November 16, 2020

Fieldwork During the Pandemic: Mobile Tech Helps Last Mile Operations Adapt to COVID

Elaine Chang

Fieldwork During the Pandemic: Mobile Tech Helps Last Mile Operations Adapt to COVID

Covid-19 created unprecedented challenges to social enterprises and NGOs relying on community field agents to provide goods and services to the poor in emerging markets. The already difficult task of operating in the last mile of areas with little or no internet or phone connectivity is made harder by travel restrictions, quarantines and other health precautions affecting fieldwork during the pandemic.

Yet these social enterprises and NGOs don’t have the luxury to stop providing important services like sanitation or tools for clean cooking and solar power to communities who can’t easily substitute Zoom calls for face-to-face contact. As a result, such organizations have had to reimagine fieldwork during the pandemic – from how they manage field operations to customer communications.

During a recent TaroWorks webinar, three of our customers (sanitation provider SOIL, solar power and clean cooking distributor Solar Sister and supply chain advisory group Solidaridad Network) described how they are using our mobile field service app and Salesforce’s cloud-based CRM to adapt business operations so they can continue fieldwork during the pandemic while ensuring the health and safety of field staff and those they serve. 

SOIL: Optimizing Waste Collection Routes 

Organization: Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) is a research and development organization, which created a social business model for providing access to a safe, affordable and dignified sanitation service in Haiti using dry container-based toilets. It converts the waste into rich, organic compost sold to farmers as a natural resource for the country’s badly-depleted soils as well as economic opportunities for its citizens. (Read More)

SOIL collects human waste from its customers’ toilets by removing full containers each week, replacing them with clean containers and transporting the waste to treatment facilities for processing into fertilizer through composting. 

fieldwork during pandemic
Image: SOIL waste collector on his collection route. Source: SOIL

Covid Impact: When Covid-19 hit, SOIL anticipated having to bring in temporary waste collectors to supplement current field agents who might fall ill or otherwise need to quarantine. While full-time staff had memorized collection routes, these fill-in team members needed a way to navigate collection routes quickly and efficiently with no experience doing so.

Covid Response: At the same time, SOIL was working with DataKind to develop software that would optimize collection route efficiency to allow for future expansion.

The new DataKind software was able to create house-by-house route lists that could then be downloaded to the TaroWorks mobile field service app (which SOIL was already using to manage field operations). As a result, new waste collectors were able to access turn-by-turn directions on a mobile device, allowing them to complete collection regardless of their knowledge of customers or neighborhoods. At the same time, this approach reduced collection time and therefore lowered transportation costs.

Temporary SOIL waste collectors use TaroWorks “…to access turn-by-turn directions in maps so that they can locate each household even if it’s a household that they’ve never been to before,” said Erica Lloyd, SOIL’s Director of Research and Innovation, during the webinar. 

Erica broke the entire route optimization process into three steps:

  • Step 1: Customer GPS data is downloaded from Salesforce and uploaded into Datakind for optimization.
  • Step 2: Optimized routes are downloaded from DataKind and uploaded back into Salesforce, where they are synchronized with TaroWorks on the collectors’ mobile phones.
  • Step 3: Collectors use a TaroWorks job to access turn-by-turn directions in maps to locate each household.
fieldwork during pandemic
Image: TaroWorks app and collection route map. Source: SOIL

In addition to helping new waste collectors filling in during the Covid-19 pandemic to quickly learn their collection routes, the combination of DataKind software, a Salesforce CRM database and TaroWorks’ offline mobile app increased operational efficiency by decreasing their overall mileage by 5%, even while the service grew by over 100 households. At the same time, it provided more detailed data on the number of containers collected each week.

“Understanding that container data has allowed us to say okay we want to hit as many households as possible in as efficient a way as possible … so we’re making sure that our vehicles are always coming back full,” Erica explained during the webinar.  “They’re able to squeeze in as many households as they can based on this container data that we’ve collected so it’s … definitely increased the average number of households that we’re able to hit in a single route.”

Solar Sister: Gauging Entrepreneurs’ Needs

Organization: Solar Sister seeks to light rural African communities and raise economic standards by helping women entrepreneurs sell solar lighting and clean cookstoves in their communities and use the proceeds to support their families. The organization’s woman-focused direct sales network brings the potential for clean energy technology to even the most remote areas of Nigeria and Tanzania while also contributing to economic growth. (Read More)

Image: Solar Sister entrepreneurs sell lighting products during the Covid-19 pandemic. Source: Solar Sister

Covid Impact:

“You can imagine Covid has definitely had a tremendous impact on our organization especially considering that our business model is heavily reliant on in-person activities,” Solar Sister Impact Associate Alicia Oberholzer said during the webinar. “A lot of our Solar Sister entrepreneurs receive their products by hand from (the organization’s) business development associates and the business development associates are often times taking these products to rural remote communities via foot and so closures and movement restrictions essentially led to a halt in in-person activities including our in-person trainings,” which are now slowly resuming.

Alicia said the pandemic also resulted in supply and distribution issues and an economic toll that focused Solar Sister customers more on providing food for their families than purchasing clean energy products.

Covid Response: Solar Sister’s immediate response to the business challenges presented by Coronavirus was to use TaroWorks’ mobile offline forms to gather information about the needs of company entrepreneurs who sell solar energy and clean cooking products – to then inform business decisions. 

For example, Solar Sister surveyed their women entrepreneurs to determine if they had access to technology that would allow product and other business training to be done virtually (online). They also delved deeper into each female entrepreneur’s Covid-19 challenges and needs through a separate survey in partnership with Energia, a group that strengthens women-led energy enterprises. (Read More)

Among other steps taken to help Solar Sister entrepreneurs adapt to Coronavirus by continuing fieldwork during the pandemic were:

  • Transforming in-person product and sales training sessions into digital get togethers using group phone calls and one-on-one phone mentoring.
  • Developing a “business booster program” that trained and mentored entrepreneurs on how to increase sales through digital marketing on social media. Solar Sister’s business associates – who support the entrepreneurs – tracked training progress and results using the TaroWorks app.
  • Implementing SMS communication between Solar Sister and its entrepreneurs, which also synced through the Salesforce CRM, using a Salesforce app developed by our implementation partner Mogli Technologies. Short SMS surveys and organizational updates were created in Salesforce and then sent directly to field agents on their mobile phones. 
fieldwork during pandemic
Source: Solar Sister

Solidaridad Network: Data for Decision-Making

Organization: Solidaridad Network is a social civil society organization that works to strengthen global supply chains and promote sustainability in farming. 

Jessica Murcia Poulsen, a Solidaridad Network ICT Development and Program Specialist in Central America, explained how Covid-19 affected Solidaridad’s work helping farmers increase their income and the quality of their products through farming practices of coffee, cocoa, palm oil, sugar and livestock – across Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Covid Impact: A lot of the training on farming and business best practices, provision of financial services and other assistance offered various stakeholders along the supply chain had been done in person. The approach taken by Solidaridad Network in Central America of establishing personal training groups or field schools is hands on instruction Jessica described as “learning by doing.” With the Coronavirus placing restrictions on travel and personal interaction, Solidaridad Network had to come up with new techniques to complete collection regardless of their knowledge of customers or neighborhoods.   

Covid Response: The main strategy used to face Covid-19 challenges in the field was increasing the amount of people using Solidaridad Network’s mobile apps and cloud database tools and offering even more training and other content directly to farmers. Before the pandemic, farm extension specialists, equipped with mobile phone apps and access to the Salesforce cloud CRM through the internet, visited groups of farmers to offer growing and harvesting tips and other assistance. They tracked program progress using TaroWorks. 

Another way Solidaridad Network pivoted their field agent processes was to not train as many farmers directly, but to select a smaller group of farmers to train and then have them train others, as a way to reduce exposure. 

Solidaridad Network is now providing hardware and internet access directly to the farmers and training the farmers on how to use tools previously available just to farm extension workers. In addition to using TaroWorks’ mobile field service app to collect data on program performance, Solidaridad Network started pushing out training materials like step-by-step fieldwork guides to the farmers as .pdf files downloaded to the mobile app.

Solidaridad Network also outfitted their field offices as interactive classrooms with TV, internet access and cameras and set up similar equipment on certain centrally located farms allowing groups of farmers to gather for live online instruction sessions on issues like identifying and treating crop and livestock diseases. Real-time weather information was also provided farmers and WhatsApp was used to offer customer support for their technology. 

fieldwork during pandemic
Source: Solidaridad Network

Finally, a greater emphasis was placed on quickly collecting field data to use for business decision-making. While TaroWorks had been deployed to field large baseline surveys that gauged project progress and performance, Solidaridad Network’s lead farmers began using our mobile app to conduct “technical assistance quick surveys” to, for example, identify problems incurred while transporting fruit.

This information was then visualized on Salesforce dashboards to help spot trends and identify pain points. SMS was also used to send training information or other content to farmers without smartphones. This approach allowed Solidaridad Network to gain input from a larger group of farmers and supply chain stakeholders thereby improving data quality and decision-making.

fieldwork during pandemic
Source: Solidaridad Network

Mobile Tech Adoption for Fieldwork During the Pandemic

In response to a question asked during the webinar, Jessica noted that trying to train farmers who haven’t used mobile technology during a time when training can only be done remotely, due to Covid-19, has a range of challenges. Among the lessons learned:

“Before jumping into the tool itself, you need to have an introduction into the digital world because for us maybe a computer, a tablet, the internet is very obvious but there are many farmers that have never had interaction with the internet or with a tablet,” Jessica said. “The response has been very good … once that they understand how things work digitally.” 

Alicia added an important, related point to this topic as the webinar concluded:

“I think the main thing is looking at it from the user’s end and evaluating what the users need, not necessarily what you think they may need,’ she said. “Oftentimes we want to push technologies on users that users may not actually want to use and so just making it as user friendly as possible and really customized to their needs” is important.

Webinar Video: Fieldwork During the Pandemic


About the author...

Elaine Chang


Elaine’s background in marketing research and data analytics has shaped her goal of helping organizations use insights from better data to create positive change in communities. She has a BS in Marketing and Finance from New York University, and an MBA from the University of Michigan. Elaine is based in Washington, DC.


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