Posts Tagged With: MoH

ICTworks: Lessons Learned From Working Firsthand in Malawi’s ICT Sector

My article from ICTworks, published last Friday. Enjoy! 🙂

Lessons Learned From Working Firsthand in Malawi’s ICT Sector

Published on: Nov 14 2014 by Guest Writer


My name is Herman Fung and I’m a former VSO volunteer in Malawi. In March 2014, I completed an 18-month voluntary placement where I worked with the Ministry of Health to build and implement Malawi’s first national, open source Human Resources Information System for the health sector, called iHRIS.

iHRIS is a suite of web-based health workforce software and it is currently live in 19 countries, supporting over 700,000 health workers.

Our project, iHRIS Malawi, was commissioned by the Ministry of Health in 2012, with support from VSO (funded byTHET) and USAID. The objective was to replace a centralized Microsoft Access database, which became defunct partly due to difficulties in collecting HR data in paper form, from far away rural districts to the MoH Headquarters, in the capital city of Lilongwe. Other reasons for its demise include a lack of working computers and limited continual end user training, which was required due to the generally low levels of computer literacy compounded by a very high turnover of staff.

A total of six volunteers were recruited from the UK and we teamed up with four Malawian colleagues. We regularly received vital help from the Global iHRIS Community, which is a critical part of iHRIS ecosystem and one of the key benefits of choosing iHRIS.


As you might expect, there were many challenges of implementing a new system that impacts critical operations like Human Resources. A fair share of these challenges relate to ICT, but a large proportion were to do with people and processes, too.

iHRIS is a web-based system and requires an Internet connection and power. When we first arrived and began working at the MoH Headquarters, we didn’t have enough sockets to plug our own laptops into. Scheduled electricity load-shedding and unplanned outages were a regular occurrence, and the MoH did not have its own generator. There were also regular water outages.

Once we got our project hub running, we began engaging our stakeholders in slow but constructive dialogue:

  • A separate government department which own the central payroll system for all civil servants, which transpired to be our primary data source
  • District HR Officers who would manage the changes to this data
  • Central HR Officers who would organize the data
  • Planning Officers from another MoH department who would use the data to make key decisions
  • A group of Senior Management champions to back the project throughout

We tried to use an Agile approach with regular feedback loops over many iterations. However, this proved difficult due to challenges with regular access to key people and resources. So we adapted to a more traditional Waterfall methodology, which was easier for our stakeholders to understand and actively participate.

The software itself was relatively easy to set up because we had the required technical expertise in the form of analysts and developers, as well as support from iHRIS teams around the world. However, acquiring the hardware and infrastructure required to run it was a considerable task. The logistical challenge and cost behind this part cannot be underestimated.

A 1024 kbps broadband Internet connection costs $850 USD per month, which we shared with other projects, and our server took 5 months to arrive due to a lengthy procurement and import process.

Throughout the development process, we kept long term sustainability high on our agenda. We endeavored to trainour Malawian colleagues and encourage them to take the lead as much as possible, which was a challenge – and also huge opportunity.


One of the key lessons we learned was that the overall journey of delivering the project was just as valuable as the end product or system itself.

Over the course of the project, we exchanged views and built trust amongst ourselves and with our stakeholders. We took on extra capacity building exercises outside of our project such as the overhaul of the communal Computer Room.


Most importantly, we engaged in a two-way knowledge sharing process with a steep learning curve for everybody: volunteers, Malawians, developers, users and managers.

We analyzed and mapped existing manual processes. Where they were broken, we questioned them, which prompted some remedial actions. We were adamant not to automate a broken process, which would have been counter-productive.

We had success in promoting the value of standardized data by setting up a regular User Forum, which mapped 300 different jobs into meaningful categories in WHO standard cadre groups.


The district-by-district rollout of the system is ongoing. My colleagues still working on the project are running continual end user training workshops. They are also making improvements to the system based on stakeholder feedback before handing the project over to the MoH in March 2015.

The valuable lesson I learned was the importance of gradual change. In our experience, evolution, not transformation,is the best approach to introduce an ICT system in Malawi.


Herman Fung is a British IT consultant, health techie and ex-VSO volunteer in Malawi, where he worked with the Ministry of Health to implement the country’s first national, open source Human Resources Information System for the health sector. Follow him on Twitter: @Fung14

Categories: Malawi, Technology, Volunteering, VSO, Work | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

MoH IT Drop-In Session

After IT School for the kids, it’s time for the adults!

Next Wednesday morning, we are running an IT Drop-In Session for our colleagues at the Ministry of Health.

Informal. No agendas. Everyone welcomed!

MoH IT Drop-In Session Flyer

Wednesday 5 March 7:30-9:00 am at the Library

Categories: Malawi, Technology, Volunteering, VSO, Work | Tags: | 1 Comment

IT School

A few weeks ago, I ran a word processing / typing class for the kids. With my ancient Dell Inspiron 7000 laptop, which I used when I was at Loughborough University and amazingly still works!

The mighty Dell Inspiron 7000, complete with Intel Pentium II processor with 256 MB of  RAM and a floppy disk drive!

The mighty Dell Inspiron 7000, complete with Intel Pentium II processor with 256 MB of RAM and a floppy disk drive!

As I mentioned in my previous post, we take so many things for granted in the first world. Arguably, none more so than the basic computer skills we acquire as the norm. The Breakfast Club kids do not have access to a computer. So it’s not a surprise that they do not know how to type. Actually, we all had to learn… we’ve just forgotten how painful it was because it was so long ago!

Teaching the kids the basics brought it all back for me…

  • the (disobedient) mouse/touchpad
  • the (unintuitive) QWERTY layout
  • difference between <BACK SPACE> and <DELETE>
  • how to use the up, down, left, right cursor keys, and
  • the <SHIFT> key!!!

I had a really nice surprise at around the same time of this class. One Monday (kanema/cinema day), I was quite busy. So I put on a cartoon and left the kids to it. When I was still working, I heard a “knock knock”. So went to answer the door. The kids had shut down my computer properly and packed everything up for me! Quite a big leap from treating the computer as an alien object.

Separately, just this afternoon, I had a discussion with a colleague who is an ODI Fellow, also working at the Ministry of Health. She wants to set up a regular IT Drop-In session for MoH colleagues. Anyone who has a question on Windows or Office etc. For example, wants to sort data, create filters, freeze panes in Excel. Or maybe create a fancy pivot table. The iHRIS Team will be ready to support this initiative. We’ve previously talked about doing some general IT training (like the ICDL) instead of just training to use iHRIS. But we never got past the red-tape, bureaucracy and limitations due to our workload/focus. I hope this initiative materialises!

Separately again, I also just recently found out that there is a project to create the first tech hub in Malawi. The project, and probably the hub itself, is called mhub. It’s currently still a work in progress but it sounds very promising.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a little tech revolution ready to happen in Malawi.

Makeshift workstation

Makeshift workstation

Center of attention

Center of attention

Using the SHIFT key

Using the SHIFT key

Categories: Malawi, Technology, Volunteering, VSO, Work | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Computer Room, Ministry of Health

Before I start, I must say that if this is not organisational capacity building, then I don’t know what is!

Non-frontline civil servants, including workers at the Ministry of Health Headquarters, were given an extended Christmas and New Year holiday. 3 weeks from 16 December. So the iHRIS Team used the first week of this extended holiday to tidy the Computer Room.

This is where all manners of goings on used to occur… from group lunches, a newspaper library, personal locker for those without an office… to its official use: Monthly payroll runs, which at times, mean well over 10 HR Officers in the same room cross-referencing pages and pages of payroll printouts. It also doubled up as the cleaning cupboard. Storing brooms, rags and cleaning products!

The illogical layout of the room also meant that there were wires and cables lying over the floor. With the big payroll printers in the center of the room, surrounded by desks (dumping grounds) and dead computers. In the interest of health and safety, and professional standards, the collective “we” can and must do better!

Although it was essentially manual labour and cleaning with some IT Tech Support, it was 3 full days well spent. Enjoy the photos. We do, every time we see the before and after.

PS. Together with the MoH’s IT Manager, we’re in the process of creating procedures and ground-rules to keep the room this tidy, indeed, even better: Official opening hours, restricted access etc.

Before: Zero carpet, health and safety nightmare

Before: Zero carpet, health and safety nightmare

After: Lots of clean carpet and tidy workstations

After: Lots of clean carpet and tidy workstations

Before: Wall of dead computers and boxes of paper

Before: Wall of dead computers and boxes of paper

After: Still some junk but there's a now a hotdesk for visitors

After: Still some junk but there’s a now a hotdesk for visitors

Server Room - still to be worked on

Server Room – still to be worked on

iHRIS Support - The placard we put up at pilot sites and on our office door

iHRIS Support – The placard we put up at pilot sites and on our office door

Categories: Malawi, Technology, Volunteering, VSO, Work | Tags: , | 6 Comments

Stop Abuse

I’ve always loved a good zombie film or TV program. After a busy few weeks, I finally got round to watching World War Z the other day and it was worth the wait. Finally, a decent Brad Pitt film since Fight Club!

Anyway, there is a poster at the Ministry of Health which reminds me of the film, everyday. It’s on one of the doors at the end of the main corridor on the top floor (where we are).

Despite the bio-hazard or zombie theme to the design, I’m told that the message is actually loosely interpreted as:-

“Stop sexual and child abuse. Respect your body.”

Stop sexual and child abuse

Stop sexual and child abuse

Categories: Malawi, Volunteering, VSO | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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