Belfast Telegraph

What Malawi has taught me

By Claire Thomson, Grant Thornton

There are a number of values that go beyond international borders and cultures. The rule of law, freedom of expression, or, even an appreciation of chocolate are often cited, but from recent experience the need for and value of, sound financial management, is also on that list.

I achieved that experience in September, during a placement in Malawi as a pro bono accounting volunteer with the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology (‘Kusamala’). The placement was arranged by Accounting for International Development, a social enterprise which places accounting professionals with organisations around the world.

Permaculture (the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient), is at the heart of Kusamala. It is about helping farmers and families make the most of their facilities, creating a sustainable way of living and maximising the resources available.

In its seven year history, despite Kusamala being a small organisation with limited funding, it has made a difference to thousands of farmers and their families across Malawi, and there is a real passion to expand into the whole country.

Fundamental to that growth was the ability to access accurate, timely financial information. The purpose of my placement was to help Kusamala’s administrator and finance staff, focusing on a new electronic accounts package to improve financial management and control throughout the organisation.

Kusamala had been using a package that could not deliver reporting information in a format that was relevant to the organisation.

The transition required a transfer of data and training the finance team. Also fundamental, was creating a reporting structure that produced information in a more meaningful, tailored format. This is in turn provided management with quality, timely information to easily monitor the financial results of the organisation, to make quicker, better decisions, and to plan for the future.

The financial management challenges facing Kusamala — and other such organisations in Malawi — will be familiar to many small and medium-sized businesses and organisations in Northern Ireland. This assisted greatly with the aim of the project itself, which was to share the benefit of local experience and develop the appropriate framework on location.

What I had not anticipated, however, was the valuable lessons that were learned from establishing a financial management framework in an environment where resources are limited, communication networks are less reliable and data capture is less efficient.

The fundamental principle of compiling meaningful, relevant reporting from the information available, certainly required alternative approaches and some thinking ‘outside the box’, learnings which I have brought home with me and local businesses could benefit from.

Whilst I am back home in Northern Ireland now, it is always a privilege to be able to contribute in a small way to the work that is happening in Malawi, and I will continue to assist from afar.

*For further information, Claire Thomson can be contacted at claire.thomson@ie.gt.com, or visit http://www.grantthorntonni.com/ Grant Thornton (NI) LLP specialises in audit, tax and advisory services.

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