MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

I love my job

I find the intricate details of the world fascinating.I like reading stories of how humanity has investigated these details and learned to harness the power of nature.Theories of how the ancients might have birthed mathematics.Sometimes I enjoy just pondering the miracle of mathematics.It’s nothing short of a miracle that mathematics makes contact with reality – that it can be used to accurately define rules which the universe obeys.I like the stories of humankind creatively devising experiments to validate their conjectures.And how the journey has led to the creation of amazing technological tools, which have transformed our interactions with the world and even our interactions with each other. But I know the stereotypes about the Information Technology field.Countless times I’ve seen first interest and then consciousness itself drain from people’s faces when they’ve unwittingly asked me what I do. That’s probably why I shy away from talking about it…even though I absolutely love my job. However, a number of friends have asked me for some sort of description of what I’m doing in Africa.Perhaps the fact that I’m applying my training to international development will make the story a little more interesting.So I’ll keep the technological part to a minimum, and I’ll go in stages…leaving you with plenty of exit points as I drill into the details.

Okay. The big picture. If there’s only two concepts you remember from this entry, I’d hope that they are “malaria prevention” and “long lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLIN)”.Those are the end and the means of the Tanzania National Voucher Scheme (TNVS), which I am involved in.
TNVS, as the name suggests, implements a voucher system.When a pregnant woman or infant (the ones at highest risk of contracting malaria) visit a health clinic, the health worker issues them a voucher.This voucher can be taken to a retailer to obtain a LLIN at a subsidized cost (funding by USAID and DFID).The price paid by the beneficiary is very affordable, and I think it’s more of a token amount just so that they have some skin in the game.
 
Besides malaria prevention, the program also aims to jumpstart the market for mosquito nets.This includes creating both an awareness of and the demand for mosquito nets.In addition to driving down net prices through economies of scale, there is a second strategy.Initially, the program partnered with a single net manufacturer.However, we are currently working on introducing a second supplier into the program. The hope is that providing the beneficiary with a choice in net type will create a little competition between the manufacturers.This will motivate manufacturers to make better nets at lower costs.Don’t worry, LLINs must be inspected and certified which ensures no sacrifice in quality.The desire to drive down net prices stems from a desire to make nets more affordable to low income families after the voucher system is removed.The hope is that the LLIN market will remain even after TNVS shuts down.If it all works according to plan…net manufacturers will be creating more jobs and income, retailers will also have an increased income from selling nets, and the general public will have an opportunity to better protect themselves against malaria.
 
Okay, now for some of the challenges.I’ll give just two examples of the types of projects I have been working on.The first one is automated reporting.The second is market actor profiling.Grab a coffee!!
TNVS is a nation-wide program with around 5,000 clinics and 6,000 retailers redeemingjust over 370,000 vouchers every month.MEDA TZ handles the logistics of the entire program.MEDA TZ only has about 25 employees in the office (there is also another 10 field officers with drivers scattered throughout Tanzania conducting training).It’s a great opportunity for technology to help ease the workload!
 
In order for a program like TNVS to thrive, it’s important to know which locations are succeeding and which ones are failing.This feedback is extremely useful to learn from success and nurse weaknesses.It’s kind of like a strategy game.MEDA TZ keeps a pulse on the health of the program through weekly reports.Weekly reports guide field officers to the locations which require attention.
 
Performance indicators in the weekly report include figures like the number of issued vouchers, the number of redeemed vouchers, and the percentage of issued vouchers which were redeemed.Manually gathering and summarizing this information for all the clinics and retailers can easily take a half day of work. Every week.Similarly, the payment report, which tallies the number of nets distributed and the money owed to the net supplier, will take a half day to compile.It’s done every other week.To put it in perspective, one employee (I think it was supposed to be me) can spend well over a week of every month compiling reports.My first project was to automate the process so that the reports could be generated by a button click and save a lot of time and manual work.
 
But IT skills can do much more than just improve the efficiency of report generation.
 
The paper voucher system suffers from a problem. The problem is its limited visibility of what’s actually taking place in the field.For instance, we are unaware when a clinic runs out of voucher stock and stops issuing vouchers to patients.We are unaware when a retailer stops redeeming vouchers because they have run out of nets.Furthermore, we can’t detect if a clinic worker and retailer are colluding together to steal nets – they could get together and make up fictitious beneficiaries to issue vouchers to and redeem vouchers from…and then keep the nets for themselves.The voucher system needs a way to extend its sense organs into market actor transactions.
 
This was the motivation behind the eVoucher system.It is an sms based tracking system which documents market transactions.Clinic workers must use a cellphone (everyone’s got one!) to text MEDA’s shortcode when issuing a voucher.Retailers do the same to inform MEDA of a voucher redemption.A retailer will only be restocked with nets for voucher redemptions which were reported.A voucher redemption will only be successfully reported if its issuance was also reported.Basically, the system works…and we have information about the time and location of every issuance and redemption.Information which allows us to profile clinic/retailer behaviour.This is known as data mining, and it’s another project that I’ve been involved in.I create algorithms which try to determine when a retailer is out of net stock.I also create algorithms which try to determine when a retailer or clinic is engaging in fraud.
 
Okay okay, I’m beginning to realize how incredibly long this story is.I’m curious how many people made it to the end.Anyway, I hope I’ve given you a taste of my work and satisfied some of the curiosities floating around.Let it be known that it’s not ONLY exploratory adventures for me.I work hard too!
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