Friday, July 29, 2011

Bridging the gap: mobile technology at Juhudi Kilimo

This post was originally published on the Acumen Fund Blog by Rachel Brooks, Marketing and Communications Director at Juhudi Kilimo.

One of our greatest challenges at Juhudi Kilimo is sheer distance. Our field offices serve wide regions. Instead of requiring each client to come to us, our loan officers travel for hours a day to reach clients at their group meetings and farms. Loan officers generally wear through a pair of shoes every two to three months going by matatu (bus) to boda boda (motorbike) and then by foot down a dirt road to make their way to clients in very rural areas. Juhudi loan group Treasurers likewise make a long monthly trek into town to deposit their group’s repayments and miss hours of time better spent on their businesses.

Despite these challenges, we’ve been lucky to attract extraordinary talent from around the world to come to Kenya and help us improve the delivery of financial services to our customers. Two of the projects we’re currently working on are innovative mobile solutions that are helping us overcome the challenges of distance in the areas where we work.

Simple MFI

Most microfinance loan officers maintain everything on paper, with a handwritten ledger. When it’s time to attend a meeting, the officer will go through the financial records of up to 30 clients to sum up their savings and calculate loan payments. Officers end up doing all of this paperwork by hand, even though the head office often has all of this information in a database. A typical loan officer attends 40 or more group meetings a month so this work really adds up.

Microfinance Loan Officer Nathan Ng’etich and Regional Manager Fred Koskei show a client (center) her “digital passbook” via SimpleMFI on the IDEOS phone alongside her paper Juhudi passbook in Litein in Western Kenya.

Kevin Gibbs, a developer on sabbatical from Google who has spent the last few months volunteering at Juhudi, observed these processes after spending time in our field offices and created Simple MFI. This open source Android application holds all of the client information that a loan officer needs. Each day, it synchronizes automatically over the Internet with the database. It runs on any Android phone, but has been particularly designed to run well on a sub-$100 IDEOS phone. To save costs, the app can work completely offline, running off a database on the phone’s local storage, so that no connectivity is needed to look up a client’s balance or a group’s repayment schedule. Ultimately, this will make it possible for a loan officer to no longer need to record anything on paper. The long-term goal is to make a loan officer’s job easier so they can focus on what really matters: working with clients.


Juhudi Kilimo is also beginning to offer mobile payments using Safaricom’s M-PESA platform. M-PESA is the most widely used and accessible payment platform in Kenya, with over 14 million users, and 28,000 agent locations across Kenya. This makes it larger than all the commercial banks and money transfer agents combined.

Thanks to Acumen Fund’s ongoing relationship with McKinsey & Company, Ghalib Hafiz has joined Juhudi as a volunteer after working with McKinsey to help us make some critical improvements to our operations in the coming months, including mobile payments. M-PESA will have a tremendous direct impact, reducing transportation costs and making payments truly convenient. Currently, clients must use Juhudi’s established banking channels in a major town. This often requires that the treasurer travel between two and four hours to make the group’s payments. For many of Juhudi’s clients, the savings in transportation costs alone will offset M-PESA’s small fees. Juhudi has also integrated with Safaricom’s database so that any payments made through M-PESA feed directly and seemlessly into Juhudi’s systems—and then to our loan officers via Simple MFI.