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Chicago Microfinance Conference: Can Technology Innovations Transform Microfinance?

By Sonja Egeland Kelly

At the 6th Annual Chicago Microfinance Conference on Friday, a panel of experts explored the possibilities and pitfalls of ever-changing technology in the microfinance industry. Moderator Preeth Gowdar, Kellogg School of Management, led the session entitled “Getting ‘Techy:’ Can Technology Innovations Transform Microfinance?”

Gowdar started out with a story about when he was working in microfinance in India, and his institution was debating whether to move from a paper-based system to a computer system.

Now, even five years after many institutions moved to computer-based systems, the questions have become more complex: Can we bank without a branch? Should we develop our own cell phone banking if there is not a system available? Is cloud-based technology going to revolutionize the way we do business?

On Friday’s panel were: Scott Bellows, Regional Director, Asia Pacific, Kiva Microfunds; George Conard, Executive Director, Technology for Microfinance, Grameen Foundation; John McMahon, Salesforce; and Sarah Rotman, Associate Microfinance Analyst, Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. Each panelist brought a unique perspective to the table.

Rotman, who had previously interned for Opportunity‘s bank in Rwanda, emphasized the importance of technology in reaching out to the rural poor. For a client who cannot access a bank branch, a cellular phone might be a lifeline to financial services. Mobile banks can also be an important tool in accessing rural areas.

Cell phones, coupled with cloud technology, can indeed make a great impact on the rural sector. McMahon discussed how tools used in the for-profit sector such as SalesForce can help to manage customers without the burden of bulky software while providing a complex client-management system that translates well into the microfinance sector.

However, in the midst of evolving and advancing technology platforms, Bellows and Conrad made the case that organizations and institutions need to ensure that their back-end systems have a great deal of integrity–otherwise the front-end system will not function properly.

In the end, technological advances will not be as important as the way each one integrates with existing technology. What will be important to consider is how the microfinance industry can continue to build on its success.

And that is a truth we can bank on.

Check back in tomorrow to read the next in our series of blog posts from the 2010 Chicago Microfinance Conference. Tomorrow’s topic: ”Microfinance in the United States: Where are We Now and How Far Can We Go?“

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