Organization that sent the volunteer: Grameen Foundation
I've always been impressed with the work of the Grameen Foundation. I've followed the history of the Foundation through Muhammad Yunus' early development work in Bangladesh. Several years ago, I registered as a volunteer through the Bankers Without Borders website. But, it wasn't until recently that a development opportunity presented itself in the Philippines. And despite a global pandemic, delivery of this project was not hampered by the vagaries of a health crisis.
Our team’s project was to create a better system for the Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to collect agricultural data from coconut farmers in the field. The impact of this project would be enormous, as approximately 24 million people work in coconut farming in the Philippines.
While the Grameen Foundation generally meets in country and in person for many of its projects, the COVID-19 pandemic forced this project to be delivered remotely. Our team would meet via Zoom on a semi-regular basis to discuss how to proceed forward. Ultimately, the remote project delivery model empowered the team to optimize delivery in a more efficient way.
US remote volunteer, Azam Husain and his son, meet with the technical team of DTI-BSMED to discuss the Client Profile and Monitoring System
With the unique nature of remote delivery, this project also acted as a teachable moment for my son, Gil Rezin. Gil has always been acutely interested in how the benefits of technology can be applied more equitably across disenfranchised populations. As such, Gil participated as a volunteer and shared in many of the technical delivery responsibilities.
The first few meetings were about understanding DTI’s current system, uncovering the operational enhancements, and triaging the near term challenges. After several discovery calls over Zoom, a narrative was emerging. In summary, DTI wanted a more streamlined tool to get data from farmers in the field to their offices in Manila. Their current system, known as the Client Profile and Monitoring System (CPMS), consisted of Business Counselors interviewing farmers in the field and manually collecting the data on a printed form. The data would then be entered into a computer as part of a data entry process at one of 1,163 Negosyo Centers. The data would then be emailed up through one of the 86 provincial and 16 regional offices, and the Bureau of Small and Medium Enterprise Development (BSMED), each of which would consolidate the data from the lower offices.
The primary challenge with this system was its complexity; the consolidation process had too many moving parts, with several people and processes involved. This resulted in not only a large amount of time being expensed for data to reach the national office, but a greater chance for errors to occur. For instance, when transferring the data from paper to computer, the data was being entered twice, once in the field and again on the computer. This process takes time and can create errors. If data entry from a single paper form takes 15 minutes, filling in 10,000 farmer records would take 2,500 hours or approximately 62.5 weeks given a 40-hour workweek. Similar issues happen when transferring data between the lower and higher-level offices, as manually moving data from one location to another takes time and creates potential errors. To address these challenges, our team recommended the use of a smartphone app to collect agricultural information at the source without requiring the data to be entered on paper and on computer.
To better envision how a new system would work, we proposed to the DTI team the development of a re-imagined CPMS solution delivered as a proof of concept. We would use the proof of concept to articulate how each of the key operational challenges can be addressed in a mobile first solution.
Gil was the primary developer for the proof of concept. We leveraged a mobile platform called CommCare by Dimagi, an app creation service primarily used in developing economies. Using DTI’s existing manual field-based form for collecting data, we began recreating the form in a digital way that would work within a mobile form factor. We created a search function when entering parts of the location data to help speed up data collection. We also created new system capabilities that automatically filled in key parts of the user form. These small improvements not only enhance the user experience but also save valuable time, allowing DTI to get their data even faster.
Our research showed that under the existing system, the time it takes from data collection to data evaluation is approximately one month. Under our reimagined mobile system, that same process could be reduced to under one day. Our recommendations to DTI in the short term was to run a real-world trial of the reimagined CPMS system focusing on the farmers, towards substantial enhancement to the CPMS.
Our project with the Grameen Foundation was incredibly rewarding. It is rare to be involved in an effort that is truly transformative for an evolving economy. Yet, the seeds of our labor will have implications for many years. We feel lucky to have played a small role in this larger production. Moreover, I feel privileged to have been given this opportunity to share this experience with my son. Our passion and vision for applying technology in novel ways led to this creative solution; and this solution will have tremendous impact on the ability to better serve farmer constituents. While we may not have been able to travel to the Philippines to see our team’s project take shape, I can only hope the contributions of our team will help the millions of coconut farmers today and into the future.