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Breakout Session: Fighting Poverty with Technology

By Emilio Martinez de Velasco Aguirre

“There is never an end to the opportunities that are brought by technology; we are excited about what those are.” That’s how Daryl Skoog, senior VP of technology, ended his own introduction, as each of the members of the panel discussion was introducing themselves to the audience.

Harry Turner, the panel facilitator and CEO of Opportunity’s Global Microfinance Operations, then got the conversation going by asking the panelist to talk about the technologies that are being used in the field.

Skoog talked about recent efforts to bring down the cost of Smart Cards that are being used by Opportunity across the globe. Currently, smart cards cost about $9.50 dlls. a piece. Such a high price is placing great limitations to increasing the client base. Daryl talked about current efforts to make these “Fake” Smart Cards into really smart ones by bringing down the cost to $.5 dlls. a piece.

Geoffrey Thige, COO of Opportunity Kenya, gave an overview of how cell phone technology is being used in Kenya. According to Geoffrey, a cell phone in Kenya is no longer a sign of status. “Everybody needs a cell phone.” And cell phones are now being used for banking every day. There is a large population still living in rural areas that rely on money transfers from urban areas. At Opportunity, they have been working to enable people make safe transactions from urban to rural areas using cell phones. “People at the bottom of the pyramid are now able to make transfers and get payments.” With only a secret code and an official ID, people in Kenya are now able to use their cell phones to get payments and manage their savings.

Richard Leftley, president and CEO of MicroEnsure, then talked about recent efforts to embed simple life insurance products into the cell phone plans of telecommunication carriers in Africa. This model has been very successful in helping telecom companies increase customer loyalty while Opportunity International clients have been able to get access to free insurance. “The more air time, the more free insurance.” In that way Opportunity International has been able to expand dramatically its customer base. Customers who never had access to life insurance before get to experience the benefits of being insured. Then it is easier to charge for better insurance service or for adding family members to their insurance plans.

Turner then asked the panelist to talk about innovations in the agriculture space. Daryl Skoog talked about the use of cell phones to gather data from interactions between clients and loan officers to get a sense of the kind of agricultural products that are being grown.

Leftley talked about the use of iPods to replace paper in enrollment operations. “iPods might look expensive but works much more cheaply than paper.” Using the case of a coffee cooperative in Tanzania, he talked about how paper is very costly due to illiteracy and the cost of storing, transferring, and managing paper applications. Using a weather-proof iPod touch they are able to capture and send information from clients, take fingerprints and pictures, much faster and cheaper than with paper applications.

Robert Westcott, CIO of Global Microfinance Operations, concluded the interventions from the panelists by talking about the potential of cloud computing. Currently, managing technology places a huge burden on management teams. Current computer systems rely a lot on IT teams, with very high costs on time, money, and energy. Through cloud-based software solutions they have been able to drive down the cost. However, Robert recognized, the weakness of the IT infrastructure in some developing countries will be a barrier in adopting cloud-based technologies.

This post was written by Emilio Martinez de Velasco Aguirre. Emilio is a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley specializing in innovation and regional economic development. His research explores new initiatives to promote global innovation processes. As a consultant, Emilio has assisted various non-profit organizations developing strategies to create value for Latin America by linking local talent, knowledge and technology with actors and organizations in Silicon Valley.

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