Picture the scene. One morning, Seydou Koné goes to Djicoroni Para, a credit union that is a member of the Malian Nyèsigiso Network (Caisse Djicoroni Para du réseau Nyèsigiso au Mali). Seydou has been a member of the credit union for some time, but today he notices something different. When he arrives at the counter to make a deposit, he sees the bank clerk consult a small electronic device to update his transactions ledger. In the past, the clerk would have turned to his hard-copy files. The clerk explains, ‘This is a personal digital assistant (PDA). You can see all the changes to your account and the current balance. I can key in your deposit in complete security!’
The Nyèsigiso Network is a group of financial cooperatives made up of a central credit union and 11 ‘mother coops’, with 25 associated outlets in the rural areas. Djicoroni Para was the first pilot site within the project ‘Low-cost technologies to promote economic development of the poorest’, which has been launched across West Africa. Supported by Développement International Desjardins (DID), a Canadian NGO, the project is promoting the creation and development of sustainable financial institutions rooted in local communities. DID, together with its local partner, the Nyèsigiso Network, developed the teller software – a mobile application for information on operations (AMIO) – for use on PDAs.
The Nyèsigiso Network introduced this technology as part of a scheme to modernize and consolidate the operations of its members that was launched in 2002. By December 2006, 12 credit unions operating in both urban and rural areas had been computerized. The members’ outlets in rural areas generally have limited funds, making it difficult – or even unaffordable – for them to computerize their systems. However, by using PDAs loaded with the AMIO software, they have been able to do so at a fraction of the normal cost.
The software comes in two versions. The ‘teller’ version is designed for transactions on members’ deposit accounts, while the ‘credit’ version provides data on the loans in a loan officer’s portfolio and is used along with a banking software package (SAF 2000) at outlets that have converted their operations into processing centres.
The credit unions send tellers and loan officers out to the villages with their PDAs and a cash drawer once or twice a week, usually on market days. These ‘mobile’ loan officers now have the credit history of each of their borrowers at hand when they visit them in the field.
For the credit unions, in many places there is no longer any need for physical branches, thus reducing their costs and eliminating the need for permanent staff. For their members, the services are also far more convenient – they no longer have to visit the credit union office in person, since it now comes to them.
Thanks to this technology, the risk of fraud and loss has been significantly reduced. For the staff, the technology saves them a lot of time as they no longer need to spend an hour or two at the end of each day manually making a tally of the transactions that have been made. They have only to withdraw the PDA’s memory card and hand it to a clerk, who takes it to the processing centre where the transaction data are entered on conventional desktop computers.
Rugged enough for local environment
There are two major types of PDA: Palm Pilots, which run the Palm operating system, and pocket PCs, which run on Windows. In choosing which type to adopt, the project had to take several factors into account. The PDAs had to be functional under harsh local conditions, and rugged enough to withstand heat, dust and shock. They also had to have rechargeable batteries because they would be used in areas where power supplies are not always available. The project chose to use Hewlett Packard iPAQ pocket PCs, as they were available from local suppliers, do not require constant power supplies, and need very little maintenance.
Following the success of the technology in Mali, other microfinance networks have shown increasing interest in adopting it. In recent months, DID has made a number of presentations and demonstrations to microfinance partners elsewhere in West Africa. Financial institutions in Mauritania and Mexico have now also adopted the approach, and have introduced pocket PCs and the AMIO teller software into their networks, also with support from DID. In Mexico, member institutions have even integrated a portable printer into the system so that loan officers can now issue receipts to clients in the field.
Keeping up with advances in portable technologies is a constant but welcome challenge for financial institutions in Mali. The project is now benefiting many poor communities in isolated areas, who are now much more firmly integrated into the local and broader economy.
Karina Lehoux is a communications councillor with Développement international Desjardins.