“This is not a party, Vivian.” The CED Field Managers seem to be disappointed in my choice of words for what I call a ‘Mifos party’, which involves pulling my managers out of the field and commandeering the office clerks for a day of sorting data for entry into our Mifos database. “It’s a party”, I insist, and hand him a stack of 20 receipt books.
We have finished deployment of Mifos as our management information system for microfinance operations. The deployment was challenging. In addition to the data entry parties, we were adapting our operational processes to Mifos’ current capabilities while feverishly incorporating other factors like the Agriculture program and overall Nuru Kenya accounting. It’s like trying to build a house during an earthquake. But this is a huge step in the development of the CED program. I know data collection and management may seem like common sense, but in our low-resource rural environment where most of our staff don’t have access to electricity much less computers, it seems like a lot of work for a vague concept. Last week we discussed the importance of MIS with the CED Field Officers.
Picture one farmer. Think about every piece of information you could possibly find out about him or her that tells you something about her economic status. I asked the Field Officers this and in under a minute, they had a page-long list: number of children, spouse(s), size of farm, type of crop, yield, farm income, other income, current debts, food & living expenses, other costs like education and health. How about the information needed to uniquely identify that one farmer out of 1,400 others? Many people in our communities have the same traditional Kurian names, do not know their date of birth, and/or do not have a government-issued ID, so you also need to know Nuru ID, group and field officer, village, and names of relatives. Finally, think of just one intervention we do – small business loans. What is the loan size, the amount of each payment installment, the date of payment, interest, and current balance for every loan that farmer takes?
Imagine all those pieces of information scattered in journals of written transactions, receipt books, and on handwritten slips of paper over the course of a year or two. Multiply that amount of paper by 1,400 farmers and think about it growing as we scale to 5,000 farmers. Now imagine you need to find one piece of information from 8 months ago… at this point I stop the exercise because the field officers are laughing. We get it. A lot of information.
…and turning it into something useful
But the potential of our information systems is not just in organizing and finding that data. The power lies in what the information tells us about what we’re trying to do.
Picture one farmer. The farmer lives in extreme poverty and the goal is to change that. Think about what you might want to know about him or her in order to know what her needs are, how to best address those needs, and how to know if your efforts are making a difference. Those thousands of pieces of information together start to answer the bigger questions of CED: How did access to financial resources like savings, loans and training change a farmer’s income, behavior, and quality of life? What happens if we increase loan size, change the rules for loan qualification, or increase the quality or frequency of training? How does what we do affect the level of poverty in Kuria West? Now the Field Officers are thoughtfully quiet. Setting up Mifos is only the start.
Most glowing articles about the success of microfinance focus on the entrepreneur, which is fair enough. But it’s also important to credit the back story – the work that goes into the systems that let us distill proof of impact from the ground-level relationships built by field staff. A huge thank you for the crucial base work done by our previous program manager Aerie Changala, configuration and customization by Mashariki Solutions, continuous support from Ed Cable and the rest of the Mifos team, and all the groundwork by Nuru’s office clerks, Agriculture and CED teams.