Developing software for a better world

A team of Equal Experts volunteers has been putting our values to good use – working with VSO International to bring new services to rural farmers in Bangladesh.

Matt on a tractorI’m Matt McGuire, an Engagement Manager at Equal Experts – a role that usually keeps me very busy liaising with our clients and our own teams to keep projects on track and ensure we’re doing all we can to help the client’s business.

But I also had the chance to work on a very different project, in Bangladesh – where a small team of Equal Experts consultants worked with VSO International to help bring modern agricultural services to rural farmers.

This was a delivery environment quite unlike any I’ve worked with before. In the video below, Chris Borthwick from VSO’s Private Sector Partnerships team provides some quick context.

An idea takes shape

Over the last year or two, I’ve increasingly wanted to explore how I can apply the delivery skills I’ve picked up in my career to do some good out there in the wider world. While researching this I came across the VSO’s corporate volunteering scheme.

After getting in touch to learn more, VSO’s approach seemed closely aligned with the values we place great importance upon at Equal Experts. For sure, the language used and examples given were quite different from our typical work:

  • we might say client engagement when they say intervention or program;
  • we talk about adding value when they talk about positive impact;
  • we might say cross-functional or user-centred when they say participatory;
  • we might say waterfall (often disparagingly) when they say top-down;
  • we might say users when they say primary actors

While the terms vary, it felt as if we were on the same page; recognising that problems are often more about people and ways of working, rather than just the tools and equipment available. The crucial point is that positive change is about empowering people.

Keen to help create some of that positive change, and having got some buy-in at our end, I drew upon the Equal Experts network to form a team of volunteers who were keen to help make a difference.

The project: Growing Together

VSO has been making great progress in Bangladesh over the last few years. Working with Syngenta and BankAsia, it’s helped to provide rural farmers with better access to modern agricultural services and products, made available through Farmer Centres. These are owned and operated by local agri-entrepreneurs, who use the centres as a base from which to work with local farmers.

The scheme had got off to a good start, albeit with a problem attached – not enough farmers were benefiting from it. When VSO first told us about the situation, each Farmer Centre was only working with about 10% of the local farmers they could be reaching. Farmer Centres offer services within a 5km radius, but adoption was typically only seen within 2km; we aimed to help many more rural farmers benefit.

Unmapped terrain

That’s where we were able to help – by offering our technical expertise to VSO in Bangladesh, for a project called Growing Together. Before we knew it, in February 2019 we found ourselves heading out to Bangladesh with the goal of helping to increase access to the Farmer Centres. It was part of an ambitious drive to grow from helping just 7,000 farmers to some 100,000.

Getting to work

As with our more typical work, the key to solving the problem was talking to the people involved, and much of our time was spent with locals learning about life on the ground. This was a very special time for us all, as we were staying with local families (and lots of flying ants!). Their welcoming spirit and generosity was an inspiration to all of us, and they really helped us to gain a greater understanding of the issues.

These few days gathering information were really important, as we learned first-hand how farmers currently use the Farmer Centres. We split up to visit as many different Farmer Groups and Centres as possible, and soon had at least one of our hypotheses confirmed; some villagers told us that they’d like to use their Farmer Centre more, but it was too far away for them.

Overall, we collected 220 responses to our survey, of which only 12 were digital.

Looking at the data we collected, a common problem was how difficult and manual it was to simply see where farms are on a map of the area. Rural Bangladesh isn’t mapped to anything like the level of detail that we’re used to at home (understatement). Many villages are too small to make it onto internet services at all, so people have to rely on local knowledge which isn’t always readily accessible.

We felt an easy-to-use, easy-to-update mapping service would be an invaluable tool to help our stakeholders deliver their services into the hands of farmers more effectively. The benefits would touch all involved:

  • End users – ie, rural farmers – would end up with more knowledge on the location of new Farmer Centres;
  • Farm Centre entrepreneurs would get more information on their local community; and the ability to hire and dispatch agri-entrepreneurs more effectively;
  • Agri-entrepreneurs could discover more potential customers to empower with their services;
  • VSO would be able to monitor the projects more effectively, ensuring no areas are left behind.

We proposed a database-backed solution that would show all points of interest on an interactive map, and it was exciting to start working on some deliverables to solve a real problem. All we had to do was deliver it – using the short time we had out in Bangladesh. But of course, this wasn’t straightforward…

Reality on the ground

Making maps

Using the data we gathered, we created a lightweight web application using React and Node.js, hosted on AWS using EC2, Route53 and Document DB. It allows users to easily and quickly plot the locations of their local Farmer Groups and farms on a map of the area. The location data is then stored in an Amazon DocumentDB cluster for persistence.

Over time, this will create a detailed visualisation of farmers in the area, and their proximity to Farm Centres:

Early reception for this has proved to be remarkably positive. Our stakeholders are thrilled that they can now see information at a glance that would previously require trawling through massive Excel sheets.

In the villages, farmers were excited to have their information online, and feel like their needs are being catered for.

Presenting the data in this easy-to-use way is already having further ramifications, too. Strategic decisions are so much easier to make with the information at people’s fingertips, and new Farmer Centres are in the early stages of planning, while those that already exist are now preparing to take on more Agri-Entrepreneurs to meet rising demands for their services.

A team of equals

For me, the biggest takeaway from Growing Together was a reminder of the amazing fact that a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds, with different skills – and who haven’t worked together before – can form a team to make software that has a transformative impact.

Our team had very little time to get our work done, had few resources, patchy or no access to the internet on many days and we were missing skill sets in key areas. But we were still able to deliver very quickly, in the most challenging of environments. It was possible because we were working to a common purpose and were guided by common values. And we never lost sight of the fact we were working for the benefit of our end customers – small-hold farmers in Bangladesh.

Equal Experts’ values helped guide us in making Growing Together a success, and I can see aspects of all of them in the project. But the value that really stands out for me is that “we deliver as a team of equals”.

A team of equals

The Growing Together team.

Our team of equals on this project included people who had to learn how to use a computer/laptop for the very first time. We relied completely on our Bengali colleagues for a lot of things, and we learned a lot from them. They kept us organised, changed schedules at short notice, facilitated meetings and venues, and generously shared their local knowledge. They also rolled their sleeves up and spent many hours on spreadsheets, Google Maps and Survey Monkey to help us enter data, clean up data and put together well-thought-through surveys.

I’d like to thank VSO for the opportunity to work with them on Growing Together. It was a truly inspiring project, and as an organisation, we’re looking forward to working on more projects like this in the years to come. I’d also like to thank Equal Experts – for being an organisation that enabled us to do this (without lots of hurdles and blockers), and which attracts so many great people.

Matt McGuire
May 2019