development

PRESS RELEASE: Self Help Group Platform to be Further Developed as a Digital Financial Resource for the Poor

Self Help Group app in food insecure regions of Tanzania (www.codeinnovation.com) 11 November, 2016 – Code Innovation is pleased to announce that it has received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further develop our Self Help Group digital platform. The grant will help to improve the free and open source Self Help Group mobile application while increasing its accessibility and partner ecosystem, with an initial focus in reaching women and girls in South Asia and Africa.

“Self Help Groups have a unique ability to teach business and financial literacy and to seed new ventures while reducing risk to the individual,” says Nathaniel Calhoun, Director of Strategy at Code Innovation. “In the process of improving the platform, we anticipate growing our global coalition of participating organizations from the NGO community, the donor community and also from relevant private and financial sector entities. We aim to build momentum behind this coalition of beneficiaries and benefactors who see value in lowering the barriers to scaling and spreading the Self Help Group model to reach more women and girls. We look forward to developing this into a key platform for the low-risk, scalable and cost-effective delivery of digital and financial services to populations that have not previously benefited from financial services or digital technologies.”

Over the course of the 18-month grant, improvements will focus on building out tools that support Self Help Group processes, as well as incorporating additional thematic content around financial inclusion, women’s and girls’ empowerment, family planning, HIV and other risk reduction behaviors, maternal, newborn and child health, agricultural practices and other areas based on users’ expressed needs. Development priorities will be informed by the Principles for Digital Development and determined by our growing coalition of global partners who are seeding and supporting Self Help and similar groups in an effort to help vulnerable populations lift themselves out of poverty.

The platform, originally built as a simple content app for guiding Self Help Group facilitators through the process of forming new groups, has evolved to support wider facilitation needs. The Self Help Group app is currently reaching over one thousand English, Kiswahili and Amharic-speaking users, and new language versions will be added so that a wider range of communities can access and use the tool.

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To download the app on Android devices, visit: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.self_help_group_code_innovation_one_hen&hl=en

For more updates on the Self Help Group digital platform, visit http://codeinnovation.com/blog/.

About Code Innovation: Code Innovation digitizes and scales programs that help vulnerable populations. We create educational materials and social innovations that strengthen communities and enable them to lift themselves out of poverty. We’ve had projects in more than a dozen countries and specialize in challenging, low-resource environments.

For more information, please contact: Elie Calhoun, Director of Operations, Code Innovation, Tel. +64-27-460-8994, email: elie@codeinnovation.com

Scaling Up our DIY Self-Help Group App with Partners in East Africa

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Community-savings-and-credit-group-rural-Tanzania-East-Africa-open-source-mobile-app-code-innovation In early 2015, Code Innovation and our partners at One Hen Inc. visited the implementing partners for our Self-Help Group app in Ethiopia and Tanzania. After a successful pilot in 2014, our plan was to scale up the use of the app by 1000% focusing on new users in food insecure areas of both countries.

We met with partners at Tearfund Ethiopia and with Tearfund Tanzania's local NGO implementers, the Christian Council of Tanzania (CCT) to decide on a viable plan for multiplying our impact and rolling out a new-and-improved iteration with content that we estimated would last for about six months worth of weekly Selp-Help Group meetings. According to our previous coordinator, during our 2014 pilot in Ethiopia this was about the time it took for new groups to raise enough capital and develop enough business acumen and group momentum to begin to give their first loans.

This is a write-up of how Phase 2 of the project went, in terms of fidelity to our plan and also around ICT4D best practices and lessons learned. Wherever possible, we'll tie what we're doing and learning into the Digital Principles because we're proud to be one of the endorsing organizations contributing to this emerging field of practice.

 

An Overview of our DIY Self-Help Group App

(If you're already familiar with our project, feel free to skip this section. You can also read more background here and here.)

For those of you new to the project, in 2013 we began working with the US non-profit One Hen Inc. to digitize and scale Tearfund Ethiopia's successful Self-Help Group model of savings and credit groups, themselves adapted from the model pioneered by Myrada in India. The groups have shown a cost-benefit ratio of approximately 1:100* with long-term and far-reaching social and economic impacts on members and their communities, lifting people out of poverty over time with very little outside support.

Working closely with Tearfund Ethopia, we adapted their Self-Help Group modular curriculum to a mobile interface on a free and open source Android app you can download from the Google Play store here -- although it's very much still in Beta for now. Over a 12-week pilot, we found that the facilitators thought the app was a useful professional tool and facilitation guide and that they'd already begun using it to start new Self-Help Groups not officially involved in our pilot.

 

Our Plan for Phase 2, a.k.a. How to Scale 1,000% in Six Months

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Based on the positive feedback we got from Self-Help Group facilitators, we sought to expand our reach in Ethiopia and begin working in a new country, Tanzania, with the same organizational partners. With DfID funding, we were able to focus on food insecure regions facing hunger because of the failure of the previous year's rains. Due to a poor harvest because of the drought, families and communities in these regions were considered particularly at risk for hazards related to food insecurity. Our partners selected the Humbo and Angacha regions in Ethiopia and Kongwa in the Dodoma region of Tanzania to scale-up our pilot with 25 new Savings and Credit Groups to be created in each country over six months of field implementation.

Because we were working in two districts in Ethiopia, and also to see if closer supervisory support would yield better weekly reporting data, we tried a new approach to coordination, appointing one District Coordinator for each area, supervised by a single Project Coordinator based in Addis Ababa. In addition to regular check-ins by email and phone, the Coordinator visited every other month in person to ensure the District Coordinators were feeling supported with the technology and the savings and credit group formation process.

In Ethiopia, we worked with experienced Self-Help Group facilitators working in new parts of the country starting groups of primarily young people out of school and over age 18. The focus on youth created some challenges because there was an assumption that young people did not have any source of income, although Tearfund's program model specifically addresses this assumption with a reframe of available local resources and close-to-home economic activities. Nonetheless, we did see below average group retention rates in Ethiopia because the SHG system itself was not established in the communities we selected and was, instead, fairly unknown. Accordingly, parents and youth members were quick to get discouraged and to discourage others from attending the groups. In the Nazaret region, where we first piloted, SHGs had been established for over a decade and belonging was considered to be admirable and beneficial, so this was our first time as a partnership facing a situation where people did not show up with motivation because of a favorable context. Also, in some cases youth decided to enroll in school or move to urban areas to look for work during the pilot program period, so SHG membership was more variable than is usual for Tearfund Ethiopia programs.

In Tanzania, our partners at CCT decided to work with entirely new and inexperienced facilitators in regions where Pamoja groups ("Pamoja" means "together" in Kiswahili and is CCT's name for our Savings and Credit Groups) had not yet been established. This created a number of early challenges that were evaluated to be worth the extra effort because of the acute community need for this kind of support system, given the hazards and risks members were facing around food insecurity and with the drought. It meant that our Coordinator spent half of his time directly working with and training facilitators on the mobile technology, app functionality and reporting protocols, but also that the gains that we saw over time there showed that the program can work in a new and extremely challenging use case.

Because we're still early in the app development and digitization process, we continued our system of weekly feedback from facilitators to get specific inputs on areas of the curriculum that worked well and that need expansion. This system continued to give us the real-time, actionable data that we need to make strong iterations between phases, and we anticipate continuing it in the future until we move out of Phase 2 (testing with new countries, partners and in new world regions). Phase 3 will happen when the app can be used by a new, inexperienced facilitator to successfully learn facilitation skills, recruit and start a group, and save and lend while building group ties over time. We have a ways to go, but we'll get there!

 

What Went Well in our Rapid Scale-Up

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We are happy to report that a number of key areas went extremely well. We're going to summarize them here, but do get in touch (info@codeinnovation.com) if you'd like to hear more details as we're keen to share what we know with our ICT4D community.

  • App Functionality and Usability: The app did not require repeated training for new facilitators to use, especially around the key curricular areas of meeting content.
  • Expanded Content around Case Studies, Games and Stories: We hoped to include content in the app that would take group members well into six months of weekly meetings, and we succeeded in doing that with our expanded curriculum around social business skills development, conflict resolution and disaster risk management/disaster risk reduction. Facilitators and group members enjoyed the illustrative content in particular, and over the course of Phase 2 we've collected a wealth of additional content to help us build out the curriculum further.
  • Facilitator Training: Our new module created a step-by-step training guide for new facilitators to learn basic skills, recruit group members and develop self-organized learning for their own professional development. We heard from facilitators throughout field implementation that it was an appreciated part of the content.
  • Facilitator Preparation: Before each module throughout the content, we expanded the information needed to prepare facilitators for their weekly meeting. We heard that this was an extensively used part of the app this time around and were requested to continue building it out as a resource for planning meetings.
  • Hardware: We selected locally-purchased Tecno tablets available for about $200 in Ethiopia per device and about $100 in Tanzania per device. The higher cost in Ethiopia is due to national taxes on ICT, as the tablets themselves were almost identical. Every device continues to function without damage at the time of writing, a testament to the care with which our facilitators treated them and also to the durability and appropriateness of the tablets themselves in rural East Africa.
  • Reporting and Supportive Supervision: Weekly reporting kept facilitators, coordinators and us in close contact to problem-solve proactively and ensure that our content and UI/UX was meeting their needs in running groups and also in their own professional support and development. In Tanzania, reports were sent via facilitators' Gmail accounts and our users created a What's App group on their own initiative to share success stories, keep in touch and help each other resolve group, tablet or meeting challenges.
  • Secondary Benefits of Accessible Mobile Technology: In most cases, facilitators used their tablets for professional and personal development, including engagement with LinkedIn, online news and Facebook social networking. In many cases, facilitators began to pass around the tablet during meetings so that members took turns facilitating the key discussion points during group meetings. In a few cases, facilitators made their tablets available to community and group members to access the internet, creating strong secondary benefits in areas that did not previously have easy access to mobile technology.

What We Learned for Future Partnerships

There were some key areas for lessons learned as well, detailed in brief here. Again, please do get in touch (info@codeinnovation.com) if you're keen to hear more about these, as we'd love it if no one in ICT4D ever made these same mistakes again!

  • Solar Chargers: In all cases where hardware is provided, we will be advising partners to purchase locally sourced solar chargers to enable the tablets to be charged directly by the facilitators whenever needed. Relying on local charging stations is both time-consuming and expensive, and could in the future be a source of low motivation to use the app.
  • App Updates: Because access to mobile data is so slow and wifi is often completely unavailable, we needed a new system to update new app versions so that facilitators would be sure to be using the latest app version. We are using our Coordinator's laptop and installing APKs directly onto tablets during field visits in the future. But this is a function of our beneficiaries being in unusually remote areas underserved by electric infrastructure. If we were targeting robust growth in an urban area, this recommendation would likely not apply.
  • New Group Formation: We had anticipated that 25 groups would be fairly easy to form over six months in each country, but in fact we will only reach our target in late 2015/early 2016. In Ethiopia, working in a region where SHGs were not known by the community made their establishment slower than anticipated. In Tanzania, new facilitators were only ready to create new groups after their existing ones had been established for about three months, so relying on facilitators to create multiple groups should anticipate some phasing delays. At the moment in Tanzania, new group creation is on hold because members would not have the income needed to contribute to savings, since it is the very end of the dry season and family resources are very scarce. A few weeks after the short rains begin (in December or January, we hope), members will once again have the financial resources and be able to begin group savings.
  • UI/UX and Usability Testing: Secondary app functionalities were not as easy for new users to navigate as the curricular modules, namely our Community (or social media) section and our group login system. Based on usability testing directly with facilitators in Tanzania, we have a great list of priority fixes in this area.
  • Multimedia When Possible: Adding photos and illustrations, especially for case studies, will help to make the content more personal and come alive for members and facilitators. It was a repeated ask from our group interviews and something we're looking into while keeping in mind that we don't want the app (already around 10MB) to become too heavy to download in low-bandwidth areas.

 

What our Self-Help Group App Group Members Had to Say about the Project and our Process

During a recent field visit to CCT's Pamoja Groups in Kongwa, Dodoma region in Tanzania, we were able to interview nine groups in four village areas.

In our Self-Help Group model, each group member contributes weekly through buying two types of shares, social shares and savings shares. Each week, each member contributes one share to the social fund, for use by group members in emergencies. In addition, they can buy savings shares at a minimum and maximum set by the group.

In all Pamoja groups, the social fund is repaid without interest and had minimum 1 share @ 500 Tsh contribution per week, slightly less than $0.25 at the time of our visit.

In Mautya Village in Kongwa District, Dodoma Region, participants reported:

  • "We are facing hunger in our families and communities because we are primarily agricultural and because of the lack of rains last year and the failure of our crops."
  • "We are using the social fund to buy food."
  • "Group social ties give us strength to face the challenges of the drought together. We do not feel alone."

In Nguji Village in Kongwa District, Dodoma Region, participants reported:

  • “We are facing hunger in our families and communities because we are agricultural and because of the lack of rains and the failure of crops.
  • "We are using the social fund to buy food and pay school fees."
  • "Because of the group, we are not facing too much hunger at the end of the dry season and we feel supported by each other."
  • "Belonging to the group helped to improve my existing business and my profits have increased."

One-third of the participants in Nguji owned their own mobile phones and 80% had their own businesses.

In Machenje Village in Kongwa District, Dodoma Region, participants reported:

  • "There is no rain, and everyone here are farmers. Bad harvest means hunger. Lack of rain increases the price of food."
  • "If I don’t have money, I can take a loan to invest in a business and use the profit to pay back the loan and buy food for my family."
  • "Our economy is so much affected by the drought because we depend on agriculture and there is no rain or harvest. It is difficult."
  • "Because I now have a small business, I can buy food and eat with my family."
  • "If someone is sick, a loan [from the social fund] can take them to hospital and pay for their immediate needs."
  • "If a group member has any emergency, anything in life, we can support them."
  • "These groups are good. We encourage anyone to join. However, know that if you take a loan, it can be challenging to pay it back so that another person is able to take a new loan."
  • "The community originally thought that these groups were a trick, but now that they've seen our success and the capital we've raised, they themselves want to join."
  • "I had a business before, but I was inexperienced. Belonging to the group helped to improve my business skills and share with others. Now, I am helping my family to have a good life."
  • "Belonging to the group has really helped my family. With a loan, I have been able to expand my tomato selling business."
  • "This is a bad year because of the lack of rain, so buying shares every week is difficult, especially now that it is dry season. My savings come from collecting firewood in the bush and selling it in the village."

30% of the group members had businesses before joining and 46% do now. 58% own their own mobile phones.

In Laikala Village in Kongwa District, Dodoma Region, participants reported:

  • "Life is difficult. I joined this group to get out of poverty."
  • "In most cases, we struggle to pay for school fees and because of the group, we make sure that we pay for all the school expenses."
  • "Using the tablet has introduced me to new things and ideas, and it is good for me."
  • "The social fund is for problems or unexpected disasters."
  • "Our group made an IGA whose profit goes back into the social fund, because we depend on it so heavily now. The IGA involves buying sugar and rice wholesale and each members sells some and returns with the profit."
  • "People should join groups because they are sustainable. Members are there for each other and will continue to be there to help each other."
  • "This community depends on agriculture. Without rain there is no food. We have hunger and no money to buy commodities. We are all affected."
  • "Without a good harvest, there is no money and without money, you cannot buy anything. There is no water for gardening."
  • "Without food at home, after a poor harvest, loans help our families to eat."
  • "With the problem of the lack of rain, most people are bankrupt so others can’t help, but the group can help, especially with a small business."
  • "I didn't have a business, but then I took a loan and now I have a profitable small restaurant."

13% of the group members had businesses before joining and 52% do now. 55% own their own mobile phones.

Next Steps for our DIY Self-Help Group App

We are in discussion with CCT, Tearfund Tanzania and Tearfund Ethiopia to continue to scale up with their new and existing Pamoja and SHG facilitators in the coming months and into 2016. In addition, we have a new partnership with World Vision Tanzania working with their Volunteer Savings and Loan Associations with groups in the Babati regional cluster (of Tanzania). Stay tuned for more developments early in the new year, when we'll be releasing a new-and-improved iteration based on what we learned during this Phase 2.

Our own goal at Code is to scale the Self-Help Group App impact to 1 million direct beneficiaries within three years. Because of the economic and social need, we hope to concentrate mostly in sub-Saharan Africa but it will depend where we find implementing partners and funding. Of course, as we iterate closer to a stand-alone app with full functionalities, , our own inputs for consecutive iterations will become less necessary.

We hope to find partners in all parts of the world, but in Africa in particular, who are interested in using our Self-Help Group app to train and support facilitators starting their own groups in their own communities, helping to empower people to create social and economic support systems that reduce their vulnerability to stresses, shocks and poverty.

Want to partner with us on this or other projects? Get in touch (info@codeinnovation.com)!

* Cabot Venton, C et al (2013). “Partnerships for Change: a cost benefit analysis of Self Help Groups in Ethiopia.” Tearfund, Teddington, UK.

How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies: Part 1

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This is the first post in a two-part series: “How Senegalese Agricultural NGOs Are Adapting Mobile Technologies,” based on a follow up of over 50 Senegalese agricultural NGOs who attended the U.S. Embassy’s TechCamp Dakar. Here, we provide background and context on mobile technology and agricultural NGOs working in Senegal. In Part 2, we will explore the results of our follow-up survey to find out how NGOs are using mobile technology in their agricultural programming. TechCamp Dakar was a great entry point for Senegalese NGOs to capitalize on one of the major development paradoxes of rural Africa—while many people do not have regular access to electricity or running water, the vast majority has access to mobile phones.

I spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer working on agricultural projects in a small village of 300 people in a remote area of Senegal, with no electricity or running water. However, I rarely lacked access to communication via my mobile phone.

The villagers around me, like the majority of Senegalese citizens, rely on mobile phones as a main mode of communication. While not all individuals own phones, there is always the ability to borrow one from a family member or friend.

In Senegal, where over 75% of the workforce is dedicated to agriculture, and over 50% of the population lives in rural areas, TechCamp Dakar demonstrated the great potential for NGOs to use mobile technologies in agriculture projects to increase their impact and presence in remote communities.

Most Senegalese farmers work at the subsistence level—they eat most of what they grow—but some grains and garden crops are sold at local markets. Products are transported from rural areas to more urban centers and sold at open air stalls. Prices vary depending on season and supply.

Some farmers do currently use mobile technology to determine current market prices and when to sell crops, but in my experience, this is limited and takes the form of informal networks in which farmers call acquaintances in larger towns and cities to check current prices and decide when to sell crops. This is sporadic and often occurs within days of crops spoiling, thus there is no real option to delay sales for better profit, and most current farming practices do not incorporate informed harvest planning for maximizing profit.

Many of the technologies presented at TechCamp Dakar may offer opportunities for NGOs to address these issues by leveraging mobile technologies in order to tailor agricultural programming to the communities in which they work. By taking advantage of the more efficient and timely means of reaching beneficiaries in remote areas that mobile technology offers, the information gap that farmers, like those in my Peace Corps village, face could be mediated.

How connected are Senegalese NGOs to Internet and mobile technology?

As in much of the developing world, Senegal’s technical know-how is concentrated in the capital city, outside of which there is limited (and expensive) access to the Internet, with most people relying on basic mobile phone services to communicate.

Capital city offices have reasonably reliable access to electricity and the Internet, but as you move farther from the capital to regional and department-level offices, organizations face many challenges when relying on technology to implement work. In cities and towns where local offices are based, there may be frequent electricity blackouts, so a lot of professional communication that NGOs have with their beneficiaries relies on face-to-face contact.

Most attendees at TechCamp were from main offices either based in Dakar or other regional capitals, which oversee operations at more local level offices. The majority of these NGO offices already use technology to some extent in the workplace, although some respondents reported that they did not feel entirely confident using mobile phones and computers during their workdays.

We were interested to learn whether and how the NGO participants choose to apply mobile innovations to their agricultural programming, now and in the future.

LOOKING FOR PARTICIPANT RESOURCES? CLICK HERE.

Why Sanitation is a #1 Development Priority

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Hi. I’m Yasmin, Code Innovation’s Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal. Having lived in a small rural village for two years before I moved to Dakar, I’ve experienced firsthand the public health issues that accompany not having proper latrine facilities or sewage disposal. Toilets in the developing world are often just a cement slab covering a large hole in the ground, and have no drainage, which means that systems often overflow into the surrounding area. Sewage can leak into the drinking water supply and into water sources that are used to irrigate gardens, which in turn can contaminate vegetables that come into contact with the soil.

DFID - UK Department for International Development via Compfight cc

Direct or indirect consumption of sewage-contaminated water spreads disease, with epidemics of gastrointestinal illness affecting many people at the same time. Frequent sickness contributes to morbidity – often measured in lost productivity at work or school – or even death, from cholera and other life-threatening gastrointestinal illnesses.

I’ve seen “quick fix” solutions to sanitation issues, like constructing new latrines or teaching people the importance of hand washing, try to solve the problem. While these are important contributions in their own right, the problem of untreated sewage contaminating gardens and a communal water supply still exists and still exposes the population to the same life-threatening diseases.

But what if we could take a previously dangerous public health concern and transform it into a resource for the community? What if we looked at raw untreated sewage as a “wasted” resource (excuse the pun) that could become a valuable agricultural and energy input?

In the Sindh region of southern Pakistan, generations of collecting firewood have left once-forested land bare. Land used for agriculture is poor, drinking water is scarce, and the entire area is prone to heavy flooding during the rainy season. Wastewater treatment innovations have the potential to harness what is commonly viewed as a major problem—untreated sewage and wastewater—and to transform it into something valuable and good.

Imagine low-cost innovations that would solve the triumvirate of contaminated water, low-cost fuel and poor quality agricultural land?

Potential low-cost solutions that are appropriate in the rural Pakistan context include:

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  • Constructed wetlands,
  • Biogas digesters, and
  • Composting toilets.

Jean-Luc Toilet via Compfight cc

Constructed Wetlands

Constructed wetlands act as a secondary treatment for raw sewage after it has been collected in a septic tank. The sewage is filtered slowly through flooded basins planted with aquatic plants, such as reeds, broad-leaved cattail and water hyacinth. Wetlands filter disease-causing bacteria because the movement of water causes suspended sediment to drop to the floor of the wetland, and these dissolved nutrients are absorbed by plant roots and microorganisms in the soil. After filtration, the resulting nutrient-rich water is excellent for agricultural irrigation.

Throughout Southeast Asia, household, institutional, and municipal wetland systems have been implemented to treat wastewater in urban areas for safe discharge and reuse. In Uganda, research has shown certain types of constructed wetlands to be suitable treatment options for rural areas.

The Institut Agronomique et Véterinaire Hassan II (IAV) in Rabat, Morocco has established a pilot wetland project to test the use of constructed wetlands in arid climates as a solution to sewage water contaminating water used for irrigation. The system of two wetlands and an unplanted filter filled with sand has been found to reduce pathogens and organic materials to levels acceptable for discharge and irrigation.

Sustainable sanitation via Compfight cc

Biogas digesters

Biogas digesters are a low-cost communal solution for areas where energy is expensive and traditional fuel sources such as firewood are scarce due to overharvesting. Biogas digesters convert waste into renewable energy by breaking down human waste, animal manure and agricultural and kitchen waste in sealed underground pits to create two valuable products. Biogas or methane, which can be used as cooking gas or heating, is produced when bacteria anaerobically digest waste and convert it into gas. The solid waste left behind makes a potent agricultural fertilizer.

In India, BIOTECH, sells household, institutional, and municipal biogas digesters. Digesters convert toilet and kitchen waste into energy. At the household level, where biogas is used for cooking, it replaces about 50% of petroleum gas used. In larger systems, biogas can even be converted into electricity for lighting.

Stand-alone toilet systems, such as the Loowatt, offer a simple digester technology. The Loowatt contains human waste in a mechanical sealing unit, which can be adapted to any toilet using locally available materials. Human waste is then transferred to an outdoor biogas digester, which converts waste into usable energy. This project is current being tested at a public toilet in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

In other countries, such as Nepal, biogas technology has been combined with constructed wetland technology to create community wastewater treatment systems. In the community of Sano Khokana, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal the grey and black wastewater and kitchen waste of all 37 households is digested in the biogas plant and excess wastewater is filtered through a constructed wetland. The combined system produces biogas for five households, nutrient-rich irrigation water, and treated solids which can be dried and used as fertilizer.

 le Korrigan via Compfight cc

Composting Toilets

Composting toilets offer an opportunity to directly

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convert toilet waste into compost, a nutrient rich soil-like amendment.

Feces and other organic material such as sawdust or soil are collected in a chamber until full and, over six months, decomposed into “humanure,” a nutrient rich and disease-free fertilizer.

Composting toilets are being successfully used in Africa, both at the household level and as a part profit-making schemes at the local level. In Burkina Faso, waste (both urine and feces) is collected, treated, and then sold to urban farmers as a cost-effective alternative to chemical fertilizers.

In Kenyan slums, the Fresh Life toilet system operates like a franchise, where local citizens buy public toilet systems and make a profit by charging users. A local waste management staff collects and treats waste to be sold back to the urban farming community as

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fertilizer.

Of course, for sanitation innovations to be useful, they must be owned, managed and maintained by the community they serve. Before such innovations are even piloted, it is important to work closely with community-level stakeholders to ensure that there is a clear and communicated need for the low-cost technology, and that there are

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and the Paul - when.

designated stakeholders who will manage and maintain the resource.

Low-tech innovations, when appropriate and community-managed, can transform a dangerous public health exposure into a substance that enriches agriculture and supports the economic development of the community.

For more information about Code’s work with low-cost ecological technologies, email nathaniel@codeinnovation.com

3 Steps to Surviving Slow Internet

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dolapo via Compfight cc When I first became a professional writer, I lived thirty kilometers outside Arusha, in northern Tanzania.

I had a DSL dial-up Internet connection at the time and the number would constantly drop because I was too far in the bush. Regular outages made responding to deadlines and time-sensitive emails so stressful that I contracted a local ISP to build me my own Internet tower in the back garden.

Yes, you read that correctly. I built my own Internet tower -- and then I sold my neighbors bandwidth on my tower, like a true African entrepreneur. What can I say? It was a big tower.

After almost five years of working location independently, I've come to value speedy Internet as more important to my quality of life than regular electricity and running water.

I can handle long power outages, no hot water, no running water, spiders, less-than-optimal squat toilets, and long bus rides.

Give me Internet fast enough to stream the Pipeline Masters Surf Contest, do my tech4dev work online, and talk to my mum and dad face-to-face on Skype, and I'm a happy woman.

I bring this up because, having returned to Senegal from a few weeks of travel, I arrived back at the home office to find the quality of our Internet greatly compromised.

Emails and exchanges with my Dakar-based colleagues went something like this, (and I quote anonymously), " Internet is sooo slow, though, it's ridiculous, … it felt like I spent most of the day waiting for pages to load."

I became so impatient at the slow connection (Skype would not even acknowledge I was online!) that I lost my temper, threw the toys out of my pram and threatened to leave the country. Yes, how embarrassing. When I calmed down, I decided on a better solution.

I'm not yet convinced that the worldwide web is a human right, but it's certainly up there on my quality of life priorities.

So, in the interest of your own health and happiness, here's what I've learned about how to optimize and thrive with really slow Internet. Here you have it:

3 Steps to Survive Slow Internet

1. Define Your Limit

Very simply, how slow is slow? Do you need to torrent two movies a day, stream music and keep your files on the Cloud? Or are you happy with fast Gmail and less-than-5-minute downloads from iTunes? Even if you're just Skyping with your mum, where do you draw the line?

I know I need to take action to improve my slow Internet when:

  • I find myself multitasking because the page I'm working on won't load.
  • I find myself staring at a screen that has trouble loading email.
  • My voice Skype calls are inaudible.

That's where I draw the line. Your line is up to you.

2. Research the Market

This turns out to be crucial, since the Internet you want is often elusive and requires you to understand basic concepts about mobile technology in developing countries.

Quite simply, it's on the way up. A lot.

So, there are basically two reasons behind Internet suddenly getting slow:

1. Physical interferences like storms, floods, earthquakes, bad wires, bad signal, and so on.

2. Rapid scale-up by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that means that more people are trying to get a piece of a limited amount of bandwidth available from a tower.

Now that most ISPs are also Mobile Network Operators, and that smart phones are replacing laptops as our preferred way to get online, you see the infrastructure challenge signaled by your bandwidth grinding to a halt.

I have recently come to accept that having a part-time assistant is a fantastic lifestyle hack for expats living in developing countries. I've had a local personal assistant since 2009, and it has given me up to 30% more free time and freedom from monotonous and time-consuming errands.

You can do this market research yourself or (and this would be my choice) have your assistant do it for you. Either way, you want to know:

  • The top five ISPs, and the type of Internet connections they offer. Prioritize USB key connections, as these are mobile and much cheaper than fixed routers -- they're also easier to bring into the office to fix.
  • How much their biggest, fastest, most unlimited Internet package is per month. Ideally, your ISP will offer you a VIP package that gets you additional bandwidth at a fixed monthly rate. If there are tiers of service offered, learn about them and pick what's right for you.
  • What kind of customer support do these ISPs offer? Is there a helpline? Often there will be a phone number to call, but no one will answer. Test the customer support out to see how helpful and proactive they are at problem-solving. I like to select ISPs who have a cheerful staff focused on solving my problems. Ideally, this is easy to find.

3. Cover Your Bases

At this point, go out and purchase the hardware that the top two or three ISPs offer and that meets your needs. You want options here. You want to be able to switch between different networks operated by the ISPs whenever one gets too slow.

A word of warning: now that Huawei seems to make most USB Internet keys, the software that will operate one network's key will likely interfere with your Internet alternative until you uninstall the old ISP's program.

In other words, if I'm using a Vodafone USB key for an MTN USB key, I'll probably have to uninstall the Vodafone Internet software before the MTN USB key will work on my computer.

Another thing: If you have a Mac (and in that case, you probably know this already), you might need to physically take your computer to the ISP to get them to install the software that allows your USB key to connect to the Internet. I've not yet found a way around this, but I'm trying.

One thing that can help as you're covering your bases is to cultivate a personal contact at your preferred ISP. You want to be able to pick up the phone and call someone when $20 of credit disappears off of your account and have someone tell you "problem solved." This might take time, but it's worth it.

There you have it: the "3 Steps to Surviving Slow Internet."

Use them to optimize your time online so you can get things done faster and use that extra time to relax and enjoy.

May you never have to suffer slow connection speed again.

Got a secret quick-fix to improve your Internet connection? Let us know in the comments!

Teach Yourself mHealth, Part 3

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This post is the third part of a three-part series, 'Teach Yourself mHealth.' In Part 1, we focused on what mHealth is and what mHealth projects look like. In Part 2, we mapped out exactly how mHealth can strengthen communities and information systems, step-by-step. In this post, we'll explore some common design challenges in mHealth projects and review the best online resources for bringing your mHealth knowledge up to speed.

Now that you're familiar with some mHealth basics, it's worth looking closer at what we've learned about how to implement solid, scalable and sustainable mHealth systems. One benefit of the myriad mHealth pilots that are out there is a wealth of lessons learned on everything from project design to better monitoring and evaluation. Many of these challenges exist for other, less technology-focused aid projects as well, of course, but they're nonetheless a good reminder of where to pay special attention.

Design Hurdles in mHealth Projects

The following summary of design hurdles that mHealth projects commonly face is assembled from lessons learned from my own research and interviews. This is by no means a comprehensive list, merely some interesting things to think about if you're considering adding an mHealth component to your international health work.

1. Human-centered design: Designing with people in mind puts the service back into development work. mHealth systems improve communications and information systems when they meet a need better than traditional systems. To meet this need, a thorough understanding of the problem you're trying to solve and the multidimensional context it exists within is essential. Testing and improving ideas and designs with the stakeholders you're trying to serve ensures that their needs are more adequately met by your project, and that means a better and more sustainable system

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2. Interoperability: Customizing and deploying an mHealth platform that interoperates with the Ministry of Health's electronic information system is key to avoiding parallel information systems that can duplicate work and deplete motivation. For example, current iterations of RapidSMS can be customized to interoperate with DHIS2, the open source health information system used by many government ministries throughout Africa.

Creating standalone platforms is often unnecessary and can get especially confusing in a Ministry running multiple mHealth projects. Ensuring interoperability from the start means your SMS platform can be more easily scaled and will likely have an easier time getting Ministry and staff buy-in. After all, your system needs to be useful to the stakeholders that the project is for, otherwise, what's the point? If you're using SMS for health behavior change communications, interoperability may be less important.

3. M&E: Many mHealth projects have been

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criticized for not developing a solid monitoring and evaluation framework to collect baseline and project data and accurately report on project effectiveness. Don't let this happen to you.

4. Map the tech4dev and telecommunications landscape: Any good project idea starts with a solid understanding of the current landscape and technology projects are no different. Before you start sketching out your mHealth idea, it's a good idea to map the landscape of your country and region for other mHealth projects, which could be using software platforms that you can piggyback on. Who else is working in your region? What have they found challenging? Reaching out to colleagues creates an atmosphere of shared collaboration and healthy competition, plus the benefit of shared lessons learned.

The same goes for understanding the mobile phone and telecommunications infrastructure in your country. What does cell phone ownership look like in your country? Is there anywhere where the signal is unreliable? Who are the main mobile network operators? Have they previously partnered on any mHealth projects? Understanding the landscape lets you know what your options and constraints are, so you can proceed with clarity.

5. Sustainability: mHealth systems can

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be extremely cost effective, but implementation costs for SMS air time, server maintenance, and other needs can add up in the long term, especially as the program reaches a national scale. Taking these costs into consideration

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early on will encourage you to design a system that is self-sustaining. The importance of including Ministry of Health and other Ministries' staff from the very start was discussed in my previous post, but suffice to say that their level of ownership over the project is directly related to the system's likelihood of long-term success.

Developing mHealth Expertise

If you'd like to

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programs and projects, check out the links to documents and mHealth communities of practice below. mHealth, like all technology for development innovations, is a field that's changing rapidly. For those of us who want to further develop mHealth expertise, subscribing to regular email updates with the latest research findings and new projects is very useful. So are posting questions and design challenges you're facing on mHealth forums online, where an experienced community of practice is often very willing to offer guidance by sharing their own experiences.

For those eager to incorporate mHealth into their international health work, I recommend two online documents that summarize best practices to date and lessons learned. Both can be read in about an hour and offer pragmatic, no-nonsense guidance on the ins and outs of mHealth programming and implementation.

The first is "How to RapidSMS", written by a friend and former UNICEF colleague, Evan Wheeler. RapidSMS is a customizable mHealth platform that requires technical programming skills to install, but this how-to document is a great primer on the basics of a good mHealth project. The review of different SMS shortcode options offered by mobile network providers is especially helpful for thinking about how to best set up a scalable and financially sustainable system.

The second resource is a white paper written by Jeannine Lemaire for Advanced Development for Africa, "Scaling Up Mobile Health: Elements Necessary for the Successful Scale Up of mHealth in Developing Countries." Lemaire interviewed leading mHealth experts to mine their knowledge and experiences for a concise and thoroughly-researched list of best practices and programmatic, operational, policy and strategic recommendations. This might take you a bit longer than an hour, but is well worth the read.

As with learning any new thing, you're bound to have questions, especially technical ones. In that case, it can be helpful to reach out to a community of mHealth practitioners on one of the many mHealth forums online. I've found that RapidSMS and FrontlineSMS have particularly active communities.

Of course, the best way to teach yourself mHealth is to do it. Design, set up and implement a simple SMS-based project to apply what you've learned, and see what happens.

Teach Yourself mHealth, Part 2

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This post is the second of a three-part series, 'Teach Yourself mHealth.' In the first post, we focused on what mHealth is and what mHealth projects look like. In this post, we'll map how mHealth can strengthen information systems to build better health services, step-by-step. In Part 3, we'll explore some common design challenges in mHealth projects and review the best online resources for bringing your mHealth knowledge up

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to speed.

Subscribe by email to get Part 3 delivered straight to your Inbox.

We'll focus particularly on how an mHealth information system works on a detailed and practical level. Of course, SMS can improve other health services and plays an active role in communications for behavior change. My interest lies in systems strengthening, particularly in resource-poor settings, so that is the mHealth example I'll choose to focus on here.

 

mHealth Data: How It Works

Information for decision-making can be divided into two main categories: quantitative, to do with numbers, and qualitative, to do with language. Quantitative data, in public health and most social sciences, involves getting the results of random clinical trials or demographic surveys,

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or perhaps the routine information systems that Ministries of Health use to assess their population's disease burden. Qualitative data involves someone telling a story. For example, what does your new community health worker think about her level of supervision by the District Health Team?

By SMS, mHealth coordinators can gather both types of data, quantitative and

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qualitative. For the purposes of national level public health decision-making, numbers are a much easier information source to scale. In the example of outbreak early warning systems, a simple text message can specify the number of deaths, location and suspected diagnosis of a priority disease under surveillance, alerting District Health teams and central level Ministry staff to the need to respond.

Such a system's mHealth information system could look like this:

Of course, whenever gathering and analyzing data is involved, things can get complicated. As with any health information system, we need to identify exactly what we want to know, and trim off extraneous steps to simplify data reporting protocols as much as possible. Smart phones running mHealth apps can lead health facility staff through step-by-step reporting in greater detail than basic mobile phones (though they may be more vulnerable to theft and rough treatment).

 

Isolating Variables

During one of my consultancies, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Theo Lippeveld, President of the Routine Health Information Network, who quite literally wrote the textbook on the Design and Implementation of Health Information Systems. I was a bit star-struck during the interview, but I remember his emphasis on "data for decision-making".

mHealth projects interface

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directly with health information systems to strengthen the flow of accurate information for improved decision-making. To present information effectively, they must be as simple as possible for the health facility, for the team sending the information, and for the Ministry of Health decision-makers to analyze and take action on.

Breaking down a system to look in detail at the part each reporter and each variable plays helps us identify where systems can be simplified and where the most important information can be prioritized. For example, if I want to use an mHealth SMS platform to gather real-time information about coverage for routine immunization, I will want to identify who will be sending and analyzing what kind of data, when they will

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send it and how it will be received--and ideally, I want to know why:

 

Sending data by SMS is important to keep simple and to the point. At the level of Ministry decision-makers, however, there is a bit more room for visual interpretation.

 

Visualizing Data

When displaying quantitative information and communicating about numbers at scale, design becomes important. In the international development world, many tools use crowd-sourced information and mapping to create real-time displays that shape emergency response (as in the case of Ushahidi in Haiti). In public health, we are used to seeing demographic data on maps and graphs.

The SMS platform (the one that ideally interfaces with

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the Ministry's electronic information system, complementing rather than duplicating the flow of data) selected for an mHealth project will often interpret that data graphically for easier analysis, enabling decision-makers to manipulate and customize the system to tell them exactly what they need to know. I'm currently reading 'The Visual Display of Quantitative Information' by Edward Tufte, who shows a lot of interesting historical examples of how large data sets can be creatively and meaningfully portrayed.

 

mHealth Applications for Developing Country Health Systems

As we see with each new post about an mHealth project in the developing world, using mobile systems to improve information flow can play a large role in systems strengthening. Routine reporting can be distilled into a text message that communicates priority data to government decision-makers. Qualitative information gathering through polls and SMS or radio outreach provides health campaigns with data to develop better communications for behavior change.

In the next post, we'll explore some common challenges that mHealth projects face and review the best online resources for keeping your new mHealth knowledge up to speed.

Subscribe by email to get Part 3 delivered straight to your Inbox.

Collaborating for monitoring and evaluation

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Whenever I hear people lamenting the difficulty of monitoring and evaluating projects and certainly whenever I encounter good projects with feeble monitoring efforts, I wonder why more people are not taking advantage of a widely-available expert workforce that regularly takes on new projects without asking for any payment.

All around the world and especially in the “publish-or-perish” universe of North American academia, there are researchers (professors, associate professors and graduate students alike) who are scouring the earth for new things to research and write about. For many academics, the biggest challenge is figuring out how to gather the data about which they hope to write. For them, this process is expensive, time-consuming and often subject to protective legislature and intimidating review committees.

Meanwhile, we in the development community are usually able to survey our target audiences as often as we like and with relative ease. When we put together our project plans and proposals, nobody will question our decision to invest real money in collecting data about our programs. At the very least, we can organize the implementation of basic print surveys and qualitative interviews. Where the development community seems to run a little bit weak is in the design of these surveys and, even more so, in their analysis. This is precisely where academia excels.

For nearly six years now, I’ve enjoyed a collaboration with social scientists at a U.S. university that has added incredible value to the monitoring and evaluation that I bring to a variety of social and educational projects. My partners in this effort have been gaining access to valuable data that they are motivated to analyze and discuss, some of which has proven publishable in academic journals. We both get exactly what we need from one another and we are all paid for our work by other sources. This means that our partnership operates in an unusually money and paperwork-free arena, which inoculates it against any number of potential stresses. Every time I approach them with a new potential project idea, they are interested in working on it. This still surprises me every time.

Here's what I suggest if you want to forge partnerships that improve your M&E:

1. When you are at the project design phase of a new initiative, consider the impacts that you are hoping to achieve. Then determine which academic discipline would have the greatest interest in your achievements. Create a contact list of academics who specialize in the area to which you will be making your contribution. In order to populate this list, I suggest you:

a. Prioritize academics at institutions that you and your team have attended or to which you and your project are affiliated. We all know the importance of networks.

b. Ensure that you approach some academics who are not already known and famous. If you identify some academics who would be interested in your project and you happen to know that they are already deeply involved in development work or with their successful careers in general, look at who else is in their department. Look for younger or associate professors with more to prove. Look into departments at universities that rival the university at which your famous academics are housed.

c.Consider reaching out to academics who come from one of the countries you are working in, or who come from the region that you are working in. Homesick professors are often quite willing to help and also require less background when they understand your context.

d. Social scientists, because of the general nature of their discipline, will often be your most appropriate points of contact, especially if you are trying to affect behavior change in a population.

2.Know what you want to prove before reaching out to potential academic partners. They will be able to help you a great deal in the practical matters of designing your M&E material; but they will be more likely to have confidence in you and your project if you can articulate clear objectives that you want to prove. Don’t get into this level of detail in your first correspondence; but have it sitting ready before you initiate the discussions.

3. Know what sort of data you will be able to provide them. Be ready to talk about how many people you will be able to survey and how often. Be mindful that your academic partners may need for you to cleanse your data of any identifying information before you share it with them—especially if you are working with young people. Showing an awareness that you might need to process your data for them will also help to build their confidence in your team.

4.Offer to involve your academic partners in drafting your surveys and in preparing any interview questions. Be open to their suggestions and to the possibility that they may suggest taking your M&E in some unforeseen directions that could improve the perspective and strength of your program. In general, treat them as partners and not as employees or contractors. At any point, they can drop your project cold.

5. Mix established matrices with new ones. Especially when you are dealing with social scientists, you may find that they suggest using already established matrices to measure, for example, happiness or self-confidence. Take advantage of established question sets even if they are not 100% relevant to your program. If they contain a solid portion of questions relevant to your program, it is worth including the entire set because of how much easier it will be for your academic partners to publish your results. Don’t be shy about trying to create new question sets and matrices of your own. This is an exercise that academics enjoy and a good team building experience.

6. Be clear, from the beginning, about any potential sensitivities of your donor or organization. Protect and insulate your partners from involvement in internal political discussions that don't concern their M&E. Spell out any limitations on how you can each speak about or publicize your collaboration and avoid misunderstandings by anticipating them. No other party to this equation will be able to do this for you. Also, don't assume that they would like you to pass their contact information to all of your colleagues without checking first. Respecting each other's boundaries is critical.

That’s it.

With some planning and focused outreach, you're project's M&E can be robust and externally validated. With a little time, you may even have results published in a reputable journal that reflect the accomplishments of your team. Plus, if your project is absolutely not working, your academic partners are not going to sugar coat it for you! Good times.