IT Manager for Opportunity International U.S, Shane Ulrich, sat down with Katie Morgan, Online Marketing Specialist, to talk about his first time visiting the field. See what Shane has to say about his time in Malawi and the impact of technology on our partners.
Katie: What are your responsibilities as the IT Manager for Opportunity International U.S.?
Shane: My day-to-day responsibilities include ensuring that everyone in the organization has whatever they need, technologically speaking, to function efficiently as we work to help end extreme poverty.
K: You went to Malawi recently. What were you doing there?
S: My goal was first to set up a functioning work environment for the first Opportunity Limited branch, which does outreach and training for people living in poverty who need access to financial services to be able to transform their lives. The staff is working hand-in-hand with local banking partners that are aligned with our mission so that when a person is ready to take the next step (ex: apply for a formal loan), we can walk alongside them every step of the way. In this new office, we have six employees, including four agents that spend most of their time in the field—which just means they need to be extra mobile and all their devices need to sync together and “talk” to our systems when they’re standing in a maize field 50 miles away. To set up the office, we purchased two laptops, a printer, and four tablets with cellular capabilities so they can be used without wifi—also critical for visiting clients in remote areas. After getting set up, my next goal was to train the users on all of our technology resources so they can be as efficient as possible.
K: How do these new technologies help the clients, staff, and organization in general?
S: They help make both the data collection and data analysis process as streamlined as possible. You’d be surprised how many people around the world are still using paper/pencil to collect data, and a lot of accuracy can be lost in the shuffling of papers from one place to another. Our partners are currently using the cellular-enabled tablets to collect essential data about our clients and upload it to our data center in the cloud. The purpose of my visit was to set up newer tablets that are able to do this more quickly and efficiently. From there, we can analyze different data sets against each other; the more we grow and collect data, the better we can understand the impact we are making in our clients’ lives. And more importantly, how we could do even better in the future.
K: How is implementing technology different in Malawi than in the U.S.?
S: In our Chicago office, I’ve grown accustomed to sourcing my technological needs in a matter of minutes online and having the products delivered to my doorstep in two days via Amazon Prime shipping. In Malawi, it does not work like that. We found a local merchant near the office that was reasonably priced, offered a warranty, and allow us to pick everything up the day I arrived in Lilongwe. However, this was my first trip to Africa, and I quickly learned that things take a bit longer than they do in the States. A scheduled delivery date of Monday turned to Tuesday, which turned to Wednesday afternoon when I was finally able to get part of our order—the computers. I was set to leave on Friday so I was working against the clock to get the equipment set up and train the staff. Other parts of our order trickled in, and I was able to get one tablet set up and teach a staff member how to do the same for the remaining tablets, whenever they came in. Working in a new environment was eye-opening, that’s for sure.
In general, technology touches our partners lives much differently. Where we are used to using wifi in the U.S., in Malawi they purchase gigabytes of data—similar to a data plan you can purchase for a smartphone—to run the internet for their business. This is because mobile data is more readily available than traditional cable we are used to in the States. It's actually quite easy to use! When I was there, I purchased a SIM card at a corner store with four gigabytes of data. I ended up sharing with the team when our hotel didn't have data available, and I even have some left over. The whole network is structured this way, which is why it is so important for our partners to have cellular-enabled devices.
K: What is the most meaningful and memorable part of your visit?
S: It’s hard for me to choose just one memorable part of this experience. I will remember and cherish it forever. After 10 years with Opportunity, I was finally able to visit one of the places where our work changes lives. And since it was my first time in Africa, too, it was eye-opening to see the advantages some of us have and the ease with which some of us get to live and work. I noticed that in the U.S. we are always on the go, and we never really slow down. One day when we were driving to the office, it began to rain. Something that, if I was back home, would seem a bit of a nuisance but wouldn't stop my day, has a completely different effect in Malawi. People were gathering in the market stalls, taking shelter and chatting with each other until the rain passed. It was refreshing—almost like a quick break to step back from the to-do list and take a breath. No one was complaining or stressing about what needed to get done. It made me think about my own life and how at times when it feels like I'm rushing around, I just need to take a quick step back. I will always remember the smiles on the faces of complete strangers I met along the way and the laughter that I got to share with new friends. Granted some of this laughter was at this “mzungu” (white foreigner), but it was all in good-hearted fun. I look forward to the day when I can visit my brother Richard (Managing Director of Opportunity Limited) in Malawi once again.