Integrating MIS with Microfinance

Some of the challenges faced by Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) in India have revolved around the issues of a lack of trained labor for local level administration, resource mobilization and the cost of services. One way to tackle these problems is through the use of Management Information Systems (MIS) and this is being demonstrated by Equitas, an Indian MFI.

TC-I had previously featured an interview with the founder of Equitas and they were recently featured as a leader in implementing information systems in microfinance, by Greg Chen of CGAP. Some examples of technology being used by Equitas are,

E-Docs. Membership and loan applications are completed manually by branches but are couriered to a central processing center. The documents are then scanned and from there on out, remain paperless. Forms use a series of check boxes which can be read by scanners and coded automatically.  Remaining manual entries (e.g. names) are entered by a dedicated back office processing unit.

Real Time Meeting Monitoring. Within 15 minutes of the end of a group meeting, loan officers send a text message (SMS) by cell phone with three pieces of information: meeting attendance, loan collections, and when the meeting ended.  This information is picked up by Equitas’s system which then compares it with what is expected, and creates a branch-by-branch report.

Equitas also uses SMS to gather real time information on cash management and Optical Readers for back-office operations.  The Equitas model shows the need for MFIs to focus not just on innovation in the lending model, but also on driving efficiency through various stages of the loan process. MIS has played an important role in the growth of traditional financial institutions over the past few decades and there is no reason it should not do the same for MFIs.

The complete article by Greg Chen can be found here.

Sanitation innovator wins Stockholm Water Prize

Sulabh‘s founder, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, was recently named the 2009 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate.  Sulabh has been working for decades to address sanitation, health, and hygiene in India and other countries.  Through inventive toilet designs, new biogas technologies, and his struggle for human rights, especially for those of the “untouchable” caste, Dr Pathak is recognized worldwide as an innovator and social reformer. A Business Standard article explains further:

The social reformer, who triggered the revolution against ‘sanitation crisis’, has been the main force behind changing social attitudes towards traditional unsanitary latrine practices in slums, rural villages and dense urban districts, and developed cost-effective toilet systems that have improved daily life and health for millions of people.

Dr Pathak will receive the award in Stockholm during World Water Week in August.

[TC-I Call to Action]: Total Immersion Programme in Finance and Development Summer Internships

The Centre for Development Finance (CDF) announces some very exciting internship opportunities for this summer.  If you’re looking for something more long term, word has it that CDF will likely be releasing postings for BoP related full time positions in the coming weeks… check back for more information!

Total Immersion Programme in Finance and Development (TIP/FD) – Summer 2009

CDF invites internship applications for the Summer 2009 IFMR “Total Immersion Program in Finance and Development (TIP/FD).”

Description of the program follows and application requirements follow below and in this CDF TIP document, and to apply please use the following link.

The TIP F/D provides undergraduate and graduate students interested in microfinance, development finance, and economic development an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in working on issues relating to access to financial services for urban and rural poor in a developing country. Interns will participate in a structured, two-week course directed by leading researchers, IFMR Centre Research Associates, and practitioners from the Indian government, microfinance institutions (MFIs), and NGOs. The course will be followed by eight weeks of work on a CDF projects which will consist of either field-based research, policy/sector wide studies or data analysis.  Past interns have completed stand-alone projects or worked to initiate, implement, and scale-up existing projects or pilots at the Centre.

The list of summer internship projects can be found online here and in this CDF Project Descriptions document. Interns may also be placed on another of CDF’s ongoing projects.

Internships are unpaid, although CDF will assist with housing and food or provide a small stipend of up to Rs 10,000/month toward living expenses. All interns are encouraged to obtain funding to cover international travel and personal expenses during the internship period.

This year, the TIP/FD will take place between June 8 and August 14, 2009. Applications will be accepted until April 15, 2009, although we encourage interested applicants to apply as soon as possible to ensure the best matching of interests and skills.

Positions of Particular Interest to the TCI Readership: Continue reading

Ashoka Launches Collaborative Competition for Rural Innovation

TCI had earlier discussed open innovation as an emerging tool for social entrepreneurs. An excellent initiative in this field is Ashoka Changemakers, which provides an online space for social innovators to present ideas and collaborate with others on refining and implementing them.

Changemakers is building the world’s first global online “open source” community that competes to surface the best social solutions, and then collaborates to refine, enrich, and implement those solutions. Changemakers begins by providing an overarching intellectual framework for collaborative competitions that bring together individual social change initiatives into a more powerful whole.

To keep the framework dynamic, the online Changemakers’s community identifies and selects the best solutions and helps refine them.

A Changemakers collaborative competition consist of three parts – collecting ideas, reviewing them with the member community and finally selecting the most innovative solutions through voting. The goal is for the whole community to share its experience and expertise in bringing forward solutions on challenges ranging from Health Care to Sustainable Tourism.

In collaboration with the Gates Foundation, Changemakers recently launched a competition on Solutions for Rural Communities. The framework provided for this competition is,

Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people—the 1 billion who live on $1 a day or less—rely on agriculture to feed themselves and their families, yet many cannot grow enough to sell or even eat. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its partners are providing small farmers with tools and opportunities to boost their productivity, increase their incomes, and build better lives for themselves and their families.

Innovative solutions that span the entire agricultural value chain – from seeds to sales – are necessary to accomplish these goals. We encourage you to take part in Ashoka Changemaker’s “Cultivating Innovation: Solutions for Rural Communities” competition to help bring about innovative, creative solutions for small farmers in the developing world.

Entries are welcome up to May 13th and voting will begin on June 24th. If have an idea or know anyone working in rural development and agriculture, go to the site and make an entry. Also, read and comment on the current entries – there are already over 30 ideas presented there.

Another failed development policy in the works?

A few headlines regarding the World Bank recently caught my eye, mostly because they are not the usual development headlines I am used to reading.  In the Business Standard‘s “Migration to urban areas is good, says World Bank,” and domain-b.com‘s “India’s rural job schemes are barriers to development: World Bank news,” the focus is on a new World Bank report that encourages a population shift from villages to cities.  More than that, the World Development Report 2009: Reshaping Economic Geography says that current schemes to improve rural life are contrary to development, as pointed out by domain-b.com:

The central government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREGA) scheme and other poverty alleviation schemes act as policy barriers to economic development and perpetual alleviation of poverty, according to the World Bank.

In short, the report encourages the process of rural-urban migration.   This approach seems to be the  opposite of the upswing of efforts to address rural poverty and improve rural life so that the majority of India’s population has the same economic opportunity as in urban areas.  Instead of focus on rural schemes, the report advocates improving infrastructure in cities to boost economic activity.   Here is a quick look at the reasoning, as quoted by the Business Standard article:

“The world’s most geographically disadvantaged people know all too well that growth does not come to every place at once,” said Indermit S Gill, director of the World Development Report (WDR) and chief economist, Europe and Central Asia. “Markets favour some places over others. To fight this concentration is tantamount to fighting prosperity,” Gill added.

What does it mean for India when an international force such as the Bank supports a shift from rural to urban areas?  Will improving basic infrastructure in urban centers really address the pressure of large increases in city population?  While I’m not against migration as a whole, I remain skeptical about putting emphasis on encouraging rural to urban migration and discouraging rural schemes for poverty alleviation.  This debate also points back to an earlier post I wrote on urbanization.  Is this another development report gone bad?

mKrishi – More power at farmers’ hands

The Hindu reports about mKrishi (mobile Krishi) a mobile agro advisory system launched by Tata.  It can help farmers get personalized advise and updated information on their mobile phones about factors that may affect their crops such as weather.

Prima facie, this looks very similar to Nokia’s LifeTools that ThinkChange India reported a few days earlier.  However, there is one critical aspect in which mKrishi goes one step further. mKrishi mobile phones, that run on Tata Indicom’s network, are equipped with sensors that can read and send data about the current status of their crops.  This combined with an on-phone camera, should help agricultural experts provide specific advise experts understanding the on-field situation correctly.

According to K. Ananth Krishnan, vice-president and chief technology officer, TCS, personalised information and advice are given after farmers submit the soil nutrient and farming pattern data (The Hindu)

Further, it is also usable by illiterate farmers to make a query from a cell phone using voice-specific functions and get a response as an audio message.

This initiative has fetched TCS Wall Street Journal Global Innovation Technology Award for 2008. As I researched further to form my own opinion, I came across Ramesh Jain’s post on mKrishi.  He is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at University of Michgan, Ann Arbor and an entrepreneur.  I suppose his testimony should have better credibility than mine!

This project is truly revolutionary — it goes farther than most similar projects do.

Google India’s Tool for Community Messages and Public Information

Google India didn’t just settle with their Internet bus; Google India Labs has now released the Google Noticeboard.   Through a public digital noticeboard, the tool may just bring social interaction up to a whole other level:

Communities with access to shared computers can use the Noticeboard for exchanging messages related to community announcements, social interactions, local buying and selling, and information that is of wider interest to the community. The Noticeboard may also be used for the community to engage in a dialog with benefactors, public servants, and other service providers who are geographically distant.

As the website notes, literacy is not a pre-requiste for using the noticeboards, which makes the application more accessible.  Instead of writing in a message, community members simply hit record.  Will the voice message feature of the noticeboard add significant value?  In places where social capital is already very strong, does a community need a source to connect their messages and pass information?  It will be interesting to see what spins off from this and how different organizations, communities, movements, schools, or groups will use the tool.

D.light’s d.sirable business success

But what really has us excited is the excitement at the consumer level.  If you have a chance, visit D.light’s website to see hear some of the remarkable stories of their customers and how light has impacted their lives. And also take a look at the letter that D.light just received from a resident in Orissa living in D.light’s first 100% solar village. We’ve got thousands and thousands of villages to go, but a very exciting start.

From a Nextbillion.net article on this disruptive company aiming to provide solar energy to India’s rural poor. This article emphasizes what is one of the most important aspects of a successful business, partcularly startups, which is knowing your customer and focusing on developing your entire business model to what they need and want.

Kubera-Edelweiss Social Innovation Honours awards 3 Indian organizations

Anjali, Azad Foundation and Samata are the winners for their innovative and outstanding work for the Girl Child in the fields of Health, Employability and Education. Here are the descriptions of each social entrepreneurship organization:

Anjali: Focusing on mental health issues of mothers and daughters in Kolkata, Anjali has been awarded top honors in Health.

Azad Foundation: Located in Delhi, Azad nabbed the Employability category by training girls from the slums to become professional taxi drivers.

Samata: Finally, Samata provides an innovative education and research curriculum for tribal girls in Andhra Pradesh.

For more information on the Kubera-Edelweiss Social Innovation Honours, check out their website here.

Pizzas are good for these senior citizens

What do the words “new start-up”  and “garage” bring to your mind? The old stories about how all the tech companies started off to make today’s Silicon Valley? If that sounds a little too boring now, here is something as appetizing as a pizza. Started right here in India’s Silicon Valley by by Padma Srinivasan, 73 and Jayalakshmi Sreenivasan, 75 (as against in The Silicon Valley by a bunch of youngsters), Pizza Haven pumps in the revenues that it earns by catering to school kids and software companies (like HP, now that is some coincidence!) to running an old age home – Vishranti.

“Granny’s pizzas are a hit among the software professionals, not just because they are delicious, but also because they are sold for a cause,” said Padma.

The profit from pizzas and generous donations from some well-wishers have helped in completing the home for the eldely, named Vishranthi (Rest), in June 2008 (news from newkerala.com)

What is there to be learnt from this story? Of course, a for-profit model makes this home’s future secure. But there is a more important lesson. Sustaining a social initiative doesn’t always need a complex innovation! All it needs is for one to look around yourself and identify what they are looking for!

With the current model up and running, is the Vishranthi executive team looking for expansion? Absolutely!

“In Vishranthi, I am also planning to start an orphanage and vocational training centre for poor rural women. And again our pizzas will come in handy to finance all our projects.”

[TC-I Call to Action]: Schools for Entrepreneurs Grant Competition

Via NGO Post, a competition held by Teach A Man To Fish called Schools for Entrepreneurs aims “to find the best school-based income-generating initiatives in India, projects which are both educational and financially sustainable.”

From student-run cybercafés funding classroom improvements, to schoolyard chicken-runs laying aside profits to pay for books, the competition aims to encourage education initiatives to come up with ways to boost their financial resources at the same time as teaching practical and business skills to their students.

Winners will receive the funding and consultancy support needed to help turn their ideas into reality.

The deadline to apply is April 1, 2009.

NYT Profiles Ela Bhatt and SEWA

The New York Times carried a Saturday profile of Ela Bhatt and the remarkable organization she founded thirty-five years ago, SEWA. Here is an excerpt:

Mrs. Bhatt’s Gandhian approach is most evident in the way she lives. Her two-bedroom bungalow is small and spare. The one bit of whimsy is a white swing that hangs from the ceiling in the center of the living room. She uses her bed as a desk chair. Her grandson has painted a child’s pastoral mural on the bedroom wall. She is known for having no indulgences.

Read the entire story here. TC-I’s previous coverage of SEWA can be found here

Nokia poised to help farmers to expand its rural base

Nokia is about to launch a set of “Life Tools” to be embedded in its mobile phones in an effort to expand its base into rural India. These Life Tools cater to the needs of the rural community with information on three different sectors namely Agriculture, Education, Entertainment. On agriculture, the Life Tool is likely to offer updated information on weather and market prices for the farmers produce on the mobile phone in the farmers native language.

As the old proverb goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Nokia’s datasheet on Life Tools provides an easy-to-understand picture. Evidently, this tool is developed not just to penetrate into rural India, but rather to the “rural world”.

If my everyday observation is any testimony, Nokia seems to have a wide user base at the lower economic sections of India, and this tool can be an excellent vehicle for informational empowerment of the rural Indian community. However, given that the rural buy is likely not going to buy these phones off a Nokia Priority Showroom, how Nokia is going to market this tool so that the buyer buys a low cost Nokia phone for its Life Tools rather than its ruggedness, ease of use or longer life would be an interesting point to observe. This may also be the crucial factor that may determine the tool’s success.

Why you should CARE about microinsurance

We have written about microinsurance before, including SKS’s Vikram Akula’s decision to develop a product for his customers. Now, Bajaj-Allianz and CARE India will be developing a product of their own. In an interesting partnership between the charity and a commercial company, this venture will aim to help individuals substantially improve livelihoods through the safety net insurance can provide. On Allianz’s site there is a great interview with RN Mohanty, Chief Operating Officer, CARE India, speaking to this new partnership. Here is an excerpt:

The biggest challenge was definitely educating people that risk protection is an important part of their lives. We do this because we want to inculcate a culture of savings with the community, not just insuring for the time being. The general mindset in rural India is that unless you get something out of it immediately it is not worth investing. If you look at our client list, close to 90 percent are first-time insurers.

The rest of the interview can be read here.