Why Tech Alone Can't Solve All The World's Problems


The mobile revolution in the emerging world saw a spike of SMS-based applications to “solve” development problems: lack of sanitation, access to financial services, education, and more.  Yes, there are more cell phones than toilets, as the International Telecommunication Union, reports.  But social enterprises are finding that SMS is not always the easiest way to communicate.  Rather, the solution involves something even more basic, low-tech, and cheaper.

Anand Shrivastav, 57, is the founder of Beam, an SMS-based mobile money platform, that’s recently partnered with MasterCard to offer “debit cards” to India’s nearly 40 percent unbanked.  Beam enables users to store “cash” on their cell phones to buy rail tickets, pay bills, and do remittances.

Anu Sridharan, 26, is the founder of NextDrop, an SMS-based water tool, that’s received funding from Knight Foundation to find a solution to India’s water woes.                                     

They both have the same problem. 

"SMS is not the solution,” says Sridharan, as she bounces along the bumpy roads outside of Bangalore to Whitefield, where Hindustan Unilever’s offices are situated.  Sridharan has been tinkering away at NextDrop for the past three years; she spent one full year doing household surveys in South India, trying to scale a pilot.  Grassroots level work has shown her that SMS has its limitations.

Shrivastav, smartly suited in his Delhi office, surrounded by books of geopolitics, philosophy, and history, says frustratingly, “We have a problem.”  It’s similar to Sridharan’s: India has 900 million cell phone users, and growing daily; but they’re not all savvy text-ers.

“It’s not about penetration of phones, it’s getting people to use them effectively,” Shrivastav says.  Four years into the business, he wants to expand, going beyond the urban and semi- urban quarters to the “real heartland.” The challenge?  “How do we communicate with our customer” Despite efforts to regionalize languages, Beam, he says, communicates in the Roman alphabet.  “We’re writing Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Bihari – but it’s still using letters that these folks cannot read.  So, how can we expect them to text back to us?”

“SMS is one method of communication, but is not the only one,” says Sridharan, sitting in a London pub, after receiving a Unilever Sustainable Young Entrepreneur Award (and partaking in a stately dinner at Buckingham Palace held in honor of the seven social entrepreneurs awarded).

Sridharan’s venture NextDrop sends residents an SMS, informing them that they will be receiving water.  Given that many households in Hubli, a small city (of one million) in South India, fail to get a regular water supply, it’s critical for these households to know when the water is coming.  Otherwise, they go three to four days without water, if they’re not home at the right time.  And the problem is not unique to Hubli; the NextDrop team is using the new injection of funds from Unilever, and another award from GSMA, to work with Bangalore government on its water woes.

The SMS service is straightforward: the water goes on and users get an SMS; NextDrop asks they send a message back, confirming the water has arrived.  “But we’ve found that many people can read SMS, yet responding to it is a different story.”  Of all their subscribers in Hubli, Sridharan got only 10 percent to SMS back.

So, she tried a different alternative – the famous Indian “missed call.”  Given that SMS costs money (up to 2 Rs. per text, or .03 USD) and requires basic literacy, several Indian entrepreneurs have turned to the “missed call” system to engage with customers.

Missed calls are free and simple to do. Once Sridharan introduced a missed call option (to respond to SMS), response rates shot up to 30 percent.

Sean Blagsvedt, founder of Babajob, an Indian portal for informal jobs, agrees with Sridharan.  In fact, he says, only 45 percent of the country’s mobile users (which is, practically everyone), have ever sent an SMS.

Earlier, Babajob sent out job opportunities via SMS, requesting that interested job seekers reply back in the same fashion.  But it was too complicated for users, Blagsvedt says. So, they turned to missed calls.

For example, Babajob sends out the following text message: “Driver Rs 9000 in Malleswaram, Bangalore with First Taxi company. Miss call 08012345678 to apply.”

In comparison to earlier, “Driver Rs 9000 in Malleswaram, Bangalore with First Taxi company. To apply to this job, SMS job 232 to 9972200222.”

With the latter style, users had to remember two actions, the job number and the number to call, which added to the problem, he says.  This could have been easily solved if users could hit “reply” with the job number.

But that’s not possible, courtesy of a government regulation.  India’s FFC equivalent, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) prohibits SMSs to be sent from a direct phone number.  “So, the SMS appears to be from LM-BBAJOB not something like 991234567, which you could reply to directly,”  Blagsvedt explains.

That’s why Babajob requests job seekers to give them a missed call; an agent calls back, takes all the necessary data for the registry, and fills out the application over the phone.  With this system, Blagsvedt saw a 16 percent increase in job applications.

While it may seem antiquated, calling is a better option, because you don’t have to be literate to do it, Sridharan says.  She has implemented an interactive voice response (IVR) system for NextDrop.  Residents call in to report issues to a local valveman, and can respond to questions using an automated system.

“The IVR is not as sexy as SMS, but if you really want to collect or distribute ground level data, it’s the best way,” she says.

Shrivastav, too, is a fan of the IVR.   That’s his first line of defense for customer service. “If customers have problems with their Beam account, we use an automated service to help them,” he says. “If their question is still unanswered, then the missed call will trigger our agent to call them back shortly.”

Beam’s customer service team is merely 16 people for a company that reportedly has more than 14 million customers, and processes more than a million transactions a month.

Now, as Shrivastav digs deeper into areas such as eastern India, where large populations of unbanked reside, he is concerned about theSMS challenge and has yet to find an ideal solution.  “There is no perfect answer to this problem,” he says.

But a second best is to spend more time training Beam agents who help customers with transactions.  Thus, Beam has disseminated multi-lingual training programs on video cassettes to be used in training sessions in these new regions.  “Remember, these folks are still using VCRs,” Shrivastav says.

“Technology is not the answer.  The learning and training is.  We have to keep doing the latter to get people to use the technology effectively,” he repeats.

Link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/eshachhabra/2014/02/20/why-tech-alone-cant-solve-all-the-worlds-problems/


Coverage in The Light Reading India: Beam To Raise $20 Mn In Second Round of Funding






Delhi-based mobile payment company Beam Money is eyeing to raise $20 million from the second round of investor funding. “We have just started talks for second round of funding and are expecting to raise $20 million from the same,” Anand Shrivastav, Chairman & Managing Director of Beam Money told Light Reading India.

Established in December 2009, Gray Ghost Ventures and Doon Foundation backed Beam Money that raised around $10 million in the same year. The mobile wallet provider claims to have more than 14 million customers and 60,000 channel partners in the country. Beam Money is presently involved in the execution of over one million transactions every month.

The company offers a cashless mobile payment system that allows customers to transact with anyone, anywhere, anytime through SMS, WAP, Web, interactive voice. Beam Money is authorized by RBI and its services include telecom/DTH recharges, utility bill payments, travel bookings, e-commerce shopping, domestic money transfers and cinema bookings among others.

Shrivastav said that the company earned revenues of over Rs 100 crore last year and aims 100 per cent growth in revenues for the ongoing fiscal year. Shrivastav estimates that the company will be serving to 100 million customers by 2017 with 6,00,000 franchises nationally.

The company has also extended its partnership with India Post to provide ticket-booking facility in two Indian states—Uttaranchal and Haryana. Last year, Beam Money rolled out its Air Ticket booking service in 100 Post Offices across Tamil Nadu. Through this partnership with India Post, the company is enabling customers to book rail and air tickets at the nearest Post Office.

Shrivastav said that Beam Money will take this partnership with India Post to nationwide level by 2014. Very recently, the company also teamed up with MasterCard Worldwide to launch a prepaid card that will allow Beam’s mobile wallet users to transact at ATMs, physical merchants and online shops.

Speaking on the challenges, Shrivastav said mobile payment is an unknown category to a larger chunk of Indian population. “There is a need to spread awareness about this category. Additionally, there are regulatory challenges that the company is witnessing in the country,” Shrivastav added.

In the Indian mobile payment segment, the company competes with a number of telecom operators and private players such as ItzCash. 

In January, Beam Money launched mobile wallet application for Apple users and is now preparing to introduce an Android app in coming weeks.



Introducing Beam Business Director (BBD) for those wanting to work their own hours and increase their income! Interested? Email us at channel@beam.co.in

Coverage in ADgully : Transact anywhere anytime: Beam Money

Exclusive | Transact anywhere anytime: Beam Money

February 12, 2013


Money payment from side to side the mobile payment system is fast catching up in India and leading this revolution is Beam Money (www.beam.co.in). The company through its revolutionary cashless mobile payment system allows unbanked and banked customers to transact with anyone anywhere and anytime. Customers can use SMS, WAP, App, internet or even landline to transact themselves, and persons without these can transact taking assistance of Beam Sahayak (facilitator) in their neighbourhood. Beam Sahayaks are educated unemployed youth, particularly women who earn incomeby selling Beam products and services even from the comfort of their home. Beam services are availed by registering free via a simple SMS to establish an account automatically.

Says Anand Shrivastav, Chairman & Managing Director, Beam Money, “our services include home delivery & shopping payments, domestic money transfers, telecom/DTH-TV recharge, utility bill payments, travel bookings, e commerce payments, banking transactions, bookings for movies etc. The registration is free, paperless and compatible with any phone, bank or telco. Transactions ensure safety with no financial details of the subscriber retained. The service is maintenance free and requires no physical presence of either the payer or the receiver. This makes Beam a boon for tech savvy urban individuals on the go as well as a technologically deficient senior citizen in a remote city or village.” He was speaking exclusively to Adgully. 

Launched in 2009 after receiving Reserve Bank of India’s Certificate of Authorisation, Beam Money has grown over 100 per cent Y-o-Y and today transacts over Rs 1800 crores annually. One of the reasons for the success has been the wide experience of its promoter, Shrivastav.

An experienced and a multifaceted professional with more than 30 years of experience in marketing and distribution of consumer, nutrition and health care products besides telecom and banking services, it is Shrivastav’s vision to connect the unbanked population to the mainstream and their economic empowerment in India.

Talking about future plans, Shrivastav says, “our plan is to continually expand our bouquet of services, widen and deepen our    distribution network and also keep increasing our customer base. Some of the services planned to be introduced are micro  pensions, insurance, mutual fund products, banking products besides international money transfer. In the next five years Beam  endeavours to have 100 million customers and one lakh Beam Sahayaks.”

On being asked what are the key differentiators of the business when compared to a traditional cash transfer or the services offered by money transfer companies, Shrivastav replies, “ India is becoming an increasingly competitive environment for mobile payments/banking. We have bank led competition offering mobile banking systems. We also have telecom led initiatives and addition to B2B initiatives. Beam is as it is agnostic to telecom operators and banks, does not require change of SIM, downloading any software/application or high end equipment. Both unbanked/under-banked and banked can freely transact amongst each other without bothering which telecom operator the other person belongs to.”

Additionally, Beam’s ability to enable its customers to use their single Beam wallet for any transaction, at any time, from any place, with any one – whether unbanked or banked, using any mode makes it innovatively different. It is the first company to enter the mobile payment sector. “We are a for-profit social enterprise whose mission interalia is to provide self-employment opportunities to educated unemployed youth, particularly women to supplement their household income,” he adds. Enriching lives one person at a time, Beam endeavours to bring smiles to every Indian by making them self-reliant and prosperous.

Going ahead, the company aims to expand its offerings to encompass channel partners, merchants (from small to chains and corporate-institutions) to increase acceptance, and corporate employees. There are however challenges which it needs to overcome. “Like all other players in mobile payments industry, we too facing five main issues- a viable and scalable business model, ability to create ecosystem required, finding right people, understanding and managing the business of financial transactions & risks thereof and managing an evolving regulatory environment.

With competition becoming increasingly intense, innovation is the need of the day.  Companies should constantly be innovating ways to delight the customer – by a rewards program or a by providing a more convenient service experience is what would give us an edge. Beam believes in innovation as a means of product differentiation. To drive home its positioning and view point, Beam has created its brand equity with a mix of marketing and promotional activities. “We do mass advertising in TV and print besides digital online marketing. We also do on ground branding activities and also do promotions. These are very important as the mobile payment is a relatively unknown category and we must therefore earn the trust of the customers and merchants and be visible to them,” concludes Shrivastav.

Chairman & MD Beam Money, Mr. Anand Shrivastav's exclusive interview with Knowledgefaber




Exclusive covarage in Mobility Magazine: Beam Unveils Beam Mobile Money Payment System