eHomemakers (eH), a Malaysian social enterprise with a vision to empower disadvantaged women, innovated and developed ECHO from the grassroot perspective. Necessity being the mother of invention, eHomemakers created the ECHO concept for non-profit organizations to save staff time and telecommunication resources as a means to overcome a lack of funding to market disadvantaged women’s ecobaskets.
From an integrated tool for middle class volunteers to use email to coordinate activities at the least cost possible to a message recipient platform for the poor, ECHO has developed into a cloud-based organizational management system using internet-mobile. ECHO enables organization to reach out to large groups of people in diverse locations through email and SMS via a centralized database. Its latest technical feature enhancement provides user friendliness to the visually impaired persons in full compliance with international guidelines.
With the help of a few national and international funders, 35 non-government organizations (NGOs) in Malaysia are now able to utilize ECHO and make substantial cost savings on their communications resources. Recent ECHO developments include deployment in Indonesia through HomeNet Indonesia (HI) for the purpose of increasing homeworkers’ fair wages. In alignment with Fair Trade concepts, HI uses its business center to bring homeworker members’ products directly to the market without recourse to middlemen.
ECHO technology involves 3 components –
- An application server (Web server)
- Mobile app causing phones to act as SMS gateways
- Target recipient’s mobile phones to receive and reply SMS.
The mobile app was developed to allow android phones to act as SMS modems and thereby overcome the expense of renting SMS gateways from national telecoms providers. It represents a minimal cost solution to NGOs.
The ability of this powerful planning and organizing tool to send either email or SMS in bulk, as well as auto-summarizing replies with reports, provides a proven means for increased productivity (instant replies) and substantial savings on total admin staff costs. ECHO can be utilized for activities such as, but not limited to:
- Invitation and confirmations from members for upcoming events, meetings, trainings, seminars, volunteer activity placements
- Conducting surveys on groups and target segments
- Group sourcing of raw materials
- Organizing production chains
- Consolidation of sales items from marketing networks
- Bulk marketing of goods and services produced by beneficiaries and members
ECHO and HI Indonesia
HomeNet Indonesia (HI), also known as Mitra Wanita Pekerja Rumahan Indonesia (MWPRI), is a national network of NGOs that addresses concerns regarding the welfare and socio-economic well being of home-based working members. These workers generally are poor women with low education or literacy levels, live in rural and urban areas, and struggle to earn a livelihood through jobs issued from sub-contractors, middlemen or brokers. HI, in collaboration with eH, is currently paving the way for poverty alleviation through Fair Trade with the use of ECHO.
In order for HI to pay a Fair Trade wage to its members, there must be cost reductions in administration, marketing, and procurement of raw materials. The use of ECHO allows for savings of up to 98% in costs associated with organizing. As an example situation, an HI business center staff member receives an Internet order of a product. This staff member then distributes a single ECHO message to 100 makers, whereby they are requested to each provide their own production number for this product. These makers revert to confirm their production amount, and the staff member next checks the cumulative total of quoted units against the number required in the order. The staff member can subsequently revert to the customer with a very fast turnaround to accept or decline his/her order, and initiate production activities. Admin costs without ECHO are much higher due to the necessity of phone calls, one-to-one SMS, or face-to-face meeting.
The business center method provides efficiency gains that effectively enable Fair Wage (under Fair Trade principles), which allows the poor to receive better remuneration and lessen the trappings of poverty.
Hurdles in deploying ECHO in HI can be categorized into either 1) technological, or 2) human aspects.
Technological hurdles within Indonesia include unstable mobile signal coverage, latency in sending and receiving SMS (5 mins to 12 hours), and unstable Internet that delays SMS response. These drawbacks will be increasingly diminished in coming years, as Indonesia’s high economic growth spurs greater investment in telco infrastructure and a consequent better technology performance.
Resistance to change is commonly found during organizational development phases. The ease of acceptance of ICT is far higher for younger home workers than for the older generation. Women home workers who have limited education often feel that they are too old to learn new technology, and some of them cite difficulty as the reason behind their reluctance to use SMS (send and reply). Calling from a phone kiosk is much faster for them, albeit at a far higher cost.
An entrenched manual-based organizational work culture presents a barrier in implementing ICT, wherein a considerable amount of time is typically required for workers to internalize training session information and apply new ICT basic skills. This gap of understanding was found to exist among office workers above 40 years of age who were familiar with a paper-laden office culture, wherein decision-making was centralized and dictated by the top management. In such environments, lower level staff would print emails for senior staff to read, and transcript electronic replies on behalf of these senior staff.
Changing from an NGO management style into one more suited to a social enterprise resulted in HI coming under considerable pressure to deliver: HI needed to get the business center moving as soon as possible and adequately organize homeworkers to produce quality products for sale. The staff of HI found themselves pushing to improve the prevalent mentality towards work and communication efficiency.
Engagement and future
Many ICT-based social development projects are experimental, and therefore new to the providers as well as the end-users. At this point, 300 out of 10000 HI members were selected to participate in the ECHO training course. Deploying ECHO in HI has led to change momentum being initiated, whereby participants recognized the inherent advantages and loosened their embrace of the old style.
The use of ECHO for HI enabled the organization to realize the extent of their learning curve in order to cope with office ICT. A few key personnel have learnt additional IT-based project management skills and awareness of hitherto unknown tools such as online photo storage for products.
HI members are becoming more aware of utilizing ICT and SMS, and are thus able to achieve greater reach with less cost and more effectiveness. Campaigns on issues related to women homeworkers are distributed through social media, and so become a source of information for cases, problems, and the needs of women homeworkers in Indonesia.
It is acknowledged that HI requires more time to increase the capacity and spread the habit of using ICT, since HI staff and its members are not familiar with technology in their daily lives. Nevertheless, positive signs have emerged since the key phase of change momentum has been initiated. As such, the next step of reaching out to the remaining 9700 HI members is anticipated with a sense of optimism to match the altruistic vision of the founders.
By Yeo Lee Chin, Usability Coordinator (ECHO), eHomemakers