Photo: Faye Yu, Program Consultant, World Renew Malawi
Mike Hellinga, DataBind Solutions with Jacquline Koster, World Renew Regional Program Manager
Photo by Faye Yu, Program Consultant, World Renew Malawi

When Mike Hellinga of DataBind Solutions in Guelph, Ont. was invited by Peter Timmerman, World Renew Southern Africa Team Leader, to visit Malawi and see first hand World Renew’s work there, he discovered a country in crisis.

A sustained period of drought in 2015, followed by torrents of rain in January of 2016, resulted in near-total crop failure in some areas, and reduced harvests in others. Extreme food shortages and a dramatic increase in the cost of maize spelled disaster.

In a February 2016 blog post, Jacqueline Koster, Regional Program Manager for World Renew, called attention to the slow-moving crisis: “Millions upon millions of people will soon find themselves without food. This includes families who normally have enough to eat but suddenly find themselves without. It will also include those who struggle to get enough food for their families even in a typical year. With this year’s lack of rains, their situation will be impossible.”

In March 2016, Hellinga flew to Lilongwe. He visited project areas in Malawi and Zambia with Timmerman, who was systematically going to villages and local church leaders to determine what was needed where. After a week Timmerman asked his visitor, “What could you do?”

“We’re not farmers,” Hellinga said, “but we know about data. When we were observing, we saw lots of things being scribbled down in various places. We tried to find out how information was being gathered. This led to an idea of us being able to introduce technology to streamline the process of gathering data and make the collection and analysis and reporting on the data simpler, more accurate, timely, useful, and meaningful.”

DataBind Solutions’ Michael Andersen, who has previous experience developing mobile applications, tackled the project. In it, he discovered an opportunity to use some new Microsoft technologies to send and receive survey data from Africa to data centers in Canada.

“Being involved with a project knowing that it can aid others in need was a great feeling,” said Andersen.

The mobile application was used successfully to register, assess, and monitor the 1,000 beneficiary households in World Renew’s relief project. World Renew staff  were saved hundreds of hours of manual effort, which freed them up to work on other priorities.

Based on the success of the pilot, the application is now supporting relief efforts in Kenya and Uganda.

“It’s not finished,” says Hellinga, “but it has shown its potential so we’re mapping out the next phases. Possibly every World Renew relief project can use this system for data collection and analytics. We may expand beyond relief projects as well.”

This month DataBind Solutions was nominated for a Microsoft Partners IMPACT Award, together with BDO Canada, in the Citizenship and Community category.

Hellinga said, “The premise was not to make product to develop a revenue stream. The goal was to create a system that can help, and help as many people as we can. If it’s going to save money and ultimately mean that more money is available for feeding people, that’s a huge win.”