When Aeloi (pronounced Alloy) team started their initial survey to find out why those at the bottom of the pyramid are unable to start a small business, one factor was highlighted. It wasn’t their lack of skills, it was a lack of trust! In our interview with Sonika Manandhar- cofounder at Aeloi, she quotes Laxmi, who was one of the survey respondents as “I know how to grow vegetables but I don’t know how to grow trust for my skills”.
Keeping Laxmi and people like her in mind, Aeloi technologies came up with digital tokens, backed up by funds from financial institutions, that are transferred through SMS to the borrower’s cellphone.
Learn more about this technology and Sonika’s experience as a cofounder here.
1. Can you introduce your company- Aeloi Technologies to us?
We are a fintech platform that helps in channeling impact finance to green microenterprises at the bottom of the pyramid, mostly farmers and women through digital tokens. These digital tokens help in ensuring that funds are being used for the purpose intended. So far, we have been able to introduce two such products- ReGrow and Green Energy Mobility (GEM).
ReGrow is focused on farmers and those in the agricultural sector who want to start their own businesses but are unable to get affordable funds because of their stringent requirement of accessing formal loans.
Regarding GEM, we’re trying to promote green mobility in Kathmandu along with women empowerment. We found out that safa tempos, or electric mini buses have been providing local transportation services for 20 years in Kathmandu and they’re mostly run by women. However, they haven’t been able to update the technology. All of this because of a lack of trustworthy credit history and income data to prove their credibility the financial institutions. In order to support them, we connect them and the funders and help them access to finance through digital token technology. Hence, we’re taking the first step in helping women build trust and get affordable financing through digital tokens. We’re also help the safa tempo industry launch BijuliPower.com to gain additional income from providing private vehicle hiring services.
2. Since you do not have funds to loan out, how do you help these small businesses access them?
We’re actually like connectors between banks and financial institutions and borrowers. Our stakeholders also consist of vendors who provide raw materials, other resources and services to the borrowers. To explain the process, first, we talk to the borrowers and help them build a business plan. Then we present those plans to the financial institutions and convince them to provide loans in digital tokens. We then setup a system for the bank to send out the tokens to the borrowers through SMS who use them to buy goods and services from vendors. So, when the vendors get the tokens, they redeem tokens into cash from the banks. This way transactions are made but cash stays at the bank and only vendors withdraw them at the end.
3. What makes financial institutions trust your model of digital tokens?
Through research, we came to find out that a lot of loans taken by businesses are used for purposes other than that they said they would. This resulted in bad credits and a lack of trust for other small businesses. Through digital token, loan providers are able to track the spending of the funds in real-time. Using digital tokens also secures the fund and it’s assured productive usage. So, our model creates a win-win situation for both the lenders and borrowers.
4. You mentioned earlier that the digital tokens get transferred through SMS. In a world of smart apps, why stick with old technology?
The whole idea behind this model is to help those at the bottom of the pyramid get access to finance through technology. If you visit the villages then you’ll see that not many people have smartphones, let alone know how to use them. Even if they own a smartphone, they hardly know how to use any apps, actually are intimated using them. In order to make our service accessible to everyone regardless of the type of cell phones they use, we opted for the SMS system.
Additionally, there’s only four syntaxes that they need to know to use the tokens. One is for the registration, transaction, balance inquiry and then changing their pin code. The syntaxes are as simple as those used to topup balance from scratch cards. For vendors, we have registration and redeem syntaxes. So, it’s pretty easy to use.
5. Do borrowers need to submit documents while registering or can they register through an SMS?
Well, we do have a supplement paperwork that needs to be filled by the borrowers but it’s quite simple. However, they do need to go through the regular documentation as per the financial institution’s policies to apply for the loans.
6. How many borrowers do you have till now?
We did a pilot project first where we had 18 borrowers and around 30 plus vendors for Chicken and Cauliflower farming. This was done on a very small scale but we used the data to create the platform that we now have. Currently, we are working in Kispang where we’re planning to approach around 100 borrowers for agriculture. For Safa Tempos, we’ve committed to bringing around 50 plus women drivers in the sector so they’ll be getting training loans this year. Apart from that, we’ve planned to get at least one battery loan as this requires a lot of funding and microfinance institutions are limited to give out only 5 Lakhs per person, so we have to work with other financial institutions.
7. Moving to the legal side, when was your company registered?
While we had started planning around November 2018 and came into operations from January 2019, we got legally registered on March 19th, 2019.
8. Can you tell us about your team members?
We are two co-founders, Tiffany and me. Then we have two project managers- Niva Shakya and Lasata Joshi and one field assistant- Bikash Lama in Kispang. Although I look at the technology side too we have outsourced this part to the experts we can completely rely on.
8. Since you mentioned that you look at the technology side, do you have a background in the same?
Yes, I’m a computer engineer and before starting Aeloi, I have worked in the tech industry for 7 years. I’ve worked as a programmer, project manager, raun tech events, multiple programs, hackathons. But, in 2017, I took a gap for 4 months and went to Singularity University for Global Solutions Program (GSP) in Silicon Valley. That is where I met my cofounder Tiffany.
9. How did you come to combine finance with technology?
After Singularity University, for a year, I worked as a CEO at a savings cooperative in Nepal where I learned a lot of digital finance services and its processes. So, I got my technical knowledge through academics and financial knowledge through work experience. Now, I am combining two expertise to bring inclusive fintech products for users regardless of their literacy level.
10. What is your revenue model like?
We’re currently still piloting and validating our model. We have a plan for the long run but that’s 3 years down the road. Apart from that, all our operational expenses have been made through the funds we raised in our first year.
11. What challenges did you face while starting out the company? What challenges are you facing now?
We had this challenge right from when we were starting our company out and we still have this even after a year into operations. People mistake us for nonprofit organization and it’s so difficult to make them understand that we’re a for-profit social business, social entrepreneurship is something that is not widely understood. It’s just that when you’re associated with the term “impact”, people automatically associate you with donations and the nonprofit world.
Besides that, I personally have the challenge of managing time effectively. As a startup founder, you need to focus on everything. You are pitching one day and the next day you need to meet the stakeholders, effective management of the team, marketing your services, attending networking events, working on the product. Sometimes it gets overwhelming but I’m mostly keeping a cool head for now. I’d say that’s a challenge I need to overcome for now.
12. How about opportunities?
As you can see Aeloi is a women-led organization and our team has more women so we can access funding opportunities only for women.
We’ve also been very lucky in terms of getting recognition from international organizations. Just recently, we got listed on United Nations Environment Programme’s inspirational women across the globe along with five other extraordinary women, which gave our work a credibility. Aeloi was the national winner of She Loves Tech.
13. In the past year, we have seen that Aeloi has won a lot of competitions. How do you prepare yourselves for that? How has that made an impact on your work?
To be honest, a lot of sincere hard work and frustrations led us to win those competitions. People only see the tip of the iceberg and not the whole thing underneath. Plus, we submit many applications and win a few. The ones that we were rejected from, we reach out to them asking for feedback on our application so that we can improve the next time.
Winning these competitions validates that the work you are doing is actually meaningful and not just us but others believe in our work as well. This really adds to your confidence to keep on going.
14. What’s it like working with your cofounder? Do you think you guys are good partners at work?
I enjoy working with Tiffany. We cofounded another startup back in 2017 in Silicon Valley, survived a major pivot, 2 years of long distance working and now took a leap to work full time at Aeloi. While we come from different personal and professional background, we are united in our empathy towards last mile customers. We both prefer actions more than theory. We add in different perspectives to the business, economic and technological. We both have our strengths and weaknesses, hence we support each other in building a good company culture and take turns leading and build on each other’s energy.
15. What do you do in your leisure time? Any fun things Aeloi team does at work except the actual work?
I like to sing to de-stress myself and recently started learning guitar. I like spending time with my dogs a lot.
We recently conducted a Newa Lipi calligraphy workshop for the whole team on our 1st year anniversary. It was an amazing time together with the entire team. Coming year is definitely going to be more team bonding and having fun.
Interviewed and article by Yangzum Lama.