How BOMA Is Using Technology to Reach the Extreme Poor

20 October 2016

“Now I can send all the data in a second!”

Roba Ganya Wosera snapped his fingers and flashed a brilliant smile. Sitting in the shade of a small hut in the remote village of Maikona, 80 kilometers from the nearest settled town, Roba was tapping away on his tablet and explaining how digital data collection has made his work as a full-time mentor for the BOMA Project a lot more efficient.

Roba Wosera in Maikona. Photo by Upoma Husain / The BOMA Project

BOMA implements a poverty-graduation program for ultra-poor women in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands of northern Kenya, a region that represents one of the “last miles” of global extreme poverty and economic isolation. With its sparse population, rugged terrain and limited infrastructure, it’s a tough place to deliver an effective program.

“We used to carry a lot of heavy paper around to collect data, and we’d wait weeks to find someone to take the data to the field office,” Roba says. But with the help of wireless technology, Roba can now upload the data from the field in real-time.

BOMA started its Rural Entrepreneur Access Project (REAP) in 2009 as a microenterprise program with 40 small businesses in the village of Korr. In 2013, REAP was adapted as a two-year, gender-focused poverty graduation program that focuses on the ability of individual women to graduate out of extreme poverty, according to clearly defined criteria. The two-year, income-led approach gives a cash grant to groups of three women to launch a business. By employing full-time local mentors, like Roba, BOMA trains its participants in financial literacy and life skills, such as human rights and family planning, while also providing sustained mentoring, the facilitation of savings groups, and improved access to markets and financial services. To date, BOMA has reached and lifted 11,502 women and 57,510 children out of extreme poverty through the establishment of 3,658 businesses and 673 savings groups in a region that has one of the highest poverty rates in the world.

With a country office in Nanyuki and a regional office in Marsabit, about 200 and 600 kilometers north of Nairobi, the two counties in which BOMA operates cover an area equivalent to the size of Ireland. Mentors are required to visit their assigned businesses and savings groups at least once a month to provide training and gather performance data, but the size of the region made it difficult for field officers to monitor these visits. Meanwhile, performance data, gathered on paper surveys, would reach the field office late—or not at all. When the papers did arrive, the data had to be manually entered into spreadsheets. By the time data entry and analysis were complete, critical time would have passed; it would be too late to provide meaningful feedback to women who were struggling.

In 2013, BOMA started moving to a digital data collection system. Mentors now use tablets and a mobile data collection tool called TaroWorks to gather performance data and upload it immediately to BOMA’s customized, cloud-based Salesforce data management platform. In places where a mobile network is not available, TaroWorks allows users to save data offline and send them at a later time. Meanwhile, field officers, monitoring and evaluation staff and BOMA management can now access data in real-time through customized dashboards and reports in Salesforce. Mobile data collection is also used for collecting the extensive baseline and endline Standard of Living Index survey data that BOMA uses to evaluate how participant’s lives have changed over the two-year program, based on its strict statistical “graduation” criteria.

BOMA mentor uses tablet. Photo submitted by BOMA

Not only has this system made data collection a lot less costly, more timely and more reliable, it also enables BOMA management to provide quick feedback. As Field Officer Sabdio Doti explains, “I can get any report I need from a Salesforce dashboard while I’m sitting at my desk. With a few clicks, I can identify which businesses have low business values or which participants have not made their monthly contribution to the savings groups. This allows me to communicate swiftly with mentors, so they can follow up with those participants and provide timely advice.”

BOMA has recently incorporated geospatial data for day-to-day monitoring and planning. With a built-in mapping tool in TaroWorks, mentors can send their GPS location every time they visit their assigned business and savings groups. This is a powerful monitoring tool for field officers. BOMA is also reviewing the capacity for GPS to be used beyond monitoring.

“There are endless possibilities in how we can use GPS data to improve our program and help participants,” says Collins Muriuki, BOMA’s technology officer. With the help of geographic information system mapping tools like MapAnything and ArcGIS, BOMA plans to use geospatial data to analyze the effect of proximity to markets on the performance of BOMA businesses, to identify regions prone to drought and ways to help participants prepare and to understand the saturation level of BOMA businesses in each location.

BOMA has also leveraged technology for improving communication between the field and the office. Field officers use Google calendars to remotely schedule activities, including business and savings group visits for mentors. In addition to email, Whatsapp, a popular mobile messaging application, is used to quickly broadcast important instructions to mentors and other field staff. TaroWorks, too, is being explored to enable two-way communication between field officers and mentors.

So, technology makes it easier, quicker and cheaper for BOMA management to monitor its program. But how does it help participants? According to Kura Omar, BOMA’s deputy country director and co-founder, the performance of individual businesses and savings groups has been consistently better since the adoption of the new system. Omar credits BOMA’s recent success to a higher level of accountability linked to the use of technology. “We’re practically in the field while seated in the office, be it from Marsabit, Nanyuki or our U.S. office in Vermont,” he says. “Everyone is more accountable for their work and that translates into better results for participants. Ultimately our goal is to help a woman graduate out of poverty. Great programs can be designed, but we must ensure quality in implementation. The use of technology allows us to do that.” 

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