Mumbai-based Akanksha Hazari , founder and chief executive officer of m.Paani , aspires to empower the underserved and help build a better India with the help of cellphones. She is currently running two pilots in Mumbai—one in Sewri and the other in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums—with the help of an NGO and a “large Indian telecom services provider”. Hazari, 30, led the Cambridge University team that won the $1 million Hult Prize in 2011—funded by Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult and supported by the Hult International Business School—for m.Paani and was honoured by former US president Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. In an interview, Hazari spoke about m.Paani and what’s next in her social entrepreneurship journey. Edited excerpts:
What is m.Paani all about?
M.Paani, conceived in 2012, designs and implements mobile-based loyalty programmes for underserved communities by connecting their spends to important loyalty points which they can collect, share and ultimately redeem for life-changing development rewards in areas such as education, healthcare, safe water, energy. We are a Mumbai-based social enterprise and launched our first pilot in Mumbai itself in January. Our aim is to roll out full-fledged services in Mumbai by the end of 2013 and begin a rural pilot somewhere in Maharashtra by early 2014.
We have partnered with Pratham (a non-governmental organization or NGO working to provide education to underprivileged children in India) and also a major Indian telecom services provider (the name of which can’t be disclosed). It’s a nine-12 month pilot to be done in two phases. We are in the alpha stage, running multiple simulations of the various loyalty programmes and ensuring that we get feedback from our users to get an informed decision on how to design our data services. Based on our alpha stage, we will design our beta service that will run for at least six months and will be based on the user experience, we will work on a market rollout. The structure of the services and interfaces are being tested.
Could you elaborate on this?
Our urban users are underserved because there are huge income differences in slums, anywhere between Rs.5,000 and Rs.20,000. We have two pilots. The first is next to Sewri station (in central Mumbai) and the other one is in a corner of Dharavi. We narrowed down on these two locations after almost a year of deliberation. We started in Africa, ended up in India and then Mumbai where we had over 600 communities that we considered and with Pratham, we shortlisted around 25 communities, visited each one of them and narrowed down on these two. The communities jointly cater to around 2,450 households.
What will the users get?
The data service will be capped at 1,000 users. We broke down what it means to get a better life—providing services such as nutrition, education, health, mobility, energy and financial inclusion service. Now we have narrowed down on education, and developing rewards in digital literacy and English learning in different formats. For the rural belts, we will include services such as energy by including solar lamps, solar chargers, etc.
How does your reward scheme work?
Any user who avails of our service becomes a part of our loyalty programme and gets rewarded for certain types of spends and positive behaviours. A user has to earn the reward points by adopting specific positive behaviours that will be outlined. They can, then, accrue points, share them with family and friends, and ultimately redeem them for rewards. There is a standard enrolment process on the phone. It’s not an app but we will try to replicate the app experience, making it simple to sign up. We have partnered with a big Indian telecom service company and will leverage its distribution centres.
What’s the business model?
The service is free for users. However, since we help our corporate partners solve core business challenges by having a social impact, we have a revenue-sharing arrangement with them.
Are there similar models that you look up to? And what are your future plans?
I look up to M-Pesa. It is a phenomenal model. M-Pesa (pesa is Swahili for money) is a mobile-phone based money transfer and microfinancing service for Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania. It allows users with a national ID card or passport to deposit, withdraw and transfer money easily with a mobile device. We hope to become a national player within the next three-five years, serving underserved communities. Maharashtra will be our base. We are planning a pilot in African countries too.