Artoo & Ujjivan: The six-year journey and beyond

Around the same time as Artoo celebrated its 6th birthday, our long-term partner and first client Ujjivan started its journey of becoming a Small Finance Bank. The giant step was met with initial phenomenal success, when Ujjivan made its first Initial Public Offering (IPO), which was oversubscribed over 41 times and considered the most successful microfinance IPO in India’s history. At the cusp of our 6th year milestone and Ujjivan’s success we pause to reflect on our relationship with them.

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Ujjivan’s IPO. Source: Ujjivan.

The success of Ujjivan is a powerful statement about the value of providing financial services to the economically active poor, and the importance of digitizing such a business model from an early-stage. The underlying Ujjivan ethos has always been an innovative one. And it was this ethos that encouraged a startup like Artoo to build a one of a kind solution for financial inclusion.

In the August of 2014, Ujjivan successfully tested its first pilot with Artoo. Their foray into mobility solutions two years ago also marked the reinvention of the individual lending process, which was one of Ujjivan’s key market differentiators. The ambitious pilot spanned over 2.5 months, and Ujjivan disbursed 700 loans worth Rs.5 crore on Artoo’s platform.

“From a strategic perspective, we definitely need a handheld solution to improve our data quality and productivity. The field users embraced Artoo’s technology as it helped them reduce error rates and TAT (Turn around Time), and improve productivity. The pilot results are encouraging.” (Mr. Samit Ghosh, Ujjivan CEO)

Ujjivan was always a strong visionary in advocating and pursuing digital revolution to improve its field operations and Artoo was the first to convert their vision into reality.

Individual Lending (IL) has been Ujjivan’s turning point and will continue to be a solid base for their future growth. Artoo’s LOS has been playing a key part in digitizing the IL domain, and hence Ujjivan can confidently boast of being digitally advanced in this space despite the emergence of competition.

“Basically we look at the future, growth is going to come mainly from our individual lending to the micro SME sector and also for housing… Irrespectively of competition mounting on the digital front, we are already pretty advanced in digital technology.” (From Mr. Samit Ghosh’s interview on CNBC-TV18)

Today, as Ujjivan ushers into small finance banking operations, it’s decisively integrating its IT infrastructure and implementing core banking solutions by investing more than Rs.300 crore and partnering with several big names in the IT industry over the next five years. On 7th May 2016, the current and future technology partners of Ujjivan were invited to celebrate these new beginnings. This event was special because it showcased Ujjivan’s belief that technology is core to their business and how they identify themselves with innovation. It was a special moment for Artoo as we were invited to share the space with Wipro, Infosys, Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, CRMNext, IndusSoft, and CraftSilicon. Veterans in the Banking, Financial services and Insurance (BFSI) domain were a prominent sight in the audience.

“To support the high volume business and to meet security and compliance requirements of different regulatory authorities, strong and secure systems are required at the core. We have selected all proven softwares in Banking Technology after carefully evaluating each system for the specific requirements. We are creating a strong IT backbone for the upcoming Small finance bank.” (Mr. Deepak Ayare, Ujjivan CIO)

These words of Mr. Deepak Ayare, Ujjivan CIO reflect how he envisioned this event to be an evening in the company of all partners to meet and collectively work towards one goal, that is, help Ujjivan lay the foundation of banking-level technology with the no or few hiccups. It was obvious that everyone should see each other as partners rather than competitors.

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Sameer is one of speakers at Ujjivan’s IT & Mobility kickstart for its proposed Small Finance Bank. Source: Ujjivan.

Sameer spoke about his relationship with Ujjivan at this event. He first saw Ujjivan as an intern, where Kavita was already an employee for 3 years.

Ujjivan has been a great partner for Artoo, someone who is extremely innovative and ahead of the curve. When no one else believed in technology or smartphones, Ujjivan gave us a chance and was willing to try out something new. We identify ourselves with Ujjivan because they have become leaders from ground up. Their underlying spirit, the energy that drives them, it’s all centered around a sense of responsibility, right from the senior management to the front-line staff. We also envision our future in collaborating with other tech companies who could be our partners and allies in delivering complete digital lending solutions, besides supporting Ujjivan to be a strong technology-driven bank in the future.” (Sameer Segal)

Ujjivan’s IL is now fully digitized, and Ujjivan now captures the entire end-to-end loan process in a single visit, which has been pivotal in reducing operating costs and improving productivity. It is proven that digitization is the only way forward for such businesses and that without digitizing field processes, automation of back end processes is meaningless. When mobility solutions are inclusive to the end-user, it becomes a powerful value driver for a financial institution. Artoo firmly positions itself as an undisputed leader of the digitization development in this sector.

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Fully digitized Individual Lending at Ujjivan

Congratulations to Ujjivan for the new venture, and we’re happy to be a part of their new journey. From a pilot to a complete digital LOS, we have scaled the distance with them. Ujjivan envisions empowering the borrowers as their key strength, which also resonates with our ideologies of bringing technology and its innovations to the people who need it the most.

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.

“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.

Slide1

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

Artoo’s technology helps Ujjivan improve efficiency and disburse loans of Rs. 5 Crore in 8 states

Ujjivan & Artoo successfully complete pilot project of handheld field technology in 25 branches across 8 states.

In an ambitious pilot conducted over 2.5 months, Artoo’s mobile and cloud-based solution enabled Ujjivan Financial Services to take its entire lending workflow, of their Individual Lending operations, online. Ujjivan disbursed 700 loans worth Rs. 5 Crore on Artoo’s platform.Anji

Artoo’s handheld technology allows field tasks – such as customer enrollment, collections, monitoring – to be presented to the user as an application on an Android device (mobile or tablet). Backend staff can view and act upon processed field data, real time, through a web interface.

The field solution is holistic, covering every aspect of the lending workflow – generating credit bureau (HighMark, Equifax, and CIBIL) reports in real-time in the field, taking images of KYC documents using Artoo’s advanced image processing functionality, inbuilt credit underwriting rules and approval workflows and role-based analytics on the device and web.

This functionality allowed Ujjivan to complete the entire loan processing in a single visit, eliminated data errors and reduced the average loan processing time by 27%. As a result, loans officers were able to process many more applications in a month, disbursing on an average 165% more loans than before, in some cases, as high as 400%.

Mr. Samit Ghosh, Managing Director & CEO of Ujjivan stated, “From a strategic perspective, we definitely need a handheld solution to improve our data quality and productivity. The field users embraced Artoo’s technology as it helped them reduce error rates and TAT (Turn Around Times), and improve productivity. The pilot results are encouraging.”

The pilot primarily aimed to evaluate Artoo’s ability to work across geographies with fluctuating levels of Internet connectivity and across users with varying levels of education, technology literacy & language abilities. Twenty-five branches were selected across eight states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi NCR, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal and Jharkhand, to test usage of mobile applications in well connected, as well as, remote areas. Users were selected based on years of experience at Ujjivan, language abilities and affinity to technology, providing a mix of capabilities amongst loan officers.

IndiaMapArtoo conducted a 2-day training for all users and found that once users processed 5-10 loans on Artoo’s platform, they were comfortable using the software. There was no noted difference in performance between users, with each user taking an average of 40 minutes to process a complete application on Artoo – this is less than half of their average paper processing time.

Sameer Segal, Founder & CEO, of Artoo stated, “We wish to bring the digital revolution to financial institutions, like Ujjivan, enabling them to reach more end customers, offer tailored financial products and thereby create a much larger impact. We have recently forayed into the SME lending and affordable housing segments and see this entire sector leapfrog Banks in field technology. To cater to this trend we have expanded our solution to include modules in lead generation & credit underwriting, allowing companies to manage the entire customer lifecycle on our platform.”

About Ujjivan Financial Services

Ujjivan Financial Services is the 6th largest microfinance institution in India, headquartered in Bangalore with operations pan India.  Ujjivan provides loans to marginalized women in urban and semi-urban areas and follows both a joint liability model as well as an individual lending model.

About Artoo

Artoo provides intuitive and affordable mobile and cloud-based technology to financial institutions allowing them to manage all interactions with the end-customer on a single platform.

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.

Creating a Killer User Experience for the MFI Field Agents

Vishy Kuruganti wrote about Artoo on his blog TechSangam. Read the whole piece below here or on TechSangam.

Artoo’s name, inspired from the Star Wars anthology, is meant to signify that their solution would be an able companion to MFIs (similar to astromech droid R2D2). Sameer spent the summer of 2008 doing an internship at Bangalore-based Ujjivan (a leading urban/semi-urban focused MFI). He had picked Ujjivan because the internship scope was open-ended and it also gave him exposure on the business side. Eschewing the natural tendency to start coding something, Sameer participated in several focus groups with customers and field agents. Eventually, this led to two defining aha moments:

  • BOP customers perceive MFIs to be the window to outside world: Per RBI regulations, MFIs can only deal with loans and insurance. But the BOP customers don’t know that!
  • MFI workflows terribly inefficient: Paper-based workflows used by MFI field agents and branch offices meant a lot of data entry errors, delays in opening accounts, and collecting loans. One egregious pain point that caught Sameer’s attention was that it took a whopping 15 days for a customer to pre-close his account. Pre-closure is an important milestone for MFI customers because, once completed, it qualified them for a higher loan amount.

The first aha moment wasn’t immediately actionable but the second one was. Sameer quickly created a simple prototype (using off-the-shelf software) that allowed field agents to SMS the customer ID back to a central Ujjivan service which would send back complete details of the customer. The prototype was a rousing success and gave the kind of satisfaction any intern would crave as he headed back to finish his final year of engineering.

FOCUS ON FIELD AGENTS

fieldagents_vishyField agents, who provide last-mile support for virtually all aspects of an MFI’s operations, represent 70-80% of an MFI’s workforce. The key takeaway from Sameer’s internship experience was that there was tremendous scope to improve the efficiency of MFI’s operations. Thus was born the idea of Artoo Slate, an Android-based software framework that takes the entire process of data collection and loan disbursement online. It captures rich data from the field, does away with the back and forth of paper, and thus avoids innumerable delays. It is an intuitive interface that has been designed keeping in mind the field staff’s limited educational training and exposure to technology.

THE ARTOO SOFTWARE: FOCUS ON USER EXPERIENCE

Every startup wants to build a great user experience but why is that enterprise software is never as intuitive as Facebook? Sameer believes that an intuitive user experience is every bit as important as the right business model and he’s put his money where his mouth is. In his seven-person team (of which three are summer interns from his alma mater), he has two user experience folks – a designer and a usability engineer. (Early stage startups almost never hire usability engineers.) I saw an impressive demo on a Google Nexus One device which included several UI tweaks to make the data collection process very efficient. This YouTube video walks you through most of the data collection UI:

UJJIVAN PILOT RESULTS

Artoo ran its first pilot with Ujjivan Financial Services (co-funded by Ujjivan and Lok Capital Foundation) in Dec 2010 which yielded some impressive results. The end-to-end data collection process was reduced from 3+ days to less than one hour. The collections processing time at Ujjivan’s branches previously used to take an hour – the Artoo pilot reduced it to less than 5 minutes. Overall, the Artoo workflow enabled a 35% increase in productivity, reduced the turnaround time for loans to two days and a projected 2.4% reduction in the Operating Expense Ratio (OER). The other big learning was that field agent adoption rates and performance were independent of seniority and technological savvy.

GO TO MARKET STRATEGY

Artoo is focused on building a killer user experience for MFIs to efficiently acquire customers and manage collections. Recognizing that MFIs would differ in their processes and geographic focus areas (urban vs. rural), Artoo’s Slate framework has been designed to be customizable. With a successful Ujjivan pilot under his belt, Sameer is targeting the licensing of Artoo Slate to seven MFI’s this year. Besides Ujjivan, other urban/semi-urban focused Indian MFIs would likely include Janalakshmi, Equitas, Swadhaar, and Arohan. Since their platform (Android) and framework (Artoo Slate) are portable, Artoo is also pursuing some opportunities in Latin America and Africa.

Artoo’s subscription fee model is based on deployed volume of field agents per month. Subscription fee is expected to range between 600 INR and 1500 INR. Artoo hosts the solution with 99% SLA. One of Artoo’s early decisions was to partner with core banking solution and system integration partners. This is a smart move for two reasons: no need to worry about the myriad ERP solutions that MFIs have deployed and, more importantly, system integrators become a second sales channel to evangelize Artoo’s offerings. The incremental investment that MFIs would have to make is Android devices. According to Artoo’s calculations (for a 8000 INR Android device), the investment on devices would be fully recovered within 4 months.

BEYOND FINANCIAL INCLUSION

While owning the MFI field agent user experience is clearly Artoo’s beachhead, their ambitions extend well beyond that. Sameer believes that the Slate framework can also serve as a platform through which MFIs can train their field staff on-the-go (e.g. basic English skills, computer skills, updates on new products and offerings) and monitor them on a real time basis to improve their overall service quality. Against the backdrop of a competitive MFI landscape with 30% attrition rates among field agents, these additional e-Learning modules could serve as retention tools for forward-thinking MFIs.

Additional/companion modules could be commissioned by individual MFIs or Artoo might create them and license them to participating MFIs on an opt-in basis. It’s this latter model that’s rife with interesting possibilities. Enter Indus Chadha – Artoo co-founder and liberal arts graduate from Columbia University. Indus, who also happens to be Sameer’s high school sweetheart and fiance, joins Artoo full-time in September and will focus on creating relevant offerings in the Education and Health verticals.

FUNDRAISING

Artoo has bootstrapped its way so far thanks largely to funding from Sameer’s and Indus’s families. Closing a deal with one of their target MFIs would certainly get the revenue flowing but like any ambitious startup, Artoo wants to run a lot faster. They’ve kicked off a fundraising round (to raise approximately $750,000) either from angels or VCs. Our next Artoo post might either be to announce their Series A or their first partnership with an MFI. What do you want to bet on?

Published on TechSangam

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.

malegam-report-234

  • 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.