Although abundant in ideas and energy, the majority of aspiring entrepreneurs get stuck behind due to a lack of investments, and only a few are fortunate enough to get the funding to jump-start their dreams. So to democratize the funding process, and give equal access to the impoverished, Sonika Manandhar, along with Tiffany Tong, founded Aeloi Tech on the 31st of December, 2018. It is their goal to accelerate the development of a green economy by supporting grassroots micro-entrepreneurs in the field of agriculture and electric vehicles. They do so by removing gaps in the traditional financial system with its unique Digital Token System. “Aeloi” is a phonetic translation of the word ‘Alloy’, which means ‘fusion of two metals for better strength.’ Thus the name hints at the fusion of finance with technology.
It all started with a question: How can one foster a grassroots economy? Ms. Manandhar’s long time interest in supporting micro-entrepreneurs finally led to her meeting Ms. Tong at the Singularity University’s Global Solutions Program of 2017 in Silicon Valley. She recalls them initially failing at many attempts at building feasible products for the smallholder workers. However, with spirited enthusiasm and countless hours of brainstorming, they finally came up with the idea of transferring services from the impactful finances available globally to grassroots-level workers without having to go through the cumbersome levels of project management.
She adds, “Another tickling factor was the realization of the effect of having access to affordable finance in the growth of a business. We learned this when our family benefitted by taking out a loan through a government-supported fund to buy a minibus 25 years ago. So we wanted to make sure such financial opportunities are available to all micro-entrepreneurs.“
The Digital Token Concept
Keeping track of the financial health and the impact of the fund on the recipient is their main priority as it facilitates the building of trust between the parties involved. They applied the Digital Token System to make access to funds as easy as possible, though they have also been testing out a new model with cash due to an overflow of requests for it.
“When we first proposed our digital token system, people mistook it as cryptocurrency. They are not a cryptocurrency because these tokens are not tradeable in any other market. They stay inside the closed loop ensuring that the fund is used for intended business purposes. And all of this by employing the simplicity of SMS,” explains Ms. Manandhar.
She points out that the people at the grassroots level constantly back out complaining about the difficulty in using the apps. So it has proven to be easier with SMS to send and receive a loan as small as Rs.2000 to an unspecified range.
Working on the Field of Agriculture and Electric Vehicles
They have been working solely on the agricultural field and electric vehicle till now on a network basis through numerous institutions. Being a women-led company, they constantly strive for the upliftment of women after they witnessed most of the financial services being male-centric despite their purported neutral feature. In regards to designing products as per the needs and requirements of women in the agricultural field, they partnered with local Microfinance companies and Cooperatives and have already succeeded in assisting about 18 borrowers and planned for 150 more this year.
When asked about how they ensure the loans are not misused, Manandhar adds that the transfers are completely traceable and accountable. Since they partner with vendors, the issued tokens can only be used from a particular seller that is approved by the company. This assists in making appropriate use of the fund and helps to complete their desired aim more efficiently.
“By listing out all the planned expenses beforehand by the recipients in a comprehensive way, our financial platform maintains a level of discipline required for effective implementation of the funds,” Manandhar adds.
Furthermore, the company has partnered with the Safa Tempo company to foster the adoption of electric vehicles and is working towards persuading more drivers back into the industry due to their recent large withdrawal.
The COVID-19 Effect
For the year-old startup, a sudden break in the working was tough. “Our fieldwork has been halted, but most of the team members continued to contribute during the lockdown as we perceived it as an opportunity in terms of novel working arrangement and team bonding experience,” expresses Manandhar optimistically. Having said that, they can’t deny the massive effect the pandemic has had on the women drivers and smallholder farmers.
“As a response to the disruption of their daily wages, we started a fundraiser and collected more than 6 lakhs rupees to provide for their meals to make sure they sustain their lives,” shares Manandhar.
However, this is just a short-term solution. The easily foreseeable time span required to normalize the running of tempos even after the COVID-19 situation stimulated the team to switch into the idea of grocery deliveries. For this, they are working on merging agriculture with electric vehicles to maintain the sustainability of smallholder workers through their daily income which has been hampered by the lockdown.
‘People can steal your idea, not your effort.’ This was the most influential piece of advice given to Manandhar by her co-founder Tong when she was hesitant to initiate her enterprise on the grounds of what people might think and the threat of the idea being copied by someone else. As per her experience, she believes this is what drives most people to keep their idea to themselves. She stresses that once you put the effort, everything will eventually follow. Her basic mantra is nothing fancy; just a rugged and practical simplicity of action:
“Get your idea off the ground. You will never know unless you give it a try.”Sonika Manandhar, Co-founder Aeloi Tech