May 05, 2022
How can we achieve full economic empowerment for women? Financial regulators everywhere are asking this question, and especially so in the Global South where the rapid spread of mobile phones has brought literally billions of previously unbanked people into the formal financial system over the past decade or so, including huge numbers of women. While a global gap remains of about two billion people, the growing level of connectivity opens enormous opportunities.
My guest today is one of the world’s leading innovators in this effort. Rajesh Bansal is the CEO of the Reserve Bank of India’s Innovation Hub. In April, AIR worked with the RBIH and other partners on the Swanari TechSprint, named for the Hindi word meaning “self-reliant woman.” I’m excited to have Rajesh on the show today to share a perspective that is fascinating on so many dimensions. It’s a story of a bold new innovation strategy invented by a major central bank. It’s a story about taking TechSprints to a whole new level as a method of regulatory innovation. It’s a story about the incredible power of public/private collaboration and co-creation of solutions for intractable problems. And it’s a story about new ideas for how to achieve full financial inclusion, in general and specifically for women.
We know that women save more than men and repay credit more reliably. We know that when products are designed mainly for men, they may not work well for women, while products designed with women in mind work for everyone. We also know that women’s economic progress generates disproportionate benefits to their families, communities, and nations.
No country has been more bold and successful in using technology to advance inclusion than India. In 2010, the nation launched its famous “India stack” technology framework, including the Aadhaar system of biometric identity verification. Aadhaar – which means “foundation” in Hindi – opened up the financial system to vast populations of rural and urban individuals for whom traditional banks generally do not build branches. (We did a podcast on Aadhaar with Sanjay Jain, who was also involved in this Swanari effort.)
Once people are connected to the financial system, the next challenge becomes how to make financial services really work for everyone. The barriers to women’s economic empowerment are complex and include both supply side factors in how financial products are designed and offered, as well as demand side challenges in areas like phone access and culture. This means that addressing any single factor isn’t going to solve the problem. That, in turn, means that you can’t solve it by issuing regulations. Instead, you need intensive collaboration that brings all the needed perspectives to the table. And that is what this TechSprint did.
Some of our listeners know that AIR hosts TechSprints – which are basically hackathons for financial regulators. The form was invented by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK under the leadership of Nick Cook (who is now actually AIR’s Head of Global Strategy and Partnerships). We have held sprints on many topics, including one we held last year on Women's Economic Empowerment in collaboration with the FCA. This year, we wanted to do one focused on women in Asia or Africa, at just about the same time the RBI was creating its Hub. With the generous support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we were able to work with the RBIH on this remarkable event.
On today’s show, Rajesh explains that the sprint began with researching and publishing a white paper on women’s financial needs, which was then developed into a set of problem statements to be tackled by the TechSprint teams. He also describes the novel approach the RBIH took to meeting one of the key challenges presented by TechSprints, namely how to leverage their results. The Swanari sprint featured a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP, track in which 37 startups and organizations competed for an opportunity to participate in the CIIE.CO Accelerator to develop commercial solutions for women. The RBIH team also recruited a group of banks as scale up partners to implement these innovations when they are ready. Meanwhile a second TechSprint track featured six teams competing on Ideation and Design, and several hundred people joined into a broader Inspiration Community, observing and learning from the teams and from dozens of experts and speakers throughout the week.
Beyond the Swanari sprint, Rajesh tells us about the plan for the HUB. I know of two central banks that have established and funded nonprofit affiliates in the last year (the other is the Monetary Authority of Singapore, which set up Elevandi, on whose board I serve). It’s extremely interesting that these government bodies are creating outside organizations that can help them be more agile with innovation. Rajesh explains the plans for the Hub, which will include conducting more TechSprints.
For listeners in the Americas and Europe, the Swanari events happened in the middle of the night (for me, most of them began at 2AM), making them inconvenient to watch live. I can’t urge you strongly enough to watch or listen to some of these sessions, which you can find at SwanariTechsprint.In.. The presentations and discussions were loaded with insights and revelations that I, for one, have not heard anywhere else.
If you care about women’s empowerment; if you care about financial inclusion; if you care about the modernization of financial regulatory models, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you listen to this episode and then come to the show notes and consume the content we have put there for you.
More about Rajesh
Mr. Rajesh Bansal is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Reserve Bank Innovation Hub (RBIH) where he aims to foster and catalyse financial sector innovation to enable access to suitable and accessible financial products for a billion people in a frictionless, secure manner.
A highly regarded thought leader in the areas of digital financial services and digital infrastructure, Mr. Bansal has nearly three decades of global experience in designing digital IDs and electronic payment products and cash transfers, to enable inclusive development in multiple Asian and African markets. Prior to joining RBIH, he was senior adviser at Carnegie India, where he led the centre’s Technology and Society programme.
Mr. Bansal has previously served at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in various capacities, including in areas of technology, payment systems, and financial inclusion. He was a member of the founding team of Aadhaar and specifically led the design of India’s Direct Benefits Transfer system which is benefiting hundreds of millions of low income clients. He played a key role in creating IndiaStack, a digital ID-based infrastructure for a presenceless and cashless service delivery platform in India. He has been a member of a number of committees of the Government of India and the RBI.
Mr. Bansal is a frequent speaker, moderator and panellist on financial innovation and inclusion in academic circles, conferences and fintech festivals nationally and internationally. He has authored a number of opinion pieces in leading publications and has recently authored a paper on the geopolitics of digital yuan, outlining the challenges China’s CBDC can pose to the US dollars’ hegemony. He also hosted Carnegie India’s podcast, ‘Interpreting India’ to shed light on CBDC and unpack the effect they could have on the way we transact
A recipient of the prestigious Golden Jubilee scholarship scheme of the RBI, Mr. Bansal holds a Master’s degree from Duke University, USA.
More about the Swanari TechSprint
The combination of innovation, collaboration, human endeavor and technology has limitless power to solve intractable problems. RBIH was looking to leverage this power to drive the development of gender-inclusive financial products and services, specifically supporting women’s advancement in financial growth and independence. Swanari, is a comprehensive innovation program. It is designed to surface and develop technology solutions, promote public/private collaboration, and demonstrate the value of the TechSprint model.
It also seeks to raise awareness of the significant impact that gender inequality has on women’s ability to thrive.
Swanari has been designed to:
RBIH has carefully selected core program partners, AIR-The Alliance for Innovative Regulation, CIIE.CO, and Microsave Consulting to collaborate on the development and execution of the end-to-end Swanari program – each uniquely qualified to successfully deliver one of the four phases of the initiative. National banks and microfinance institutions are also engaged, providing data and expertise,along with long-term support for the emerging technology solutions. Avanti, Axis Bank, Bank of Baroda, Federal Bank and Svatantra were engaged as Swanari scale-up partners.
The Swanari Program was designed to be executed in four distinct, but interrelated, phases:
Summary of the whitepaper themes and key statistics MSC
The Swanari TechSprint was built on the development of a series of problem statements which were explored in a whitepaper on gender and finance. The problem statements covered a range of topics from developing financial service tools for the illiterate, to considering alternative credit for female-led businesses, to encouraging women in self help groups to save independently. The topics then served as the foundation for The 5-day virtual TechSprint held 18-22 April, 2022.
It created an opportunity for public and private collaboration bringing together volunteers from government, technology, financial services and civil society – all working together to advance digital financial services for Indian women. The TechSprint attracted 195 participants competing across 43 teams, 17 volunteer experts, 34 speakers presenting throughout the week, and more than 200 registrants joining the inspiration community.
Three concurrent tracks ensured that the TechSprint successfully delivered on the key RBIH priorities: 1) Identifying technology solutions that were ready for acceleration and scale, 2) creating an inclusive environment for innovation and collaboration, and 3) raising awareness of the key challenges to the advancement of women’s financial inclusion and the possibilities for digital solutions.
The MVP Track was open to start-ups and organizations who had existing technology solutions that could address the challenges raised in the problem statements. 37 teams competed for an opportunity to participate in the CIIE.CO Accelerator program and the potential to work with scale up partners.
Ideation & Design Track
The goal of the Ideation and Design Track was to inspire individuals to collaborate and to demonstrate the value of bringing together diverse perspectives and skillsets. Six curated teams were expected to come together, align on their understanding of the problem statement, agree on a solution, design a prototype, and prepare a pitch for the jury- all over the course of four days. It is an intense, but incredibly rewarding experience. On Demo Day the teams were given six minutes to present and three minutes of Q&A, competing to win in one of three categories: Fast, Eureka and Jump.
To increase the reach of the TechSprint and raise awareness of the issues affecting gender inclusive finance we created the Inspiration Community. A webinar series featured RBI and RBIH leadership joined by iconic female leaders, successful founders and experts in financial services, microfinancing, financial inclusion, gender, and technology. In total 34 speakers participated in 14 unique sessions hosted over the course of the five-day Sprint. Over 1,100 watched the sessions live on Zoom and LinkedIn and the videos have been made available to all on the Swanari TechSprint site.
The TechSprint, the second phase in a four-stage program, holds both short- and long-term benefits:
Visibly launched RBIH in the innovation and fintech ecosystem in India, providing inspiration to other regulators and central banks
Looking forward, we have terrific shows lined up. They include Kosta Peric, Deputy Director of Financial Services for the Poor with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Sigal Mandelker, former Treasury official and now at Ribbit Capital; Nicole Elam and Robert James of the National Bankers Association; Jeremy Allaire of Circle, and Sunayna Tuteja, the first ever chief innovation officer of the Federal Reserve System – among others!
There are also many exciting conferences coming up. This month we’ll be at LendIt Fintech in New York. Next month I’ll be giving a keynote at the ABA Regulatory Compliance Conference and I’ll also be back at the RegPac RegTech Innovation Summit. For those of you in or near Zurich, I hope to see you in June at the Point Zero Forum, a unique gathering hosted by the Swiss government and Elevandi, a nonprofit entity created by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) (I serve on Elevandi’s board.)
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