Problem: Figuring out a way to update a microfinance organization’s database in Zambia, where electricity is not always available and only 30 percent of the population enjoys internet access.
Solution: A team of Lehigh Computer Science and Business (CSB) students are designing an app for that.
Sharon Kalafut, a CSB professor of practice, led a team of four students to the African nation during the spring semester to assess the operational needs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zambia as they relate to the organization’s microfinance lending activities.
The church-based organization, funded by U.S. donors, provides microfinance loans and also oversees the varied activities of 40 congregations, consisting of 85 separate groups.
The task at hand is for the student team to provide an efficient way to update the congregation’s database in the main office located in the town of Lusaka.
The database needs to capture such information as loan activity, borrowers’ compliance, requests for additional funding, and membership participation in church-related activities in the surrounding villages. The data is used in many ways to help manage the congregation’s loan activities and to provide detailed profitability statistics to the donors of the sponsoring Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States.
The students have until August, when they return to Zambia, to present their solution for efficiently transferring information from the “bush” to the main computer in Lusaka. Armando Berdiel ’12 explains that the team is designing a mobile phone application to capture the relevant information while in the field and to upload it directly from the mobile phone to the main database.
“Most people in the outlying areas do not have access to computers but do have cell phones, thus making this the perfect conduit for information transfer,” he says. "The text messaging function can be used to send the information to the main database."
A project becomes personal
Students had the opportunity to personally travel to Mulendema Village and other outlying areas to meet with loan recipients as well as other members of the congregation. They were overwhelmed with the hospitality shown, yet humbled by the poverty they witnessed.
"Seeing the faces and homes of the people who could potentially benefit from our work has truly humanized the project for me," says Aaron Taylor '12.
“We are helping an economy go forward as a group,” says Todd Suess ’12. “Hopefully we will influence something that might reduce poverty.”
Although the language difference made communication difficult with the villagers, the Lehigh team agreed that the “handshake is universal” and perfectly bridged the gap between very distinct cultures.
All third-year students in the CSB program are required to take CSB 312/313—a two-semester project starting in the spring semester and concluding at the end of the first semester of senior year. There is a mix of international and domestic projects from which to choose. Financial support for the CSB program and the funding for the student projects is provided by Peter E. Bennett '63.
“I liked this project because it entailed actually formulating a plan, working it through with the team, and returning to the client to execute the solution,” says Brian Godshall ’12. “Traveling to Zambia to accomplish this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“This has been a life-changing experience. We are making a difference in someone’s life,” says Kalafut. “Although I am a computer scientist, it is very important that I am connected to the community. If technology can help make someone’s life easier, richer, and broader, it is then that I feel I have accomplished something within my field.”
Story by Kathleen Mattare
Posted on Friday, June 17, 2011