Even as a child, Akanksha Hazari was driven by a purpose to change the world. She launched her first enterprise at 21 after graduating from Princeton University in the US, and handed it on before moving to the UK to do her MBA at University of Cambridge.
“I like the idea of building things that outlast you,” says the dynamic 34-year old founder and CEO of m.Paani, a hyperlocal mass-market loyalty programme that converts day-to-day expenses into points that can be exchanged for life-changing benefits, besides empowering retailers to survive in a fast-changing business landscape.
Born in Pune and raised in Hong Kong from the age of 10, Akanksha’s mother, a teacher and a runner, inculcated in her a love for sports. “My parents raised me like a tomboy,” recalls Akanksha, explaining that sports helps teenagers and especially girls develop confidence and strength. (“There’s data to support that there’s less domestic violence in families where the woman is sporty,” she adds as an aside.)
A professional athlete and squash player in her teens, a two-time Indian national champion and ranked one of the top 20 juniors in the world, Akanksha was keen to play squash at the Olympics – except it wasn’t an Olympic sport yet. In the late 1990s, she made a ‘deal’ with her parents: if squash was announced as a sport in the 2008 Olympics, she’d stick with it. Else, she’d study medicine, as her mother wanted her to.
Squash wasn’t announced as an Olympic sport (it still isn’t), and so Akanksha retired from pro-squash and joined Princeton for pre-med. There, she changed her mind, and studied politics and Middle East studies instead. “My mother was disappointed but then my brother became a doctor,” she laughs.
Akanksha went on to work in Palestine and UAE for a few years, developing her business skills. By the time she arrived in India at the age of 27, she had already lived and travelled in several countries around the globe. She decided to work in the field of agriculture so that she could “get to know India better”. She took up a research project on how technology could offer solutions to create value in rural areas.
The next year was a remarkable journey for the young woman as she traversed the length and breadth of the country, often alone, mostly living in villages. “Our country has everything it needs: resources, beauty, history, culture, diversity. But we take it for granted,” she says, pausing before adding, “Gandhi’s vision [of India being self-reliant] is very possible if we live that way and build our economy that way.” Modernisation doesn’t have to mean Westernisation, she adds.
During her travels, she was struck by a strange contrast: on one hand, the mobile revolution had ensured that over half the population had access to a mobile phone. On the other hand, most of the same people did not even have access to safe drinking water.
Another thing that caught her attention was the ubiquitous kirana (grocery and general goods) store. “No matter how underprivileged the area, there was always a corner store offering Coca Cola or Dettol soap.”
Even poor villagers had consumer power, after all, and FMCG brands had managed to penetrate the least connected areas on the Indian map. Infrastructure in India had a long way to go, but
some things worked.
It was later while doing her MBA at Cambridge that Akanksha had an opportunity to participate in the prestigious Hult Prize, competing to create a business model to solve water crises. She spent a year developing the idea and eventually won the US $1 million prize. “My problem statement was: How do you use something that’s working to solve something that’s not working?”
The solution was m.Paani. The platform, launched in 2014, brings together local businesses – from kirana stores to chemists to barber shops – and uses consumer power to offer necessary services. “Every user gets points when they purchase any goods from one of the partner stores in their neighbourhood,” she explains. “They can use these points to purchase water filters or other essential goods, and pay utility bills, even their children’s school fees.”
The platform has a double impact. With just a mobile number required, it empowers the consumer whose spend goes a longer way. Alongside, it also helps small business owners – most of whom don’t have the wherewithal to resist the onslaught of ecommerce and large supermarket chains – to digitize operations, develop a loyalty programme and retain customers.
So far, thanks to two rounds of financing from investors, m.Paani already has half a million customers, and over 5,000 retailers on board from Mumbai and surrounding areas, besides some in Delhi, Mysore and parts of Gujarat.
The team, now numbering 50, has won several awards, including one from the Vital Voices Global Partnership, an NGO set up by Hillary Clinton. “We plan to scale to 20,000 retailers in tier 1 and 2 cities within the next year,” says Akanksha, who is an Ashoka Fellow.
The past year has been eventful for Akanksha in more ways. Poised and professional, she nevertheless breaks into a warm, shy laugh as she shares that she recently married her Swedish partner, Gustaf Ericson, and is all set to have a traditional wedding with him in Stockholm this month.
“He’s a consultant in private-equity and knows the difficulties of setting up an enterprise on this scale. He moved to India because I’m building a company here,” she says, adding that the two share a love for the outdoors. “We go running and cycling together. He participates in the Iron Man triathlon, and has covered more of India in trains than I have!”
Having spent half her life abroad, Akanksha wears her love for her country on her sleeve, and is keen to be a stakeholder in its economic growth. “India needs the best of the old along with the best of the new,” she affirms. And with her track record and passion, she has set out to make it happen.
First published in eShe magazine