The Great Big Tech Gap

March 12, 2014Reflections

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?

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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

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