Liberating the underserved through empathy in innovation
Dec 17, 2021
Ku Kok Peng, Group Chief Strategy Officer, Green Packet Berhad
“Saya tak mampu,” or ‘I cannot afford this’ said Laila (name changed to protect privacy) when asked why she has not listed her hardworking stall on delivery platforms.
A few months into the reopening of the economy, it has finally dawned upon us that returning to the ‘old normal’ is impossible. Throughout two years of intermittent lockdowns the digital economy has flourished. News feeds across Malaysia are steadily updated with headlines on cloud computing, artificial intelligence and the mushrooming of self-made apps that are hitting the market – all designed to replicate our pre-pandemic lifestyles through digital mediums.
Yet behind the ‘glamour’ of this new, highly digitised world is the dark side of the digital economy. One where we recognise the people that have been left behind.
Over 45,000 new micro-SMEs were onboarded onto various e-commerce platforms over the year 2020 alone1. Yet for people such as Puan Laila, this option is not for them. Puan Laila has five children to support. Her slim profit margins go towards the next batch of ingredients, which means giving up 30 to 35 per cent of her profits to online platforms would effectively shut her business down and her face-to-face customers have not reached pre-pandemic numbers. Her stall is yet to be registered which also eliminates the possibility of applying for a conventional loan or accessing Government aid for micro-SMEs.
With an average monthly income of just RM1,200, Puan Laila can no longer keep up with the cost of digitalisation. Be that as it may, financial inclusion would go a long way in giving her the financial freedom she needs to keep the lights on.
Real world solutions to real world problems
The needs of the B40 are painfully simple. According to a recent focus group discussion organised by Green Packet, our underserved market shared that what matters most to them is instant service which allows them to earn an income as swiftly as possible to ensure cash in hand and the financial freedom to look after their businesses, families, and future. In a similar KPMG survey2, 79% of respondents expressed interest in better accessibility to financing products.
For financial solutions providers, the responsibility to navigate what convenience and accessibility means to the digitally underserved falls on our shoulders. Empathy in innovation can only begin with a proper understanding of the challenges or complexities that technology presents to this group. The goal is to create solutions which work for the community instead of vice versa.
In Singapore, a software engineer noticed that hawkers were struggling to read online orders. Understanding that these uncles and aunties were more familiar with WhatsApp, he converted the order sheets into order forms which would stay on WhatsApp.
Within eight months, this small project has been adopted by more than 230 Singaporean hawkers, sparking meaningful digital transformation for the community, and helping them keep the lights on.
This listening process has also facilitated our home-grown technology solutions providers to practice empathy in innovation. Kiple, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Green Packet, has taken extra care to empathise with the needs of the community in creating their solutions.
Recognising that the unbanked populations in Malaysia were unable to access cash grants and government assistance, we turned to white-label prepaid cards to facilitate the distribution of funds to those who need it most. This initiative has helped the Puan Lailas among us receive the funds they need to bolster them through these challenging times.
As we begin the rollout of the Twelfth Malaysia Plan (12MP), we must play our part in executing the Plan’s vision of ensuring economic empowerment and social re-engineering. This includes taking apart pre-conceived notions of what the underserved need and making their experiences a cornerstone of our solutions.
Understanding how the communities use the technology available to them also matters, and often, the solutions that work for the community are often the simplest. Kiple went back to the basic prepaid card to distribute funds, Uber explored an SMS-based booking service for clients in rural areas where smartphones are uncommon. Traditional electronic Know-Your-Customer (e-KYC) systems in some countries have been replaced with a referral system within business associations to overcome documentation delays in onboarding small-time merchants, and Telegram’s channels have been transformed into mini marketplaces.
It is time we recognise the ‘limitations’ that the underserved communities have had to live with as a reflection of our failure to keep their circumstances in mind. As a nation, it is time we re-evaluate these ‘limitations’ so that we, as pioneers of a new generation of digital financial solutions, can offer opportunities that address these decades-old challenges, and unlock financial inclusivity for everyone within our community.
It is only then that Puan Laila and the rest of the underserved community will be able to grow with greater resilience in our rebuilt nation.
Ku Kok Peng is Group Chief Strategy Officer, Green Packet Berhad
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Bank Negara Malaysia, the organiser of MyFintech Week 2022.
This article was first published by The Vibes, ‘Liberating the B40 through Empathy in Innovation’ – 23 September 2021.