Why Small Loans Need Big IT

Fly off the handle when you lose reception on a mobile device? Get angry when your e-mail server hums a little too slowly? Well, try laying out an IT infrastructure when your primary clients live in some of the world's most remote villages.

Jiten Patel, CIO of nonprofit Finca (Foundation for International Community Assistance), faces just this challenge. Finca gives small loans—usually $80 to $200—to the "poorest of the poor" to start micro businesses. The businesses usually center around village marketplaces and sell baked goods, fresh produce or crafts. With 500,000 members, Finca operates in 21 countries spanning Latin America, Africa and Eurasia. Women make up between 85 percent and 90 percent of its loan recipients.

When Patel joined Finca about a year ago, a local administrator was individually managing IT within each member country. A 15-year-old legacy system was failing to reliably handle the weekly transactions. "It was struggling with the kind of volume we've been receiving," Patel says. Also, when a local server crashed, it was difficult to get an IT repair person onsite.

After traveling extensively, looking for ways to streamline, Patel decided to base IT operations in three central locations. Working with a soon-to-be-announced vendor, Finca will set up a system in which customers will upload data from village branches to the three hubs. Patel's first inclination was to set up a Web-based solution for uploads. With a lack of telecom and computers in those remote areas, however, he is now thinking smart cards might be better. "Given the vagaries of the environment, we need to have an offline mode," Patel says.

He is also considering using an ASP to further streamline operations. "When you operate in a nonprofit environment, you have to be extra mindful of every dollar spent. In our case, that dollar can be utilized in making a micro loan to a customer," Patel says.

Related:

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 secrets of successful remote IT teams