Fighting malnutrition in East-Africa

Visma’s mission is to empower people and businesses through innovative technology. For two months this summer, I worked very specifically towards this goal, but in an entirely new area and region, and for a charity.

According to UNICEF, an estimated 3.1 million children under the age of five die every year because of malnutrition. Malnutrition is a deficiency or lack of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) which are essential for physical and intellectual development. Another 165 million children suffer from impaired growth or intellectual disability, and malnutrition is also the leading cause of maternal death during childbirth and preventable blindness.

So, malnutrition is a huge problem. But you may be asking yourself: How is this related to Visma? Well, frankly, it is not. Usually. However, this summer I had asked my manager for an extra long leave, in order to help a nonprofit in Tanzania with data and automation projects. Not only was my request approved, but I also got support and lots of encouragement from colleagues at all levels of the organization. 

My name is Eirik Mofoss, and for the last year I have been working as a Management Trainee in Visma. For two months this summer I lived in Tanzania and worked pro bono for Sanku Project Healthy Children. I worked with data analytics, developing integrations with their ERP system, automation of manual tasks and more. I learnt a lot, and believe I also made a significant impact for a project I wholeheartedly support. Below you can read more about all of this.

How to reach a 100 million people?

Sanku-PHC is a wonderful nonprofit with ambition to end malnutrition in Africa, with an evidence-based and data-driven approach. Based in Tanzania, they add micronutrients to maize flour, a staple food that people in East Africa typically eat everyday. This process is called food fortification, and is already standard in all developed countries. As an example, all the milk you buy in the Nordic countries is fortified with vitamin D, and all oil with vitamin A. Sanku, on its side, follows the recommendation for their region, and fortifies maize flour with iron, zinc, folate (B9) and B12.

The cornerstone of Sanku’s work is their in-house developed “dosifier”. This machine is easily installed on top of existing flour mills and adds small amounts of micronutrients to the flour during production (see a video of how it works here). Sanku provides the dosifier and micronutrients for free, on the condition that millers buy their pink flour bags, so that consumers in any shop can easily spot which flour bags have added nutrients or not. The bags are sold at market price, but Sanku still gets enough of a margin to almost fully cover the cost of the micronutrients (but not the dosifier and operational expenses). 

Through almost three hundred dosifiers in Tanzania, and some in Malawi, Rwanda and a refugee camp in Mozambique, Sanku’s micronutrients reach almost two million people every day. They plan to double the number of dosifiers this fall, and to double again almost every year, until they reach a 100 million people across East Africa within 2025. Such an ambitious plan requires smart operations, efficiency and software to help scale. And that is why Sanku reached out in their network to get help, and what I aimed to help them with this summer.

Visma is excellent at building simple and automated solutions, and the largest cloud-based software company in Northern Europe. My mission in Sanku was to implement some similarly smart solutions there, making use of their data and streamlining their operations.

 

Engineered for growth

Compared with most other organizations, Sanku had a good starting point. Every five minutes, all of their 300 dosifiers send data from a dozen sensors to a cloud server through cellular data. Surprisingly to many in the West, Tanzania has a quite good cellular network infrastructure and 4G availability. 

When I arrived in Tanzania, the sensor data was collected, but barely used and hardly accessible for any of Sanku’s employees. The same was true for data gathered by staff in the field, through mill visits, stock counts, dosifier controls, bag deliveries, vehicle usage, etc. So my first task was to make all this data available.

Luckily, I have worked with a broad range of tools for business intelligence (BI) and analytics in my previous Visma projects. However, instead of using any of the more comprehensive tools I’ve worked with before, in Sanku I decided to create a “home-made” solution. I used Google Sheets for creating databases, and Google Data Studio for visualization and analytics. Both are free of charge, which is important for a nonprofit as Sanku.

This IT-architecture is simple, but you would be surprised to learn how capable and flexible Google’s framework actually is. More importantly, in product development you should always have your user in mind. With no other software engineers at Sanku, it was important to build a solution that could be easily maintained even after I left.

Why I love Google’s products

In Apps Scripts, the programming platform developed by Google for all their products, it is possible to customize a lot of functionality. Upon my arrival, I immediately made dosifier data from a AWS server available real-time in Google Sheets, visualizing whatever Sanku’s management requested. Through the APIs of the mobile survey tool that Sanku’s staff use every day in the field, I could also build several databases for them, also with (close to) real-time updates. 

Having all data in Google Sheets means that it is easily accessible for anyone that need access, and that even editing and adding new data does not require any special technical skills. Moreover, Google has nice functionality for restricting view and edit permissions, both to whole documents, specific sheets or even just parts of a sheet. If of interest, as it was for me and Sanku, you can even program emails to automatically be sent with reminders, receipts and similar, triggered by other events.

Retrieving and connecting all data was also only the first step. Once finished, I could build a prediction model for Sanku’s inventory (almost a thousand unique items, as most mills have unique bag designs and bags of different sizes), to prevent stock-outs and save time. In a previous Visma project I tried something similar with advanced machine learning. Wise by experience, as that model didn’t work too well (it ended up strongly overfitting), I this time used much simpler and straight-forward logic and math.

Today, Sanku’s supply chain manager doesn’t need to keep any overview herself anymore, and be afraid to do manual miscalculations. She simply opens one Google sheet, selects a few parameters to decide how much inventory buffer she ideally wants, and then forwards a list of orders generated by the model to the supplier. This means millers are much less likely than before to run out of bags or micronutrient mix, and can therefore continue to fortify flour and fight malnutrition.

The way forward – for Sanku and for me

Sanku’s journey towards providing essential nutrients for a 100 million people every day is inspiring and exciting. I do hope, and believe, that what I have worked on this summer will make a difference and help them reach their goals.

Living in Tanzania was a new and unique experience. As a Northern-European, I had access to and could afford most of the facilities I have at home. Yet, there are some things that I will definitely not miss, like the extreme inequality, poverty, malaria, bugs, the electricity and water often being out of service, and all the sad stories and destinies one meets there. I can only hope that Sanku and similar organizations’ efforts will speed up the process of preventing all these broken futures, and to build healthy ones instead.

Now, back in the north, I am done with my year as a Management Trainee and have just moved from Oslo to Stockholm to enter a new position in Visma. More about this will follow in a Management Trainee blog post coming out in a few weeks. I am thankful for and proud of the support and encouragement I got from Visma’s management in going to Tanzania, and will certainly continue to bring up ideas for how Visma can strengthen its contribution to society.

PS. If you want to learn more about how it is to work at Visma, and experience yourself to work for a company that provides its employees the opportunity and encouragement to reach their full potential, you can check out Visma’s career pages. Currently we have open vacancies for new management trainees starting next year, summer internships, consultants and other full-time positions. 

If you have not done so already, you can also read about my first three projects as a Management Trainee in a previous blog post. And a small teaser: the fourth project, which is not described there, is also where I have ended up permanently now.