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by Analytics Insight

March 29, 2022

Although FinTech has been gaining great traction in urban areas with the emergence of several new-age start-ups and digitally savvy consumers, there is a huge void in terms of the number of FinTech players catering specifically to rural consumers. Spice Money, founded in June 2019, is India’s leading rural fintech platform empowering rural nanopreneurs. Analytics Insight has engaged in an exclusive interview with Varundeep Kaur, Chief Information Officer, Spice Money.


1. Kindly brief us about Spice Money, its journey, specialization, and the services that it offers.

Spice Money, founded in June 2019, is India’s leading rural fintech platform empowering rural nanopreneurs. We are building a marketplace to cater to all rural banking and financial needs through multiple products. Spice Money’s phygital model combines the financial products and the presence of on-ground rural nanopreneurs, also known as Spice Money Adhikaris, who leverage technology and help serve the underserved rural communities through an assisted digital business model.

Since its inception, Spice Money has seen exceptional growth. The pandemic accelerated the company’s business as increasingly more migrant workers returned to their homes in rural India due to lockdown-induced unemployment in urban areas. Spice Money offered these migrant workers an opportunity to become Spice Money Adhikaris without having to leave their hometowns. During the pandemic, in a cash-driven rural economy, the Adhikaris became essential workers empowering their communities with access to their own hard-earned money.

Recognizing this demand for entrepreneurship opportunities during the pandemic, we had introduced a zero investment business initiative that lowered the barrier of entry for aspiring rural nanopreneurs. The initiative was yet another step in our efforts to secure India’s digital and financial future. We grew from a 3 lakh strong network before the pandemic to a 10 lakh strong network today.

Spice Money’s Adhikari network covers 95% of rural pin codes in India and spans over 18,000 pin codes, 700 districts, and 5,000 blocks, serving over 10 crore households.

We are now working towards building a comprehensive financial services marketplace that will go beyond offering basic banking services and aim to also provide financial offerings such as savings, credit, insurance, among many others. We are currently also running pilot programs around other non-financial services as per the needs of rural citizens and, based on the success rate, we will be implementing them and start expanding our services across multiple verticals.


2. Kindly brief us about your role at Spice Money and your journey with the company and your overall career.

I am Chief Information Officer at Spice Money, where we are dealing with rural segments that have unique needs that can’t be served without technology. Hence, with technology being the heart and soul of the organization (especially in today’s era), my team and I are responsible for making sure that the business keeps growing while we maintain the systems, keep the technology updated, reduce our time to market, keep stability issues at bay and our customers happy and satisfied.

As a CIO, I am charged with the creation of strategic technology/IT initiatives that align with Spice Money, its culture, and its long-term goals. I am responsible for building a financial services platform that enables Spice Money as the most trusted rural fintech brand. I have engineered several important changes to IT, among these were substantial initiatives of building scalable infrastructure and ecosystem, adoption of automation, low code no-code applications, and modernization of IT infrastructure.

I started my career and my professional journey with the Spice Group way back in 2003 working with Spice Telecom (which later got acquired by Idea and is now Vodafone Idea), then later with Spice Digital and Spice Money. I have gained considerable experience, opportunities, and mentorship, and also got to work with visionary leaders who provided me the freedom to experiment and evolve. I feel grateful to the company and the people I have worked with throughout the years, for helping me grow and reach where I am today.

Before Spice Money, I worked at MTS and Spice Communications Limited (Telecom). On the qualification side, I am a gold medalist in Computer Science and Engineering from Baba Banda Singh Bahadur Engineering College, Punjab Technical University. I have completed a post-Graduate Diploma in Business Analytics (Operations), PGD in Data Science, OCP, ITIL, and PMP. I am well versed in technology design and building applications for scale, along with Data Warehousing, Business Intelligence, project management, and strategic initiatives.

In my previous assignments, I moved up the ladder through various roles and positions within the organization which included implementing predictive models way back in 2003, when ML was unheard of, leading deliveries across Prepaid/ Postpaid billing, automation of manual processes, overhauling processes and systems, leading migrations through DWH, Application, Transitions, project management, solution architecture, and heading analytics and data engineering functions. I have also led deliveries for financial services from inception while steering through constraints and drove UMANG application solutioning and delivery. I have won several awards and accolades, recent ones being ‘Tech Women leader’ by TechGig, ‘Editor’s Choice Women’s Award in BFSI’ by TechPlus Media and CXOTV, ‘CIO 1000 Awards, and ‘Top 100 Innovative and forward-looking CIOs’ by CIO Axis.

I have been fortunate enough to get the right mentors who encouraged me when I was young and when there were only a few women in leadership positions, along with the support of great team members who were willing to make miracles happen. I have gained considerable experience, opportunities, and mentorship, and also got to work with visionary leaders who offered me the freedom to experiment and evolve. I feel grateful to the company and the people I have worked with throughout the years, for helping me grow and reach where I am today.


3. What is your leadership mantra?

I believe in leading by heart and being my authentic self, and building long-lasting relationships rather than transactional ones. People are the focal point of leadership – human beings are creations of emotion not logic and this needs to be kept in mind by all of us. We are dealing with real people, who will have real challenges, real problems, and real happiness – at times they don’t need you to give solutions, however, an empathetic ear to listen. Be hard on situations, not on people.

Also, I have always believed that leaders are responsible for helping the people who are in their charge to explore, experiment, grow and encourage them to take the road less traveled – it doesn’t matter if they later choose a different sky to fly higher. I firmly believe that a leader believes in creating more leaders rather than more followers.

Other than people, leaders have to respond to today’s needs while focusing on disrupting the future and making sure that people are on board with the alignment of the current state with the future vision.


4. What does your technology and business roadmap look like for the rest of the year?

We are committed to becoming the most admired rural fintech company this year. While we have been maintaining our number #1 position for close to a year now, admiration sits on the base of trust. Trust is attained through consistent, seamless, positive experiences.

We look forward to becoming a marketplace for rural India and venturing into different areas to solve the problem of lack of financial inclusion and provide technology-enabled solutions to empower rural communities through digitization that transforms the way they operate.

Technology is no longer a support function, it is a line function in FinTech space, which means business and technology roadmaps have to align, converge and complement each other.

We firmly believe in building human capital which, when combined with state of art technology, can disrupt any space we are in. We have laid the foundation of a strong technology team by strengthening our teams. With empowered and technologically sound teams, we are well on our way to reaching the goals laid out for this year.

For us, there are two focus areas – our employees and our Adhikaris (rural nanopreneurs). We have invested a lot in automation, low/ no-code platform, building applications to operate at scale, and building the confidence of our Adhikaris in our platform.

The focus of automation is on streamlining and automating manual processes, to liberate employees from menial tasks that are error-prone, time-consuming, and highly person dependent. With automation, we are not only pushing for the reduction of complaints but also improving CSAT and overhauling processes. We had saved around 30K man-hours last year, and are aiming to save an equal amount this year as well. This initiative is focused on both internal and external customers.

We are building a platform for the future which is more agile, flexible, scalable, secure, stable, responsive, and can cater to needs of quick time to market while being ready for 5X growth. A platform that helps us rapidly experiment with new areas without long build cycles, enabling us to disrupt faster. Also, the incorporation of low/no-code will help us strengthen existing processes, making them more auditable and flexible. This will also transfer power into the hands of the business, reducing its dependence on technology teams.

Architecturally, we are overhauling platforms, infrastructure. Application and infrastructure modernization are in the plans. We are also looking at the adoption of a platform-based approach, like Flutter, which can quickly make changes available in various forms and factors.

Data analytics and data science initiatives coupled with CDC, cloud technologies, multiple source information (structured, unstructured, semi-structured) and disruptive technologies to leverage consumer data and provide more meaningful, consumable, actionable insights will continue to be an area in progress. Faster model building, validation, and execution is also focus area.

Our organization is growing 150% year on year. We are adding on new services and verticals while making sure we create a wow feeling for our merchants. Hence, our technology has also picked up Design Thinking, UX / CX, multilingual capabilities as a continued key focus area for this year.

Security is another area that has always been our focus. We believe in Security at the design stage. We are further strengthening our security landscape and automating security checks.

We are making ourselves ready for future disruptive technologies that the banking and payments space is headed towards.


5. How can C-suite executives leverage data to deliver business value to their organization?

Data has come a long way from being something simply used to occupy storage space for meeting compliances and serving transaction histories to customers, to becoming a critical factor in the decision-making process. That’s why data is called the new oil. Disruptive business transformations will further push data into becoming a critical asset to even investments and further decision making.

We live in a world where everything is evolving rapidly.  Hence, it is important to stay relevant and current. The abundance of data provides an opportunity to gather meaningful insights while also bringing in the matter of regulations and compliances. Irrespective of their role, C-suite executives need to have a tighter grasp and control over the data.

While businesses are on a fast growth path, it is easy to get carried away by success. However, if you follow the trends, actively look at disruptors and external factors impacting your business, and review and revise your strategy, you can ensure that your organization’s success has a solid foundation and it follows an upward growth trajectory. It is also critical to be mindful of the smallest of patterns and trends as customers have become more powerful than ever before and their needs can’t be taken lightly.

Data alone isn’t helpful. Actionable insights coupled with the right metrics are critical to the success of any business today. C-suite executives can’t afford to wait for long cycles for data preparation to be served in days, weeks, or months – they need it now.

Having said that, tech teams have to ensure that these implementations neither overshoot the budget nor do the processes become bulky and error-prone.


6. How is Spice Money helping its customers deliver relevant business outcomes through the adoption of technology innovations?

Innovations in a highly dynamic business world need to focus on people, processes, communication, and technology. While optimizing the user experience, reducing friction, and decreasing instances of fraud for the business, innovations have to answer a few leading questions such as:

  • How easily can your customers do business with you?
  • How seamless is the transaction flow?
  • How frictionless is the journey and the processes involved?
  • How well informed are the customer and the end consumer?
  • How transparent are you when dealing with your customers and end consumers?
  • How do you communicate failures?
  • How resilient are your processes?
  • What is going to be your key differentiator?
  • Why should customers choose you over competitors?
  • How well do you understand the needs of your customers and end consumers?

As an organization operating in the B2B2C space, Spice Money Adhikaris are our customers, and those who avail of the services Adhikaris offers are our end consumers.

Technology innovations around communication helped us reduce complaints, establish stronger trust and connection, and keep our Adhikaris more informed so that they can serve their customers better.

Murphy’s law says that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. We may not be able to control all situations when it comes to external systems, however, transparent and proactive communication about downtimes and uptimes have built a sturdy foundation for Spice Money. Measuring and continuously improving over areas where we fizzled out, helped us gain, maintain and sustain our leadership position.

Innovations around people and processes through automation, digitization helped us fine-tune the lead times of refunds in case of failures or unknown transactions. Intelligent bot-based or technology-enabled IVRs led to 24X7 availability of resolution. Overhaul of processes that are more customer and consumer-centric resulted in complaint reduction, TAT reduction, and CSAT improvement.

Also, design thinking interventions helped bring meaningful, intuitive frictionless, lean journeys for our Adhikaris, thus striking a chord with our brand promise. Our customers often measure us on our commitments and promises we make and, through all these innovations, we are making sure we deliver on those.

Innovations around technology enabled us to effectively and efficiently accelerate the time to market new features and improvements requested by our customers. Also, technological innovations helped create a stronger product portfolio, mobile workforce, and empowered the sales force with a better understanding of the customers and their pain points, armed with quick solutions.

With real-time analytical systems, we are moving away from silos of spreadsheets to actionable insights that are accurate and available in real-time, enabling the business to become quick in identifying both positive and negative trends faster. It helps create a clear vision and better prioritization. No Adhikari would want a consumer to leave without completing their business or with a bad experience. With this in mind, we built systems that are scalable, resilient, and have minimal latency to address the long queues that form as rural customers line up for their subsidies. This also helped in keeping service/ operating costs low without compromising on quality.


7. According to you, what are the key trends driving the growth in Big Data analytics/AI/Machine Learning?

A key driver for the growth of big data analytics is emerging from rural India.

The ability of big data analytics such as AI and ML to parse complicated data into informed insights is the key driver for the growth of these technologies. For instance, banks hold a large amount of data, making the loan application and disbursal process cumbersome. Additionally, the underwriting process is also limited to the assessment of one’s credit score and meticulous documentation – elements that many living in rural India do not have. In such a scenario, the integration of AI and ML can enable legacy banks and financial institutions to expand their understanding of creditworthiness by also assessing alternative data (such as regularity of utility bill payments) and delivering credit to the traditionally underserved areas of rural India. As the rural businesses and MSMEs start to gradually recover from the pandemic, access to microcredit will play a significant role in their return to growth. Here, AI and ML can play a crucial role, driving their adoption by new-age fintech players.

Fintechs are also looking for better ways to understand and reach rural India to empower them with much-needed banking services. Big data can provide them with information that will help them tailor not just their marketing and communications, but also their products, to the needs of the rural customers.

I believe rural India is a great catalyst for the adoption of big data analytics in India and will continue to remain so as there’s still huge untapped potential available.

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