Digital Revolution: A Bridge to Women's Empowerment and Financial Inclusion
Friday, Jul 08, 2022

Digital Revolution: A Bridge to Women's Empowerment and Financial Inclusion

The podcast explores the role of digitalization in women’s financial inclusion. Ms. Aditi Namdeo, Chief Partnerships Officer (CPO) of the Reserve Bank Innovation Hub (RBIH), India, shares the inspiration for and experience from an exclusive TechSprint initiative hosted by RBIH which focused on self-reliant women. She also explores some of the barriers and facilitators to women’s financial inclusion in India. Read their biographies here. Read the transcript here. 

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Aditi Namdeo

Chief Partnerships Officer (CPO) of Reserve Bank Innovation Hub




Richa Goyal

Program Director, Toronto Centre




June 28, 2022




Opening automation:            


You're listening to a Toronto Centre podcast. Welcome. The goal of TC podcasts is to spread the knowledge and accumulated experience of global leaders, experts, and world-renowned specialists in financial supervision and regulation. In each episode, we'll delve into some of today's most pressing issues as it relates to financial supervision and regulation, the financial crisis, climate change, financial inclusion, FinTech, and much more. Enjoy this episode.


Richa Goyal:


Greetings to all our listeners. I am Richa Goyal, Program Director at Toronto Centre. My guest speaker today is Aditi Namdeo. Aditi is the Chief Partnerships Officer of Reserve Bank of India’s Innovation Hub (RBIH). As the Chief Partnership Officer of RBIH, Aditi is responsible for curating programs and building partnership ecosystems and alliances propagating the organization's initiatives. 


Aditi comes with experience in extensive public private partnerships, technology policy, and consulting of around two decades spread across the globe including Europe, United States, and Australia, working at several leadership positions within organizations such as the World Economic Forum and PricewaterhouseCoopers. 


Aditi is also an ambassador for women-led technology, non-government organizations and communities, championing the innovation agenda for women. Welcome, Aditi. Please tell us more about the role of Reserve Bank Innovation Hub in the Indian ecosystem.



Aditi Namdeo:


Thank you so much, Richa. It's a pleasure to be here and thank you to the Toronto Centre for inviting me to this exciting and wonderful podcast. It's a cause and a passion that we together believe in. Just to address your first question, which is, "What is the role of RBIH and what is RBIH?" Let me tell you a little bit about our organization. 


The Reserve Bank Innovation Hub is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of India, and our role is to promote and facilitate an environment that will help accelerate innovation across the financial sector in the nation. Reserve Bank Innovation Hub intends to foster and evangelize innovation across the sector to enable a billion Indians access to suitable, sustainable, and frictionless financial products and services. 


In addition, the Hub intends to create internal capabilities through applied research and expertise in latest technology in the financial sector. The Reserve Bank Innovation Hub plans to collaborate with financial sector institutions, policy bodies, civil society bodies, technology industry, and coordinate this effort through exchange of ideas and develop products, prototypes related to financial sector innovation.


One of the things that we want to do is also to identify challenges in the financial ecosystem through applied research and extensive community consultation. RBIH is a conduit, a facilitator, and enabler to consolidate financial innovations in the national ecosystem, and also surface the challenges, imminent challenges, that we face in solving some of these issues. That's the two-point summary of RBIH.


Richa Goyal:


Thank you, Aditi, for this very meaningful introduction. And that actually brings me to one of the recent successes that you had with Swanari, the flagship TechSprint that you ran as the curator and custodian of the program. Please tell us a little bit more about it, first of all, what inspired you to design it? And most importantly, what is Swanari all about?


Aditi Namdeo:


Swanari is a Hindi word, Richa, and given your nationality, I am assuming that you would know what Swanari stands for. But for the audiences, Swanari is a short form for Swanirbhar Nari, which in Hindi translates to English as self-reliant lady. This word Swanirbhar is so important to the Indian ecosystem because Indian women are generally identified as somebody's daughter, somebody's mother, somebody's wife, somebody's sister. And we wanted to make sure that while the identity has been changing, and there is a lot of independent image creation that is being done by the tremendous work that is being done in the Indian ecosystem by brilliant women leaders, we wanted to make sure that we dedicate this TechSprint to making women self-reliant and independent.


So Swanari is really Swanirbhar Nari, and this program was initiated to actually advance digital financial inclusion for women in India. Just talking a little bit about the inspiration as such, you and I come from households where we have seen our mothers, our grandmothers struggling with the awareness of financial services and products they have there in their ecosystem. It's not that they are not intelligent. It's not that they do not know about money, savings, lending. They, in fact, run the purse of the family, so generally, women are considered as tremendous financial controllers because they are the ones who are actually running the household single handedly, looking at all the finances regarding all their family members.


But when it comes to applied finance, when it comes to actually using financial services and products, that is where we actually face a lot of barriers. And Swanari was actually looking into what causes the barriers, not only at the different economic levels, but also at literacy and awareness levels. So,, there are a lot of issues around literacy and awareness about what are these financial services and products? How do you access them? Where do you find them? Where does the story really become to grow into an issue? So that inspiration really comes from our own household. We see this, we feel it, and we know that this needs to be solved. So really, the inspiration comes from each one of us knowing this issue persists in India.


Just to give some background, Reserve Bank Innovation Hub also partnered to first create a Whitepaper on gender and finance to understand what the state of gender and finance in India is before we embarked on this program. 


There were people from self-help group ecosystem, there were people from microfinance institutes, there were people from international organizations such as World Bank and others. There were people who were running startups or FinTechs for women by women, and there were people who were academicians, who were researching through research and applied research on what would actually enhance women empowerment through financial inclusion. So, these 15 people came together, and together with them, we tried and identified and surfaced the issues. 


Some of the key findings that I just want to talk a little bit about from this paper, which is going to be helpful to understand why did we do this from RBIH's point of view? We know that women from this disproportionately large share of the world's unbanked and underserved population. This is a global fact backed by data. Also, while we have our annual Financial Inclusion Index by RBI, which said that we improved financial inclusion by 10.5 points from 2017 to 2021, which is a five-year period, it did deepen financial inclusion. We had UPI, we had Aadhaar, they were great enablers to build... We had Prime Minister Jhan Dhan Yojna, we had MGNREGA, all of this really helped deepen financial inclusion.


However, that financial inclusion, if you look very closely, has not translated into equity between financial inclusion among men and women in India, and that is the point that we wanted to actually address. Women, as such, lag behind men in several socioeconomic indicators, which also affect their usage of financial services and products, which further deepens the gender gap.


Also, according to the Global Findex Report from the World Bank, 23% of women in India still lack access to formal financial services, while 55% do not use their bank accounts, so these are dormant bank accounts. They have the bank accounts in their name, but they are operated by the men in the house or someone who's actually operating it for the women.


We also know that they have been a lot of government schemes, as we just talked about. They have brought a lot of unbanked women into the banking scenario. At least now we have them into formal banking channels, but we don't have their transaction history. And we also know that the regular uptake of these services by women still remains a challenge: going to the bank, making a transaction, withdrawal, deposit, that still remains a challenge. 

Coming to the self-help groups, we are also looking at how each member of the self-help group community becomes independent. So how can digitization and technology play a role in enhancing independent financial inclusion of each member of the self-help group?


So basically, what we are trying to do is, we are trying to put a gender lens on everything we do. Without fully including women, we cannot solve for the financial inclusion, so to speak, global problem or national problem. And we can also not then enhance economic prosperity for households in India.


So with this backdrop, we wanted to bring partners in the financial services ecosystem to create and produce smart and creative sustainable solutions for underserved, low, and middle income (LMI) women and women-owned enterprises in India. So this program, it was rooted philosophically to be by women for women, India solves for India. 

Those were the tenets, and there were two main objectives, that's what I at least started with. 

One is, how do you pivot the financial ecosystem to design affordable, suitable, and sustainable financial services and products for women right from the design stage and not as a post facto thinking process?


Second, how do we enable and encourage more women-led FinTechs to create impact at scale through innovative technology-led financial services? So, women come up and they build their own enterprises, thereby, there are more number of women who are running FinTechs and startups in India, which addresses a different point, which is, how do you build women entrepreneurship in India?


Given that we are at a very interesting cusp globally, in terms of rise of FinTech, especially in India, this gives us a very unique opportunity and a great responsibility for FinTech owners to think about women, when they are discussing financial services and products. We want to use this program to encourage more women in tech to create solutions tailored to the needs of the women users. And we want to see this as a win-win situation to increase women users' uptake of financial services and products, which are designed by the women thinkers themselves. Ultimately, this program has a potential to impact the lives of 330 million adult women in India and 13 million women-led enterprises and about 8 million SLGs (self-help groups), which are operating in India. So that's the background, a little bit of a long background, but Swanari is all about women independence in finance.


Richa Goyal:


I think that's a brilliant thought process and initiative. And most importantly, I picked up on when you said for the women and by the women. This is something that I actually didn't realize when you talked about Swanari. I just thought it was about women financial inclusion, but now you're talking about the FinTechs led by women as well.


And I also picked up some of the key barriers to women's financial inclusion. I think you mentioned them in context of India, but I would say that they are global phenomena as well. We hear the same cultural, social barriers being echoed in many other continents as well. You talked about lack of financial literacy and lack of confidence, perhaps, when it comes to financial decision making or financial independence.

Richa Goyal:

But the most interesting part that I really take away is Fintechs led by women, which could be a huge facilitator for women financial inclusion, because they would think from their own perspective, their own community's perspective, and touch the right corners.


Now you talked about a huge population that you would like to reach out to, and I'm sure there is a different category within this segment as well. So, as part of Swanari otherwise from your initiatives, what are the strata of the women that you are touching upon in India? Because each one of them may require a different strategy. And you said women have the financial resources, but they're not financially independent, so these could be the educated and working class. Then you already touched upon the entrepreneur, the small and medium enterprises led by women. And there are daily wage earner women who are majority involved in agriculture and industry as well. So how are you planning to approach or target each one of these segments differently?


Aditi Namdeo:


That's essentially one of the biggest challenges that we had while we were designing the program, as well as the TechSprint. Interestingly, when you look at financial inclusion problems or challenges, specifically in India or globally as well, you will find that each demographic and economic strata comes with their own set of challenges that are unique to them. They are related to our backgrounds. They're related to our literacy. They are related to our access. Sometimes they are even pan-strata because there are infrastructure challenges, which are there at a nation level and not necessarily at any economic strata level.


However, we wanted to be fair to the first initiative and the first attempt that we were trying to solve for, so we looked at various personas, as you rightly pointed out . There is an educated class, there is a low, underserved, low and medium client. There is a woman who actually runs her beauty parlor. And then there is a maid who comes to our house. And then there is a village woman who is sitting somewhere in one of the remotest villages of India waiting for some intimation of money in her account and waiting on somebody to help withdraw that money for her.


There are different challenges and these are very varied strata. However, as I said, because we tried to do a research and design on what sort of problems were most pertaining to financial inclusion and were more pressing on our needs, we came up with five distinct problem statements. And these five distinct problem statements, three of them, were looking at specifically the low and the medium income class strata. The other problem statement that was specifically looking at is the self-help group.


The self-help groups have created tremendous progress in India, thanks to organizations such as SEWA  and Mann Deshi , all of these were part of this Swanari dialogue as well. Several such organizations, we have made tremendous progress in terms of self-help group as a community. But when you actually look at self-help group independent members, you will see financial inclusion is still stuck at an independent member level.


The third, which was important and also very resonating to our objective of the Swanari program was to build entrepreneurship in women. We wanted to look at the women entrepreneur. Now that entrepreneur could be coming from whichever economic strata, we could look at rural or urban personas.


Some problems are very common to both these stratas. And so, when you talk about access to capital or access to investors or access to market, an urban woman is as uninformed as a rural women. So it takes a lot of effort to get them to the right investors, impart the soft skills to them, so that they can demand the right amount and for the right services, as well as ensure that they are getting that fair treatment when they're talking to the investors.


So the third dimension that we looked through  the problem statements in Swanari program was looking at women entrepreneurs. So these were the three different stratas, so to speak. 


Richa Goyal:


Aditi, this does seem like a marathon experience and very valuable one. But what are your lessons learned or learnings from Swanari? And what are your plans ahead to build on what you have started? And are there any new TechSprints that you're planning on this theme  or similar?


Aditi Namdeo:


Let me just tell you a little bit about what success looked like for Swanari, and what are we now doing. As I said, this TechSprint really brought together different people from different ecosystems together, and it created an opportunity for public and private collaboration, number one. Bringing together volunteers from government, from technology, from financial services, from regulators, from civil society, all coming together through the panels to the discussions, to advanced digital financial services for Indian women, which is tremendous, and we were very happy with that.


We created three tracks to deliver against each of the key priorities that we thought Swanari should look at. We wanted to make sure that we identified technology solutions that were ready for acceleration and scale. That we did. We found the winners, and we also found potential solutions that could really take the facilitation that Swanari program would get from not only us, but our scale up partners and all the experts that we brought together, and we are working with them right now.


We also created an inclusive environment for innovation and collaboration. The Swanari TechSprint had two tracks where people could come and ideate through the Idea and Design track (I&D). These people could be university students, it could be a girl who has a brilliant idea about how to solve a financial problem statement that we curated and give us the solution, in that one week.


We also had a Minimum Viable Product track, where existing Fintechs could come and champion their solutions and get further support and enhancement for their scaling up. So we created this environment, and we had 200 plus participants on the I&D track and 60 plus teams who actually registered for the Minimum Viable Product track. 60 organizations, which we filtered, who were looking at solving one of the other problem statements.


The third thing that we did through the Swanari TechSprint was we raised awareness, more than anything, of the key challenges that were identified by the whitepaper for the advancement of women's financial inclusion and the vast possibilities of digital solutions that lay ahead of us.



To just sum it up, and talk about five or six key outcomes from the TechSprint, we demonstrated our commitment as RBIH to gender and finance, as well as technology and innovation, because we are at the intersection of it. We provided training and skills development to solution thinkers and makers from the Idea and Design track, connecting them to experts and supporting them to design new solutions, thereby encouraging them to think about financial inclusion. They say when you infuse the thought process in the youth, that's the best place to kickstart innovation.


And we created a community, so it's a wonderful Swanari community that we now have, and I am looking forward to institutionalize five action working groups through this TechSprint to take the conversation ahead. We don't want to leave this as a one-time TechSprint. We want to ensure that we do this year-on-year, so we will be doing a lot of TechSprints.


Swanari is the initiation of a program that is linked to the bigger platform that RBIH is planning to build, which is on diversity, equity, and inclusion. We know that the issues such as gender are there, but there are also discrepancies on algorithmic biases or various other issues which lead to discrepancies of giving similar pay or similar access of financial services and products to whatever distinguishing features you may have in different strata of the society, whether it's your caste, whether it's your income strata, whatever background you're coming from. So we want to build a diversity and inclusion platform at RBIH, and Swanari sits under that platform as the first program initiative of RBIH.


Richa Goyal:


Your experience or experiment with Swanari, if I can put it this way, basically confirms that a multi-prong and multi-agency approach is what we need for digital financial inclusion or women empowerment to succeed. This has been a classic case where you have approached it from all angles, and that's where the right intent and outcome can be achieved. Aditi, thank you so very much for sharing your experience with Toronto Centre Community, and we wish you all the best for all your future initiatives, most importantly, on gender equality, and diversity. Thank you once again for joining us today.


Aditi Namdeo:


Thank you, Richa, and thank you to the team at Toronto Centre. This was indeed a very interesting conversation. Thank you for bringing me to this conversation.