The Silver Lining in the Fight against Poverty

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November 17, 2010

Matt Duncan is the Director of Market Development, Technology for Microfinance Initiative for Grameen Foundation’s Technology Center based in Seattle, Washington. He has been collaborating with Microsoft Community Affairs to plan the Microfinance Leadership Summit in India, where microfinance institutes will learn about cloud solutions and other technology tools that will help them serve more people in poverty.

 

Grameen Koota borrowers gather to repay their loans at a Kendra (Center) Meeting in Karnataka State

 

It was that awkward shuffle. I was standing in the aisle as our flight was loading. Despite repeated requests at the check-in desk, my wife and I did not get seats together, so I was faced with attempting to convince a fellow passenger to trade seats with me. I was optimistic as I had a highly-sought after aisle location to offer.

Attempt #1: failure. I could not overcome the language barrier between a shy Vietnamese woman and myself. Attempt #2: Again, a failure. I approached the woman who had the seat assignment next to me. I offered the comfort of an aisle seat near the front but no deal. I was left with one final option: shuffling around all four seats in our row without displacing the first woman who had refused to move. My last hope strolled onto the jet, and I worked my best pitch. Just as they announced the closing of the cabin door, I got a gentleman on his way home to Bangalore, India to switch seats with me. An exhausting way to embark on the first of two nine-hour legs to New Delhi.

Vikrum, the kind gentleman who had switched his seat, and I struck up a conversation across the aisle. He asked the obligatory question, “What do you do?” – a simple question that often gives me pause. My job is not easily explained in a simple sentence, at least for me. I respond, “I am solving world poverty.” He paused and replied, “Now that’s a grand goal. I work for a software company.”

We soon discovered that our careers were more aligned than we might have expected. Vikrum works in Marketing and Sales for Microsoft Azure, the software company’s cloud computing platform. An ironic synergy considering that I was headed to New Delhi for the Microfinance Leadership Summit, an event my organization – the Grameen Foundation – planned in partnership with Microsoft and Access Development Services, a local microfinance association. The Summit will help microfinance institutes (MFIs) understand how cloud computing and other technologies can help them accelerate growth and increase transparency. A serendipitous seat change indeed... We exchanged business cards and sat back as the plane took off.

Four hours into the flight, Vikrum invited me to join him to stretch our legs. Huddled in the corner of the plane, we discussed the tremendous upswing in the adoption of cloud computing. With more than 13 data centers worldwide, Microsoft is seeing businesses shifting to cloud computing on the basis of cost savings and convenience, among other reasons. Vikrum’s recent travel history serves a good indicator of the rising demand for this emerging computing approach. 

Vikrum asked why we are holding the Summit in India, and I explained that the Grameen Foundation has spent more than a decade solidifying and accelerating microfinance in India. Providing loans to poor women has proven time and again to empower women to uplift themselves and their families to a better future. Yet less than 15% of the world’s poor have used microfinance due to inability to scale. Grameen Foundation understands that technology is key to unlocking the scale needed, a belief we share with Microsoft. (And also the very reason I’m on the plane having this chance meeting with Vikrum).

 

Grameen Koota client selling goods from her store, funded by micro-loans from Grameen Koota

 

Technology is a hurdle for microfinance institutes. They attempt to develop their own custom solutions or indebt themselves by indulging in over-engineered banking platforms. There are too many failures, too many resources spent, and too much time wasted. I tell Vikrum that the market needs more cost-effective approaches that meet the needs of emerging NGOs and scale up to support those organizations serving millions of clients.

“Why not serve up technology in the cloud?” he asks. In fact, we are.

Grameen Foundation’s Technology Center has been working on IT solutions to help MFIs, including the Mifos Cloud solution now available in India. In addition, we have been working with Microsoft to ensure MFIs can access donated or low-cost resources that the company makes available to NGOs, and holding events like the Microfinance Leadership Summit to make sure they have the know-how and support to strategically adopt technology. Mifos Cloud is a hosted management information service delivered for a subscription fee from the Grameen Foundation. It increases operational efficiency for MFIs while providing more transparent financial and social performance reporting. The Summit will also highlight Windows Live and Office Web Apps cloud computing applications. For many of the MFIs that will attend, access to these online tools will help them avoid costly IT infrastructure investments and focus on what matters most – bringing microfinance to more of the poor and the poorest.

Cloud computing means less upfront, capital expense and reduced IT overhead. It removes the burden from the MFI to manage the servers and systems themselves, allowing them to focus on mission instead. As an operating cost, MFIs can more appropriately budget a cloud-based technology investment as a percentage of ongoing operations. According to Vikrum, this is also the premier selling point for the commercial sector to shift to cloud computing!

Along with diminished costs comes the ability to add value as each institution scales. Innovation is created once, then shared by many. Cloud-based access provides transparency across an organization and with outside stakeholders. This provides insight not only into operation and financial data, but also social measurement. It is hoped that this clarity will unlock the ideal sources of capital to fuel MFIs to continue their valuable work in serving the poor.

We both agreed, 10,000 feet high, that cloud solutions hold a silver lining in the fight against poverty. I invited him to become involved with our community and join us in helping to bring microfinance to more of the poor in India. Our spontaneous collaboration reinvigorates me for our event with Microsoft, and makes all the seat changing antics at the start of a long flight well worth the effort.

Comments

So interesting. More than fifteen years ago, working for a very large entity, I tried to modernize a critical part of the business with a new computerized information system not then available for their use.

While I convinced the financial and information offices to go ahead with the project, I was told that there was only ONE specific mainframe computer available to me. This turned out to mean there was only ONE software system, available for purchase, that could run on that machine. Neither the machine or the software was bad, just rather a case of overkill.

I ended up with a powerful and complicated information platform and system than needed for our relatively small, yet important project.

I had to rely on the software company and a nearly completely disinterested computer center for our computing power.

When I realized the project never would move forward, I started looking outside the company to find a place that would take our software, mount it and our data,on their computers, in the way it would run properly and allow my office to finally input all our data, organize it and make it easily available to users.

Unfortunately, trying to do this, at that time, reached insurmountable walls of bureaucracy and finally failure. If only there had been cloud computing, as we now call it, available, known and accepted, I am positive the project would have succeeded.

Instead, not only the project failed, but my part of the organization failed, and there was an unknown amount of loss to the organization. For the latter, it would be a case of what you do not know is missing will hurt you the most. And it did.

The realization by Micro Financing Organizations that they have to provide their clients with simple information systems that work for them, is going to go a long way towards success. Call it “cloud computing,” or whatever, the technology seems to be working.

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