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Tools of the trade

The grey and cloudy sky perfectly opposes my bright demeanour. Today is my first field trip and I’m excited. The rain starts pouring down as soon as we set off for Murang’a, a rural town in Central Kenya. Muddy puddles quickly grow into small ponds on the roadside. Undeterred, Kimosop, Isika, Job and I forge ahead. As quickly as the rain began, it stops and we soon find ourselves surrounded by rolling green hills. Muddy waterfalls, feed into rivers and banana plantations dot the landscape. It’s only 7.30a.m., but the roadside markets are already bustling as everyone gets set up for the day. We soon arrive at the Murang’a office and I get acquainted with the team. After learning a little about the operations, we sit down for a training session by Job. He’s teaching the field officers how to use Simple MFI, a new open source android application that runs on a low cost IDEOS phone. Simple MFI helps loan officers manage loans more efficiently. It allows them to go into the field paperless with up-to-date client information at the touch of a button. A quick look at the desks of the officers and I can already see the need for this. They are drowning in statement registers. After a very thorough training session, I’m ready to see the application in action. I’m resisting the urge to ask the team if we can grab a quick lunch. It’s only 12 p.m. but I’m already starving. Eventually, I give in to my stomach’s demands and convince the boys to grab lunch at a little restaurant downstairs. They all shake their heads and laugh, but wolf down the food, confirming my suspicions that they were hungry too.

John, one of our loan officers, takes us to our first group meeting. The group meets in the home of one of the members. After pleasantries, I sit quietly, observing the meeting. I can’t understand Kikuyu so I’m forced to read the facial expressions and body language of the group. Working easily with Simple MFI, John quickly answers client queries. He runs through the application, explaining to our clients how he can now easily access all their information through his phone. Everyone starts smiling and nodding their heads, excited by the innovation. I can only understand one word, ‘computer,’ as they laugh and clap hands. I smile too. John runs through what each client ought to pay at the group meeting and I’m surprised as, one by one, the clients pull out their mobile phones and make their loan payments through M-Pesa, the mobile payment system we’ve integrated into our operations. Even the grandmothers use it with ease. Sitting in a simple house, in a rural village, watching this tech savvy group is remarkable. They’ve embraced change. I ask them what they think of M-Pesa and a chorus ensues. ‘It’s great’, ‘We love it’, ‘It makes life so simple’. The group secretary, a delightful man responds, ‘Finally I can do away with all this paper. Simple MFI and M-Pesa are just wonderful. It makes life much easier for me’.

As we part with the group, thoughts race through my mind about the innovations Juhudi Kilimo is embracing and distributing across communities like the one in Murang’a. These tools have the potential to improve productivity and make operations more efficient. I think about the cost saving potential and the effect this would have in the micro finance industry if every MFI were to adopt these changes as easily as this rural group. It’s an exciting prospect and, as we head back to Nairobi, I contemplate what the next few months have in store for me. I can’t wait!

Rutendo is an Acumen Fund Global Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya working with Juhudi Kilimo, which provides microfinance loan products that allow Kenyan smallholder farmers to access high-quality agricultural assets that enhance the productivity of their farms. Rutendo is from Zimbabwe, and worked as a portfolio manager at a financial services firm. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting Science from the University of South Africa.


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