I’ve started with just my region, and hope to take the map nationally with all 1,300+ FAIJ borrowers, starting in the locations where other PCVs are also working with the program. FAIJ already has most of the information, we just need to standardize the data formatting and add GPS coordinates/photos for each borrower to be up and running.

Besides being just a nice way to view the database, the map will help our ability to follow-up with borrowers. Automatic changes in icon colors will remind us that it has been too long since the our last meeting with a specific borrower, for example. Employee turnover will no longer mean a loss in institutional memory. Trainings/meetings can be better coordinated. Borrowers and lending agents can help create a network where borrowers can contact borrowers from other regions for business needs and/or opportunities; such as a mango producer in the southwest shipping his product to a grocery store in the capital.

So how did I do it? With one click I exported the database as a CSV file and uploaded it to Fusion, where played around with a few viewing options, and voila, I had a custom Google map. The secret sauce is that Fusion can read location data by taking my GPS coordinates and automatically placing them on a map (without coordinates you could label cities/provinces or in the developed world with a simple street address). I could have stopped there, but because of the lack of internet speed/availability, I linked the Google map to Google Earth via a KML link for offline viewing. The hardest part for me was to learn enough HTML to make a somewhat nice looking info window, but that’s only something that has to be done once, and only difficult because I hadn’t seen HTML since high school.

Most importantly, using the product is easy to use and not difficult to update. Sure, there are a few steps, but my even my colleagues who are somewhat inexperienced with computers can easily use the map, and have even learned to add new information to it. I have seen the future, and it is location-based.

7/12/11 update: GeoCommons now allows for private data


*If you’re interested in a further breakdown of Google Fusion Tables and GeoCommons, check out this post for some comparative analysis that I agree with after trying out both products.


Project: Burkina Business Manual

One of the most challenging aspects of my job is to work with borrowers who operate in many different industries. Some of the business basics I go over with borrowers apply to anyone in any industry, but to truly be able to help I need to better understand the economics of each industry. For example, where does the raw material come from for welders? What are the informal markets like for selling pigs/chickens and how does that compare to the more formal cattle/sheep/goat/donkey markets? Do producers enjoy regional advantages that would allow exportation to other markets? Can borrowers use their capital to exploit seasonality?

To help answer these and other questions, I’ve decided to create a resource called the Burkina Business Manual that will attempt to summarize the economic drivers of each specific industry in which my borrowers operate. The plan is to interview borrowers in each segment over the course of the next few months to get a good grasp on the true details of their businesses. After I get a few industries written, I will collaborate with other Peace Corps volunteers and also hope to solicit anyone else to add or point me to any pre-existing materials that may be out there. The use of on the ground information regarding day-to-day costs, markets, and external forces will be a great resource for PCVs and any other development professionals working with small businesses in the region.

See below for a preliminary industry list I culled from my local borrowers, which I expect will grow as more people become involved in the project:

I plan on posting versions of each section on the site and would be happy to open up the reports for public additions. If you are knowledgeable about any field specifically and/or how that might relate to West Africa, please do not hesitate to contact me. This project will likely be ongoing throughout my service, but I plan to have a preliminary version ready this coming November.


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):


Project: Mango Jam

The only good thing about hot season in Burkina is that it’s also mango season. The so called ‘king of fruits’ is sold at practically every stand in town, and makes the burden of living in 115 degree heat a little more manageable. It’s a slightly messy affair, but once I learned how to properly prepare them I’ve been eating at least one per day. Mango season, which starts in early April, will generally run through August, so I still have plenty of time to enjoy my new obsession. But after August how will I cope with a sudden loss of my favorite fruit?

Mango jam, that’s how. Jam is surprisingly easy to make, and just has two ingredients: mangos and sugar. Plus, if you can round up some glass jars you can store the jam for six months to a year. It’s so easy to make in fact, that making my own jam will be something that I continue back in the US. Sadly there aren’t many options here for experimenting with flavor combinations, but in the US it’s a breeze to make a custom jam with whatever fruits suit your fancy; mango/raspberry/strawberry combination anyone?

My only real option for experimentation is with a few mildly different types of mangos. For example, my new favorite, the reddish/yellow mangos, are much sweeter than the typical yellow mango. They are almost like a cross between pineapples and mangos, with the part closest to the skin similar in color and texture to a pineapple. By adding the less ripe green mango, I can also experiment with the thickening the jam.

The finished product is surprisingly versatile. Lately, I’ve enjoyed:

  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
  • Fruit yogurt
  • Bread with butter and jam
  • Gateau, or local pastries, with jam

Ok, so I’ve convinced you that making jam is a fun thing to do, and tasty. But in the context of Burkina, it’s a great product to introduce into the community to sell. In many parts of the country, mangos are so abundant that they only cost about $0.10 (50 CFA) each, and can be essentially free if you happen to have a few trees on your property. And since commercial jam is normally sold for around $1.55 to $2.67 (700-1200 CFA), and you only need two mangos for each jar, the profit margins for locally made jam can be absurdly high.

Our test jar, which can be sold for around 500-600 CFA only cost 300 CFA to produce (100 CFA for two mangos and 200 CFA of sugar). Though if you plan on making in large quantities you’ll have to find a supply of glass jars. The head of the local woman’s association here thinks that she’ll be able to get some for free, while having to pay 25-50 CFA for others. Startup costs are low, and most people already have all of the necessary equipment. It’s also a good gateway to teaching general business, accounting, and computer skills once the business matures.

Ingredients: Mangos, sugar


  1. Finely dice mangos.
  2. Measure out sugar. 2 parts mango to 1 part sugar. Or 3:2 if you have a sweet tooth.
  3. Sauté mangos for 5 minutes on low to mid heat while stirring.
  4. Slowly add sugar for the following 10 minutes while stirring.
  5. Continue to stir and allow the jam to congeal for 20-30 additional minutes.
  6. Pour into a sterilized (just boil for 10 minutes) glass container with metal lid (also sterilized).
  7. If you plan to store the jam, put on the metal lid but do not tighten quite all of the way. Place the full jar of jam into boiling water (with water fully covering the jar). After about 10 minutes, the cap will depress, signaling that all of the air has been removed from the jar.


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The opinions on this blog are only those of the author, and and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.