MFN 2016 Annual Meeting Report

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“The world is not binary. The future of microfinance will not be all agents based, nor will it be all self-service. There is a space where technology can coexist with, and even enhance, human interaction.”

Keynote by Sameer Segal

We invited Sameer Segal to the 2016 Annual Conference to get us closer to the emerging “fintechs” that are often a mystery to the MFIs. Sameer is the founder and CEO of Artoo, a Bangalore, India based startup that complements the MFIs by using inclusive technology to empower loan officers, improve end-to-end processes, and increase customer satisfaction. At its core, Artoo is a financial customer relationship management platform (“CRM”) that allows MFIs to manage the entire customer lifecycle from loan sourcing to post-disbursement servicing, all on a single platform. To date, Ujjivan, India´s third largest MFI, is successfully using Artoo´s technology. Sameer, the 29 year old CEO and founder of Artoo, shared his experience launching and developing this technological solution. The participants were left wondering how someone who knew little about the MF industry five years ago could come in and develop relevant solutions that serve our clients’ needs within a short period of time.

Artoo was born out of a summer internship Sameer did with Ujjivan, where he wondered why the world´s most intuitive technologies could not be applied to the bottom of the pyramid. His fresh entrepreneurial spirit allowed him not only to understand the problem and identify the opportunity to reengineer the end-to-end customer relationship process but also to come up with a valuable solution. He observed how established companies tend to automate existing processes and noted that many companies make the mistake of simply digitizing everything that is on paper and moving it to a tablet, but not enough companies spend sufficient time on thinking how a process should be redesigned once technology is involved (re-ordering steps, eliminating steps, inserting new steps etc.)

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As for the process of developing Artoo, Sameer highlighted the importance of iterative learning on building an impactful business. For example, he explained how the initial designs of the Artoo software for tablets demonstrated that it was not possible to please everyone, thus their design decision-making processes were focused on tradeoffs between the size of the device (male loan officers wanted larger displays while female loan officers cared about the weight of the device and wanted it to fit in their handbags), battery life (management wanted 8 – 10 hours) and features (customers wanted videos on the device to provide more information).

SameerSameer also talked about the challenge of building an entrepreneurial team, integrating people with specialized and complementary skills, and how entrepreneurs need to have skin in the game, for example, he stopped drawing his salary when in the initial phases Artoo only had 6 months of money in the bank.

Sameer is highly optimistic about the future. He is open to taking Artoo in various directions depending on how opportunities present, but at the same time he has it very clear that the company needs some strategic anchors around which it should grow. He calls these Artoo´s “north stars and guiding lights”, and defines them as three simple principles:

  • How do we make field staff happy?
  • How do we dramatically change economics of this model and its business results?
  • How do you radically improve the experience of the borrower?

This was a session in which we could radically contrast the speed and frugality with which an entrepreneur operates, versus the abundance of resources and slowness of mature MFIs entrepreneurial processes. We were quickly reminded of the early days of microfinance, when we were entrepreneurs finding a new business model to serve our clients. The session left us with a sense of urgency to rekindle our entrepreneurial spirit. We were also reminded that we are not alone in this pursuit, if we open our eyes to the world of financial inclusion around us there are great opportunities. We can get the best of both worlds if we are apt to find suitable partners with whom we could ally to build the solutions of the future.

Click here to read the full report.

2016 HasGeek Rootconf

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Rootconf is an annual conference on DevOps and Cloud infrastructure spearheaded by HasGeek, which regularly conducts tech conferences and workshops. We missed an opportunity to showcase things at #rootconf about we have learned on managing Artoo infrastructure over the last year, but Shameer and I were excited to join in for couple of fun days. In addition to learning new things, we were looking forward to interact with like-minded people who were doing exciting stuff around DevOps and Cloud.

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RJ45 cable used as Rootconf’s ID tag

Although I am not sure if this has already happened at other HasGeek events, but this year’s rootconf had a few interesting things to offer. The RJ45 cable was used as the ID tag holder, and a swarm of new-age Bangalore food start-ups served us food in lieu of food tickets.

People often complain about food at large events; however, our options were plenty and delicious at this year’s Rootconf.

Of the talks lined up at the event, I suppose there was a concerted effort to showcase higher quality talks on varied subjects, and speakers across the globe shared their experiences and interesting projects with us.

It was delightful to be a part of some good panel discussions on DevOps and databases in parallel to the talks stream. People shared their DevOps experiences with regards to system failures, disasters, and good design practices. At Artoo, we are adding more components and functionality to our software stack and have been looking around for best practices around system design, handling failures, performance and stability of the whole platform.

Some of the key takeaways from the conference around these ideas were:

  • 26470308721_cf83b277ed_zEmbrace failure and try to build systems that work even amid systemic breakdowns: This espousal runs contrary to what a new engineer would try to do: write code for all edge cases and try to control all parts of the system. This was a talk by Antoine (linked below), where he spoke about how we should go about planning systems considering that they would always keep crashing or running into some issues and yet how to continue achieving their functional goals. It spoke about managing communication and state across components in a system.

  • 26263596630_8c9f817ec7_zSimplicity (code, organisation): Continuing from the previous talk about simple components and communication, we then got into simplicity in the organisation communication and structures. The interaction between developers and operations at Snapdeal to maximize quality and output was captured very well by Yagnik in his talk. He sympathised with the DevOps crowd quite well and had a light-hearted take on this bitter-sweet relationship. For instance, he presented a slide where DevOps people were identified as faces with a blank look and long beard (When he said this and I looked around at the audience, there were quite a few people who met this description and were now smiling).
  •  26470359491_2c7e1e08e9_zLook for general problem solvers (example: SRE): This was from the DevOps panel discussions about how to approach and acquaint DevOps for people new to the field, how to hire people, etc. There were also brief references to Google’s Site Reliability Engineer role specs, which were released and made public recently. The emphasis here was on looking more for general problem solvers and moulding them rather than looking for an experienced full-time rockstar DevOps person, especially for startups. It was more of a debate on whether one should hire a person with pure skills on the infrastructure part or get people with superior cognitive abilities. Aditya Pattawari from Browserstack summarized it in a few words, “If we are hiring 10 people for a team of DevOps, we should have 2 of them who are completely experienced and have worked on a great deal of things in infrastructure, whereas the remaining 8 can be the problem solvers with high cognitive abilities, who are quick enough to grasp teachings from the 2 experienced ones.” “Dont rely on the 2 guys to stay for long though,” he chuckled.

I was thoroughly impressed by the sheer depth of knowledge of the people around me. What personally intrigued me was their capacity to unlearn and relearn. After the talks, we spoke to some interesting people and even distributed our fancy new Artoo bookmark. A few of them had specially flown down from the across the globe for this event, and we shared and discussed our experiences.

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Artoo bookmarks

Inspiration from: https://rootconf.in/2016/

My personal favorite talks from the conference were:

  •  Crash-only software (Digital Ocean, Antoine Grondin): A talk on what crash only software is, why you want it and how to implement it, with examples from large scale deployments at DigitalOcean on how to design for graceful handling of failures.
  •  An extension to the chaos engineering from Netflix (Netflix, Diptanu): The talk introduces Chaos Engineering and focuses on how complex distributed systems fail in large scale internet services. It discuss patterns and various techniques for designing highly aperatiovailable and resilient distributed systems that can heal from transient failures.
  • Managing the developer to ops communications (Snapdeal, Yagnik): The talk is intended to help understand how to scale operations and developers with the help of cultural and process changes that allow you to innovate faster with higher accountability and reliability.
  • Continuous deployment at scale (Etsy, Premshree Pillai): Learning about optimizing everyone’s productivity and happiness while building products at scale, through software tooling and culture.
  • PostgreSQL and MySQL war stories (Srihari and Colin): The first talk is about the failure scenarios we designed for the Postgres database cluster, the times when the designed system failed, and what we learnt from them. The second talk is about the MySQL ecosystem, which offers plenty of solution albeit with tradeoffs and how to look at all of the alternatives in an unbiased nature.

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For the complete list of talks and videos at the Rootconf
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL279M8GbNsevAmMGz5SKSGDOQdQdlhBcq
For further reading on rootconf:
https://kushaldas.in/posts/event-report-rootconf-2016.html

About the author:

Shrivatsa Swadi | A Mobile Engineer (Geek)

Shrivatsa is a full stack developer at Artoo who supervises and mentors the engineering team. He is passionate about using technology to bring changes on the ground, especially to benefit those outside the grid.

Shirvatas

“Digital Credit” Workshop by CGAP

Artoo was delighted to be a part of CGAP’s recent, invite-only event held in Mumbai. It was interesting to share space with YES Bank, RBLCapital Float, as well as other new payment banks, such as SBI-Reliance, Sun Pharma, and Aditya Birla Group. Together, it was a great representation of the ecosystem under one roof. While the workshop explored the rise of digital credit in global markets, issues, and infrastructure fundamentals revolving around digital credit, the idea was to improve borrower experience without dramatically changing the economics simultaneously. How does this work for India? Is the moment now?

Mshwari

M-Shwari is a paperless banking service offered through M-PESA by Safaricom. M-Shwari added 1 million customers in 6 months and 10 million in 2 years. Day 1 of M-Shwari launch saw a registration of 40K applicants, a landmark for any app installed.

Interestingly, India has the largest share of the world’s unbanked at 22%; with 36M MFI borrowers at present, it is expected to grow at a rate of 30%–50% in the coming days. There is a huge opportunity for us in this space. The banking sector is used to a lot of restrictions.

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Global trend. Source: CGAP.

India Stack is a viable alternative that has managed to include Aadhaar for Authentication, e-KYC documents, e-Signature, and Unified Payment Interface (UPI), which is compliant and available to everyone.

As a forerunner of digital services, we at Artoo believe that India Stack opens up endless possibilities for developers, who will now be able to create and develop products and enterprises for the flourishing smartphone market in India. The MSME sector is another evolving space that has immense potential and opportunities and is of huge interest to us.

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Digital Credit. Source: CGAP.

Anand Raman of CGAP presented the current role of digital credit and how it fared against conventional credit. He also spoke about Airtel Timiza, established in partnership with JUMO (the micro-financing unit of Cape Town-based AFB Pvt Ltd.), that is currently available in Tanzania. Salient features of Timiza include loans without savings and deposits, pre-approved instant loans, option to borrow higher subsequent loans depending on previous cleared loans, and affordable interest rates. The loan amount depends on your Airtel money usage. This is a salient example of how new-age lending provides cashless, affordable loans to the masses – a trend that is here to stay. In addition, these services provide greater flexibility and opportunities, thus empowering the borrower.

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Key bad-debt drivers. Source: CETA.

Credit scoring, is the heart of any digital lending solution – or so we thought. Jamal E Rahal, spoke about his experience of creating M-Shwari‘s first credit scorecard. The strategic partnership between Commercial bank of Africa and Safaricom has fuelled M-Shwari’s outreach across Africa. He spoke that Credit Scoring is a only one part of the risk management framework. The more important ones are Through The Door (TTD) – initial eligibility criteria – and Collections Process. This was a real eye opener.

At the event, Telenor provided an example of how it leverages Telecom data to provide digital financial services in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Serbia, and Malaysia. An elderly women in Pakistan, say 65 yrs,  has limited movement, uses religious soundtracks as her caller tune, and make regular calls to Saudi Arabia. The outcome was a special Hajj package loan. Then, they provided insurance for Air Travel as well as remittance products. Another idea was providing Health Insurance for these travellers.

For FinTech firms like ours, it helps us position ourselves better among the traditional players in the market and is an opportunity to provide game-changing solutions. Currently, we are excited about the developments in the MSME space. We have already created prototypes for it and are working on a pilot.

Overall, it was thrilling to be a part of such a peer group that is bringing the future today.

About the author:

Sameer Segal | CEO & Founder

Artoo at The 2016 MFN Conference, Bangladesh

I was invited to speak at The Annual MicroFinance Network (MFN) Conference (29/2 – 2/3) hosted by BRAC in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The MFN comprises 25 members that serve over 100 million clients in 23 different countries. BRAC has been the pioneer in leading developmental programs in Bangladesh. Right from education to healthcare, BRAC has envisioned and fueled activities in improving the livelihoods of the poor and ultra-poor.

It was a big opportunity for Artoo to be here. MFN members wanted to transform their model. They were concerned about not being relevant in the new economy and wanted to learn from young innovators like Artoo on how to reinvent themselves. We were truly over the moon because we have grown up idolizing them.

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As part of the event, I spent a significant time with the MFN members understanding their challenges and opportunities specific to their geographies. There were attendees from different regions of the globe such as Mexico, Nigeria, Armenia, Egypt, and Jordan. It was amazing to hear their stories, which spans across several decades. While they had specific challenges to overcome, there were enough similarities. The MFN group has been a source of inspiration and bonding: together we overcome! I was ecstatic to be there.

On the first day, I went for a field visit to bKash. Founded by Kamal Quadir and his brother Iqbal Quadir, bKash is a subsidiary of BRAC bank that provides mobile financial services through money exchange on mobile phones. bKash agents are mediators who help customers with their financial transactions. Customers can send and receive money through mobile wallets, which makes it an affordable and easily accessible product that is cashless and paperless.

The model is not new – it’s there in India as well. However, regulatory ease-ability to cash out isn’t there yet in India. Even so, the scale is truly awesome. Agents maintained $2k as float – something which is unheard of in India and testament to the kind of business they were able to generate. Each cash out entailed 1.85% commission, and 70% of it was shared between agents and super agents (distribution network). The transactions were performed through basic handsets.

Overall, today bKash is being used by 21.5 MM customers, a scale that speaks for itself. A striking feature is that customers don’t even need phones. All they have to own is a SIM card. Then, they can get their desired transaction done through an agent. A poor migrant father, for example, can come with his money and SIM. The agent will put his SIM inside his phone and do the transaction on his behalf to send money to his son who is attending college away from home.

bKash was an innovative way to include and expose the ultra-poor to affordable financial services. The first bKash agents were initial BRAC borrowers, which inculcated in building trust among the new users as well as was a driving force for any business. When they had to scale, they tapped into commercial distribution networks.

The next session I attended was innovations at BRAC. Here, we learnt about the story of BRAC and its origins. For a country with a high infant mortality rate, BRAC was instrumental in reducing the percentage from 25% to a meager 4% by educating the mothers on how to keep themselves and their kids hydrated. All they were taught was to include sufficient proportions of sugar and salt in drinking water. This simple idea impacted 30 million households comprising approximately 14 million women, a breakthrough in the field of healthcare, and helped reduce the mortality levels.

Bracfotowall

The key learning from this session were IIMLA – Innovate, Implement, Measure, Learn, Adapt. The entire life-cycle of introducing something new, be it a product or a service, is based on these five phases, which help you track the performance of your solution. This holds true for every enterprise. When we started out, Artoo was piloted in five test branches. With the encouraging results after several iterations and fixes, we now have a full-fledged Intelligent Digital Loan Origination System that is being actively used by more than 3700 users in 400 branches across India. This drives us to create products that can impact and help the masses.

Although it’s easy to replicate an external product and its features, it’s not always necessary that the same model will work for your enterprise. The value proposition determines how your product will fare in the market. The key is to develop and maintain partnerships with all stakeholders and keep reinventing oneself. BRAC’s philosophy is that wherever they saw a problem and figured they could do something about it, they did it— this resonates a lot with us.

When you meet people who work in the same space as you, they often offer interesting insights about your domain. The MFN conference was one such event that I was delighted to be a part of. You were introduced to great work done by people and exposed to several ideas that inspired you to do more for the community. The future looks good from the current scheme of things.

The next day was my presentation about Artoo. I spoke about our journey and our experience in scaling Artoo. I also spoke about the highs and lows at Artoo. It was an extremely interactive and engaging conversation around technology. The driving force however was empathy. Every one present there had a common disregard for profitability, and we unknowingly had created the biggest thing ever in FinTech – something with our own hands while focusing on the customer – keep what works!

At the very end of my speech, Shameran Abed, BRAC’s Microfinance Director and Enrique Ramirez, Compartamos Banco, raised a question: “How do you see us – the MFIs? Specifically who do you think is going to remain relevant between the FinTechs and MFIs?” I had a feeling that they were going to ask me this question; so, I had a slide ready to address this query.

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FinTechs are leveraging Data Science. That is the reason for their steep valuations. Data Science, I explained, is basically developing a function (or formula or model) that separates the blues and the reds in a clear pattern (diagrammatically shown above). The heart of this function is a kernel that is developed based on domain knowledge. Ultimately, it all boils down to domain knowledge. The MFIs have the domain knowledge but not the technology, which they can easily acquire. The FinTechs have the technology and are burning through non-performing assets to discover the domain knowledge. It’s a level playing field.

I was able to learn so much from these stalwarts and got a renewed sense of energy and purpose. I was also inspired to apply some of the principles from BRAC at Artoo. It was an absolute honor to be part of this speaker session!

About the author:

Sameer Segal | CEO & Founder

Emberinos meet up at the Treehouse

It all started with this tweet that Tom Dale (@tomdale) retweeted

So, someone, somewhere in Bangalore was using Ember.js. Yay! We had been to numerous JavaScript meetups and conferences but we hardly met anyone who could actively talk aboutEmber.js. Some time ago, the to-be organizers of the Ember.js Bangalore meetup group, Sivakumar Kailasam and Sanjay Nambiar had started working on ember, and like us, had realised that the ember community in India was quite sparse.

They started the meetup to fill this void and naturally, we at Artoo were thrilled on hearing the news (Thank you Twitter!). It was a good turnout for the first meetup and we were excited to meet a bunch of smart enthusiastic people. After a few introductory talks, Sameer showcased Artoo’s web app, a huge web application built entirely on Ember. Everyone was excited to see a full blown Ember application running live in production. Buoyed by the response, Artoo decided to host the next meetup at the Artoo Office.

Dilip22 November, 2014 – The Artoo Treehouse was a proud sponsor of the 3rd Ember Meetup. We were anticipating about 25 people. 9 people showed up and all of them were using ember heavily in their daily jobs. We had a few talks planned – Siva gave a detailed introduction on the new things that had been rolled out in Ember v1.8. I gave a recap of the Ember.js talk I had presented inJSFoo 2014. But the star of the day was *drumroll please* our very own Dilip Kushwaha (@kushdilip)!

Dilip gave an advanced talk on the use of Ember Components. He showcased how we use deep nested components in Artoo…. and it blew everyone’s mind!

Ember…btw, did we tell you – we met Dilip during the first Ember Meetup?

After this, the rest of the participants showcased their company’s products that were built on Ember. Sameer gave a more sneak peak into the Artoo product and that spurred more intense discussions. We had a great discussion about best practices over tea and promised to return bigger and better for the next Meetup

13 December 2014 – The 4th meetup was a 6 hour long Workshop + Hackathon! This time Artoo was happy to sponsor lunch as well *bigger Yay!* More than 20 people showed up and we were all pumped up. We took some guy called Linus Torvalds’ dialogue – “Talk is Cheap. Show me the Code” too seriously. There was a quick demo on how to build apps on Ember-CLI and soon after lunch we all split into teams of 4 and sat down to build a “ride sharing app”. The rules were clear – Use Ember-CLI only and nothing else. All teams got their creative heads rolling and at the end of 6 hours we all had something cool to show off.

This was an exciting session. There were a lot of first time users. They were paired up with people who have worked on ember before and everyone got to learn and exchange great ideas.

We love Ember and we feel a sense of responsibility towards the community. We really liked the format ‘for hackers by hackers’ and we are eager to host the next meetup very soon. If you want to be a part of it, follow us on Twitter @artootrills and we will keep you updated. Hope to see you next time!!

About the author:

Kaushik is a Geek at Artoo, working on the web and cloud. Follow him at @kaushikb9

The Great Big Tech Gap

Jeff Hammerbacher, of Facebook fame, was quoted that “the best minds of [our] generation are thinking about how to make people click ads [and] that sucks.” And boy, does it suck. Ask any recent graduate here in Bangalore what their dream job is and the answer is usually either Google or Facebook. Nobody wants to build technology for the masses, the poor – those living on less than $2 a day, those that make up 70% of India’s population.

The greatest misconception of today is that the poor don’t need the internet – they have no use for technology. And the only way to service them is through pen, paper, and people – whether it’s financial services, healthcare, or energy access.

And what’s even more disappointing is that the businesses that have been built around providing goods and services for the poor have bought into this. Let’s take the case of financial services in India. The companies that are out trying to financially include those living at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP), are doing so in the old fashioned way via pen, paper, and software that’s been dumbed down or incomplete – and it’s been working for them. But how sustainable is this, really?

Great-Big-Tech-Gap

These financial institutions are constantly tweaking their processes for particular products, services, and geographies – they’re experimenting, re-inventing loan products based on feedback from their diverse customer base. What they need is technology that’s as intuitive and easy to use as Facebook, but what they get is pieces of software that looks like it’s born for Windows 95.

The Great Big Tech Gap, is leading to a lack of innovation that’s ultimately disserving the BoP. The poor need highly personalized products – occupation based loans that are built based on the seasonality of their businesses, a channel through which migrant workers’ families in the North East can collect money that was sent home. Existing technology solutions are not built to understand the complexities of poverty, and more specifically poverty in India.

We build technology for the poor here at Artoo, actively trying to fill that colossal tech divide at the BoP. We’ve been around for three years and have built a product that’s designed especially for social enterprises, technology that is intuitive, bringing in the sophistication and cutting-edge practices that the space deserves. Artoo enables organizations working in healthcare and financial inclusion to deliver better products to more people living below the poverty line. With our platform, the poor will have access to faster loans, lower interest rates, better healthcare, and other life-changing benefits. We serve more than 7 million end customers annually.

Our biggest learning? In the times of touch screens and Google Glass, the only thing that works for this space is the human touch. Building technology in this space is iterative. We go in thinking that we have a great start and we launch a mobile product so our clients can provide content for their end-customers – nothing fancy, but simple videos and tutorials about financial literacy or basic hygiene through smartphones. We try to pilot it and the feedback we receive is that this is great, but why can’t we get beauty tips or recipes?

Our design process is, for a lack of a better word, involved. It’s a product that’s been built, but requires customization for each client  – whether it’s conditioned for geographic variation or simply, workflow manipulation. The users of our product are similar to the folk they serve – first-time technology users. We need to drive adoption, or else they’d prefer the same old pen and paper.

We go in, do field visits and study the persona of our client’s customers – a pani-puri wala, a kirana store owner, a woman running a beauty parlor, all looking for some working capital – and try to understand how to best capture the 800 or so data points, all while personifying the essence of the customers home, business, and relationships. The idea is to bring insights into the rich demographic data that our clients capture, allowing them to develop beyond the plain-vanilla financial products for the complex lives of the poor.

Here at Artoo, we recognize that technology can truly be game changing – and it does work – for everyone. We’re trying to build that ecosystem for the BoP, creating products for the masses. But, why don’t more people do this, design technology for those that need it the most? We hear that people want to work on “hard problems,” that they want to work at Google’s data center or want to build the next social network. Look at our problems – we’re working in a space where connectivity is a challenge, a world where our users are often using a smartphone for the first time. It doesn’t get harder than this – so why not build something for India by Indians? Facebook isn’t going to come in and solve our problems. We’re out here trying to find those hackers for impact, who want to deliver real technology to the 4-billion people globally that are currently not on the Internet. And this revolution has only just begun.


This post was originally written for Construkt Festival, India’s largest startup festival. Construkt is a multi-day, multi-nodal laboratory for the future of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation.

About the author:

Akhila is a Rainmaker at Artoo, managing Business Development and Operations. Follow her @akhila1

Driving change through technology is only a click away

The Ashoka Impact Series features Sameer and his work at Artoo — read more below or on the Ashoka India website.


SameerSegal_1_0A lover of Bollywood films and technology, Sameer Segal is a young changemaker who is making the  work of those in the field of development several steps easier. Sameer struggled to find a way to  escape a typical career path after graduating from the National Institute Technology, until Banker to  the Poor, a book by Muhammad Yunus, introduced to him the world of microfinance. Barely after a year of his graduation, Sameer, along with his wife (then girlfriend) Indus, engineered Artoo. Artoo, named after one of Sameer’s favorite characters from Star Wars, has developed a software solution designed to help field agents of enterprises working at the base of the pyramid become more effective in serving their end customers.

Quote_Artoo1_1_0Advocating technology to the rescue, Artoo relieves field agents of the burden of paper work and does away with innumerable delays by utilizing tablets or smart phones to fill in customers’ information—instituting real-time information exchange between microfinance or health institutions and their field staff and reducing turn around times. Artoo takes the entire process of data collection and workflows online, drastically reducing expenses and time consummation.

Sameer, now 25, was born in Delhi but brought up in Bangalore. He went to National Public School for 1st grade, later studying in the Valley School, a school Sameer notes as ‘unconventional’ before returning to conventional schooling in 11th standard.  Sameer described his childhood as very ordinary; he grew up listening to stories from his father about working with ‘Tech giants like HP and IBM.’

Quote_Artoo21_2_2These stories fostered an obsession with computers and programming, ultimately leading him to electrical engineering in NITK. However, like most other engineering students, he gradually lost interest and realized that he wanted to do something different. ‘As I went along my engineering course, I got pretty bored. It was very theoretical, you don’t really learn much and there is not much motivation while you’re at an engineering programme’, said a smiling Sameer. He came across Engineers for Social Impact (E4SI),a unique fellowship program that connected top engineering talent to credible social enterprises driving market-based solutions to development in India. He acquired a fellowship and an internship with Ujjivan Microfinance, Bangalore. He says, ‘I could now see the development track was a viable career option – it is possible to do good and do well!’

Regarding the success of Artoo, ‘I don’t think we have achieved something yet, Its just the beginning,’ Sameer modestly replies. The Paragon100 Fellowship has recognized Sameer as one of the most promising social entrepreneurs and Artoo continues to be a startup on the cusp of an emerging technological breakthrough. To all the budding entreprenuers, he simply wants them to believe in themselves and not give in to criticisms or minor failures. Once calling his choice ‘career suicide,’ his father now stands proud. Believing that he represents a new generation capable of exploring a lot more, Sameer notes that revolution has just begun.

– By Sneha Paul

Published on Ashoka India.

Technology to the Rescue of MFIs

[Artoo Slate is a software solution designed for microfinance field staff that takes the entire process of data collection and loan disbursement online. Sameer has been recognized as one of Asia-Pacific’s most promising young social entrepreneurs by the Paragon100 Fellowship. He holds a B Tech from the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka and is a StartingBloc Fellow (MIT Sloan). His passion is inclusive technology, something he discovered during his internship with Ujjivan. He, along with Co-founder of Artoo, Indus Chadha, has developed Artoo Slate which helps microfinance companies cut down on operation costs. He shares with us in this guest blog, how technology can make a difference to microbanking institutions that cater to the bottom of the pyramid.]

The Malegam Report is finally here. At first glance, we were all glad to see how well balanced it appeared. But now we have to begin to make sense of the constraints that it places on MFIs in the short term. In the words of Vijay Mahajan of BASIX: “some provisions are so severe that some MFIs will be facing death by April”.

Indeed, most MFIs must be grappling at the moment with what changes they will need to make to stay alive.

If MFIs need to reduce costs, remove redundancies, and improve efficiencies at all levels, they need to centralize their operations. Centralizing will also help MFIs ensure the quality of the customers they acquire and thereby reduce risks. To centralize operations and still maintain competitive TATs for all customer-centric activities (e.g. customer acquisition, loan disbursement, and repayments) is the hardest part of the puzzle that needs to be cracked. It will be only possible for MFIs to consolidate branches and have their field agents operate over larger geographies (improving borrower to employee ratio) when they can monitor and remotely manage their staff and activities. For that they need technology.

We believe, however, that this needn’t be a question of the survival of the fittest. It could serve as an opportunity for visionary MFIs, regardless of their size and strength, to re-imagine their operations in a way that, while respecting the RBI’s imminent mandates, dramatically reduces their Operating Expense Ratio (OER) and enables them to remain profitable and survive in the face of the Malegam Report.

At Artoo, we wish to catalyze development through inclusive technology and empowering communication. Our software framework, Artoo Slate, can help MFIs bring down their OERs to meet the RBI’s requirements in a timely manner while enabling them to remain profitable. We believe it has the potential to help MFIs become more productive in helping their customers rise out of poverty. Here’s our take on what the Malegam Report is asking MFIs to do and how we might be able to help.

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Artoo Slate is a software solution that takes the entire process of data collection (under 18 minutes for complete customer acquisition process*) and loan disbursement online (70+% of Loan Applications can be processed in the field on the same day*). It will capture rich data from the field, do away with the back and forth of paper, avoid innumerable delays (reduction in turn-around-time (TAT) from 3+ days to 1 hour*), and drastically reduce expenses (courier, Document Management System Hubs & outsourced data entry). It will allow for easy exchange of data between field staff and backend systems (CBS/MIS) in a way that will reduce time spent (41% of center meetings take under 1 min to update paper work) on customer query clarification and identification and resolution of errors in customer profile and loan application forms. Even while the credit bureau is stabilizing, it will enable MFIs to implement a field credit check upfront for renewal loans based on internal data and assessment.

artoo2Our framework enables field agents to operate remotely and helps distributed MFIs to centralize their operations, while improving their TAT for all customer-centric activities. MFIs can monitor their business on a real time basis: pick up on trends (mass default, political/economic turbulence) as and when they happen directly from the field (defaulter information available instantaneously as compared to 10-15 days lag in previous implementation*). In addition, MFIs can track their social performance on a daily basis.

It is an intuitive interface that has been designed keeping in mind field staff’s educational training and exposure to technology. It will also serve as platform through which MFIs can train (e.g. basic English skills, computer skills, updates on new products and offerings) their field staff on-the-go and monitor them on a real time basis to improve their overall service quality. MFIs can improve their field agent quality and build their capacity, reducing their attrition to short-term focused aggressive competitors.

Artoo Slate, in the hands of the field agent, promises to be a scalable way for the MFI to engage more effectively with their end customers through videos, graphics, and other interactive media (imparting life skills, financial planning, healthcare information, conversational English, etc.) Engaging with the end customer will not only give them a reason to attend center meetings but also allow them to recognize their MFI as a real partner in their struggle to climb out of poverty, giving forward-thinking MFIs an opportunity to differentiate themselves, improving customer loyalty and therefore profitability.

Application

We have been really lucky to pilot our solution, Artoo Slate, at Ujjivan microfinance, and are happy to share the interim results of our pilot here. The pilot covers a branch in urban Bangalore and includes processes of customer acquisition, collections, branch transactions, and field agent training.

About the author:

Sameer Segal | CEO & Founder

Published here on the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFRM)’s Blog.

The Malegam Report & How Artoo can help you

Life’s difficult. We just wanted to say that we’re here for you. Count on us!

The Malegam Report is finally here. While we’re all glad to see how well balanced it is, we’re also beginning to make sense of the constraints that it places on MFIs in the short term. Here’s our take on what it’s asking you to do and how we might be able to help.

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  • Business: No Security Deposits. Cap Loan Processing Fee at 1%. Cap Margins. Cap Interest Rates. Cap Borrowers’ Loan Amount…and still remain profitable!
  • Drastically Reduce Operating Expense Ratio (OER): We can help you reduce costs, remove redundancies, and improve efficiencies at all levels by taking processes online. Push the Employee to Borrower ratio and the OER down!
  • Self Sufficient Workflows & Better Cash Management: Centralize operations while keeping TAT for all processes as low as possible. Achieve Close of Business (COB) at the end of each day and gain better visibility into individual branch balances. Be able to provide actionable information to branch staff immediately.
  • Process: Moratorium >= Frequency of Loan…this can delay recovery & interest income by one additional month.
  • The Moratorium & Turn-Around-Time (TAT): We believe the best way for MFIs to counteract the downside of the Malegam Report’s moratorium clause might well be to find a way to drastically reduce their TAT for customer acquisition.
  • Field Agents: Better field agents. Must invest in their training & development.…difficult to find talent at any level.
  • Training & Service Quality: With Artoo, you can provide field agents with on-the-fly training modules without experiencing a loss in productivity. We can help you build the capacity and improve the quality of your field agents. All the while, capturing objective service quality metrics as well.
  • Customer: Provide non-financial services like financial literacy and life-skill development…often very resource intensive.
  • Skill Building & Development: Engage with and impart knowledge to customers without a loss in productivity in a resource-efficient manner without re-training field agents. Explore new possibilities: not all content needs to be provided by you; syndicate content from Artoo and its partners.
  • Technology: Borrowers can only have two loans, must maintain their groups, and only be associated with two MFIs. With these constraints it’s too expensive to invest in technology
  • Credit Bureau: Explore the possibility of integrating with the Credit Bureau in the field to evaluate customers even before forming groups.
  • Pay for Performance: Technology expenses made linearly proportionate to growth.
Going beyond the Malegam Report, we think you may be interested in the following too:
  • Business Real-time Health of Business: Monitor your business on a real-time basis and pick up on trends (mass defaults, political/economic) as they happen. Set up escalation rules.
  • Social Performance Highlight Your Impact Measure and report accurate performance statistics on a daily basis. Share video success stories of customers on your corporate homepage.
  • Technology Built to Last: Invest in technology that can handle the current turbulent regulation environment and meet the needs of your business as its scales.
  • More: We understand your business is unique. We are always looking for ways to collaborate with you and build technology that better suits your needs.