Hong Kong Indian entrepreneur out to build ‘the next Alibaba’ in Mumbai

After working as a Middle East strategist, Hong Kong-raised overachiever Akanksha Hazari moved to India to build her start-up m.Paani. She is about to get an award from Hillary Clinton’s NGO

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2016, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2016, 3:00pm

Akanksha Hazari’s parents were relieved when she announced in 2013 that she was moving to Mumbai on her own.

“After Palestine, India was fine,” says her mother, Anjali. “Akanksha wanted to go to Africa originally, but her father and I managed to convince her that it was probably not a good idea.”

Home for the 32-year-old former Middle East strategist turned star technology entrepreneur is Hong Kong, the city she moved to with her Indian parents when she was eight. She attended West Island School,and became so good at squash she was selected to play for Hong Kong in her teens.

“For me, Hong Kong is very much home ... I am an Indian-Hong Kong girl,” she says.

Hazari is the founder of m.Paani, a phone-based customer loyalty platform that helps to bring together small retailers andconsumers in emerging markets.

It may sound esoteric, but as she explains in her parents’ Mount Davis flat, this is just the first step in building a global business that can help the world’s underserved “offline” population access important services from which they have been excluded. In short, she wants m.Paani to be the next Alibaba.

Her ambition is matched by an iron will that has seen her take on a large American charity co-founded by Hollywood star Matt Damon, and win.

In 2010, Hazari was studying for an MBA at Cambridge University and formed a team to enter an annual competition for business students run by the Hult Prize Foundation. That year, participants were asked to submit business plans that could help address water scarcity issues, and Damon’s Water.org was brought in as an adviser. Hazari’s team came up with m.Paani (paani means water in Hindi), a mobile phone-based customer loyalty programme that encourages the supply of clean water to low-income families in India. When they won, Hazari – the only team member who wanted to launch the start-up for real – asked for the US$1 million prize money she believed they had been promised. Water.org, however, was under the impression that the US$1 million was going to its own projects.

Our goal was to support Hult in its efforts to teach about the urgency of this issue among students and the need for innovation,” writes Rosemary Gudelj, the charity’s senior manager, global advocacy and office of the CEO, in an email. “However, we also knew that these students only had two months to develop ideas. While we were hopeful that the winning case or other cases would be actionable by Water.org, we clearly were not comfortable committing to implementing the winning idea.

“When [Hazari’s] team won, we offered to have her and her team work with Water.org on looking into and developing the group’s idea to probe further, and see how this concept could be applied to local needs and circumstances. However, her request was to receive the full US$1 million grant to fund the organisation she launched.”

In the end, Water.org kept the US$1 million and the Hult family gave Hazari a separate grant of US$300,000 that allowed her to widen m.Paani’s business.

“At the time, Hult Prize thought it a better strategy to partner with a non-government organisation to help the winners manage and deploy the prize capital, rather than to directly give the money to a young student team. But once the US$1 million was transferred to Water.org, they kept it. That’s why I couldn’t start m.Paani straight away. It took me two years to get the money, which Philip Hult privately gave me,” says Hazari.

That tenacity helped her secure most of the funding she needed to set up the business in Mumbai around 18 months ago. Today, the loyalty point network has around 200 merchants and 10,000 customers.

“Think of it as something like air miles or credit card points. You earn points when you buy your groceries at your neighbourhood m.Paani corner shop. The shopkeeper taps in your mobile phone number – that’s your m.Paani account number – and your point balance is updated in real time,” says Hazari. The points can be used to pay for items or to redeem practical gifts from the m.Paani gift shop: water filters, English language textbooks or small appliances, for example.

While m.Paani has a social agenda – to leverage the often-neglected purchasing power of lower-income households and to boost the competitiveness of small, independent retailers that make up about 70 per cent of India’s US$600 billion a year retail market – it is very much a for-profit business.

It makes money by charging shop owners a commission for each transaction recorded. In return, previously offline mom-and-pop shops get a customised website, mobile app and digital transaction histories, and a consumer database.

The latter is key to Hazari’s ultimate goal: for m.Paani to become a “big data” player. The idea of data collection may be anathema to many internet users concerned with privacy, but she says those who do not have any data to offer get left behind.

“These shopkeepers tend to write everything down in a notebook. They can’t get insured, or apply for a bank loan, because there is no data about their business,” she says.

The same goes for the customers. Without any credit history, they are not likely to get bank loans or access other financial services. From this year, m.Paani will start scoring individuals and businesses on their creditworthiness, a first step in utilising their shopping records.

Hazari says small retailers with no online presence will struggle to compete against the growing presence of international chains such as Wal-Mart and Tesco as India gradually liberalises its retail sector. Online giants such as Amazon are also expanding aggressively in India. Issuing loyalty points helps rope in their customers.

The next step for m.Paani is to go national, and eventually spread to Africa and Southeast Asia.

“I want to build an Indian company that’s international,” she says. “For me there’s a lot of pride in that. Why can’t the next Google come out of India? That’s why Alibaba is such an exciting company. It’s the first company to do that out of our market.”

After earning a degree in politics and Middle Eastern studies from Princeton, Hazari worked for the Aspen Institute, encouraging Israeli and Palestinian joint business ventures as a way to promote peace. It meant living in Jerusalem and crossing the border every day to manage operations such as a hospital and a power plant in Gaza.

“Her time in the Middle East meant months of sleeplessness for me,” says her mother. “But I’m very proud of her.”

After two years,Hazari decided that business had a lot of power to change people’s lives and immersed herself in the corporate world, becoming a consultant in clean energy at Booz & Co. in the US and Dubai. That was followed by a year of designing environmentally sustainable services and information technology applications to help rural Indian families, and then the MBA in Cambridge.

Hazari’s parents had settled in Hong Kong so that their children could have access to better education, and a better quality of life (dad Ajay is a director in a shipping company, and mum Anjali teaches at an international school). But for her, the opportunities lie in India and beyond.

I think we have a desire to be a part of that story, of building our country and taking it forward.
Akanksha Hazari

“For my parents, or people like them in India and mainland China, the dream was to get their kids to go out. That’s not the case for us any more. These countries are no longer the same. We see so much opportunity to do something bigger than just go the West and get a job. If we come home we can actually build something of our own. And also, I think we have a desire to be a part of that story, of building our country and taking it forward. We are shaping the future of that country, and that’s a huge opportunity,” says Hazari.

The start-up in India has yet to make her a billionaire (“We’ve been surviving by bootstrapping, she says). But it has already earned her valuable international recognition. On March 9, she is receiving an award from the Vital Voices Global Partnership, the NGO set up by Hillary Clinton and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, at a gala celebrating women leaders around the world.

Investors are also beginning to see m.Paani’s potential. “We’ve just closed series A [funding]. Our user numbers are growing 20-40 per cent month-on-month and investors are starting to see this as a proper business,” Hazari says. Their backers include an Indian venture capital firm and a select group of Indian angel investors.

She is not surprised that Hong Kong – once known as a breeding ground for entrepreneurship – has failed to produce many start-ups that grab the world’s attention.

“There’s a lot of pushback here for those who want to set up their own business. You have to be a very strong personality to do it anyway. I didn’t take any money from my parents. I knew the decision I was making meant I would not have a great lifestyle but I was OK with that. You need to be ready to deal with the negative pushbacks... and work a lot harder to prove your point and make sacrifices,” she says.

Besides, Hong Kong is fundamentally a very small economy and very focused on financial services, which means that young people who want to pursue big ideas tend to have to go abroad, or to China. And she expects more people will.

“Our generation is more purpose-driven than it is pay-cheque driven. The time is right – we are very educated and have the luxury of thinking about what values we want in life and not just how much money we want to make. I think it’s a fundamental shift,” she says.