This blog talks about a start-up called Awaaz.De, part of the Financial Inclusion Lab accelerator program, which is supported by some of the largest philanthropic organizations across the world – Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, J.P. Morgan, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, MetLife Foundation, and Omidyar Network.
Birth of an idea
A decade ago, Dr. Neil Patel decided to look beyond his home state of California and apply his Stanford University Ph.D. research to pressing problems in international development. His thesis won awards at world-class academic conferences, including the CHI conference, which focuses on innovations in interactive technology and brings technology for development research into mainstream academia.
Neil explored the design and deployment of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) to empower underserved populations. During his research, Neil developed a prototype of a mobile communications platform that cuts across language and literacy barriers to disseminate contextual and relevant content and collect data from farmers in Gujarat. The prototype also allowed users to post to a voice message board, which people could access through simple phone calls.
Dr. Tapan Parikh, Neil’s advisor at the University of California, Berkeley, nudged him to turn this idea into reality. Thus, Awaaz.De was born. The start-up’s current technology platform builds on more than 10 years of research (Patel et al., ICTD 2012) and a two-year Harvard RCT, which estimates that every USD 1 invested into its systems generates USD 10 in additional income for end-users.
The journey so far
Awaaz.De is a FinTech enabler and social enterprise based in India that works to expand access to finance for the underbanked. Awaaz.De’s 360-degree Customer Connect sends personalized, interactive nudges and confirmations throughout the customer’s lifecycle. This drives market-proven results for loan collection and up-sell of products and empowers customers to report discrepancies and make informed financial decisions. Currently, Awaaz.De caters to 8-10 million customers each month, which primarily include low-income women from rural geographies. It also works on feature phones, which is the most commonly used phone among the low- and moderate-income (LMI) customers of Awaaz.De’s clients.
In its early years, Awaaz.De scaled its work in agriculture through partnerships with Digital Green and Precision Agriculture for Development. It worked with many development sector organizations in health, education, and financial inclusion. Awaaz.De raised seed funding from the Aavishkaar-Intellecap angel network, Sattva Capital, and IIM-A’s CIIE.CO. With funding for research and development from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Awaaz.De developed and launched its platform for the financial inclusion sector in 2016.
Since then, Awaaz.De has partnered with many leading financial institutions, including Axis Bank, Ujjivan Small Finance Bank, L&T Financial services, and Samasta Microfinance. These institutions rely on Awaaz.De’s platform to improve collections, drive growth, cut operating expenses, and accelerate digital transformation. Awaaz.De’s clients also use its SaaS platform to engage and acquire last-mile customers through mobile communication in more than 10 local languages.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the core business operations of Awaaz.De and its partners. As businesses came to a grinding halt, the Awaaz.De team immediately shifted gears. They focused on identifying opportunities to use their platform to help partner institutions send critical communications to their customers at scale. These communications ranged from tips from public health experts to prevent COVID-19 to information on eligibility for government entitlements, such as benefits under PMGKY and the moratorium on EMI announced by the central bank. Awaaz.De bore the entire cost of these messages to facilitate people’s access to reliable information.
As the microfinance industry rebounded, Awaaz.De’s platform became more critical than ever. It enabled financial institutions to strengthen direct, digital connections with their customers across India, at a fraction of the cost—less than 95%—of telecalling. Despite its many challenges, the pandemic offered Awaaz.De and other innovative FinTech companies a once-in-a-generation opportunity to accelerate digital transformation.
Support from the FI lab
As a part of the Lab’s accelerator program, CIIE.CO and MSC supported Awaaz.De with a set of mentoring and technical assistance (TA) activities. Based on its call data, we helped the organization identify a correlation between call-response patterns and the tendency of customers to default on loan repayments.
We conducted the following two levels of analysis on the dataset:
- The first level identified high-risk and low-risk customers based on their behavior on loan installment reminder calls using variables like average time spent on a call, calls missed, among others.
- The second level ascertained the relationship between branch locations and high- and low-value customers.
Support from the Lab helped Awaaz.de uncover new ways to provide more robust analytics and recommendations to its partners, such as banks, non-bank financial corporations, microfinance institutions, among others. This paved the way to deepen their engagements with its partners strategically.
Plans for the future
Awaaz.De continues to grow and diversify its customer base in India and abroad. It collaborates with like-minded organizations and uses their expertise and the immense potential of ICTs to create social impact.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the financial inclusion sector. The crisis has also created a demand for innovative FinTech solutions to reduce dependence on field staff, use alternative data streams for underwriting and up-selling, and scale cashless transactions. With its existing reach that continues to grow and long-standing institutional partnerships, Awaaz.De seeks to meet this demand and play a pivotal role in accelerating digital transformation for its clients and end customers.
Awaaz.De has also been building a personalized and interactive platform through the micro-segmentation of its target audience, algorithmic push-messaging, and AI-powered chatbots to enhance user experience. It plans to explore opportunities to improve voice technology in speech analytics and recognition, integrating voice biometrics, speech-to-text, and text-to-speech to make the platform more secure and scalable. We are excited to watch its journey unfold in the next few months.
This blog post is part of a series that covers promising FinTechs that make a difference to underserved communities. These start-ups receive support from the Financial Inclusion Lab accelerator program. The Lab is a part of CIIE.CO’s Bharat Inclusion Initiative and is co-powered by MSC. #TechForAll, #BuildingForBharat