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Kovendhan Ponnavaikko, center, teamed up with Xerox ethnographers to figure out how to streamline banking in rural India.

How Xerox Is Bringing Banking To Rural India

In rural parts of developing nations, banking is still a paper-based process. And if there’s one thing Xerox is good at, it’s managing a paper-based process.

Kovendhan Ponnavaikko is a research scientist at Xerox. Ponnavaikko, teaming with a group of ethnographers also working with Xerox, has been working to solve a problem: how to bring banking to rural Indians. When you think Xerox, you probably think photocopying. But the company is making a case to banks throughout the world that their technology is exactly what is needed for low-cost banking options in the developing world.

With the help of people like Ponnavaikko, Xerox is developing multifunction devices that not only scan the forms needed to open bank accounts, but also allow users to interact with the resulting content. By stripping down banking technology to its essentials, Xerox hopes to create kiosks that eliminate the need for fully staffed bank branches. One major Indian bank is already on board with a pilot study.

FAST COMPANY: What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?

PONNAVAIKKO: In rural areas, a few years back, they never had banks. They handled money locally, with lenders in their own villages. In the last couple of decades, people have been learning more about banking. But the cost of setting up new branches is high. We think Xerox is uniquely positioned to create workstations with applications that can reduce the workload of bank employees, where you automate as much as possible.

Couldn’t rural customers set up bank accounts by mail?

There’s lots of back-and-forth. A customer fills out an application form and submits it to the bank employee, and then that employee couriers it to an office, and if even a single document is missing, the whole packet goes back to the branch. Also they may have to send in personal information, like a license, and that gets couriered to the main branch hundreds of miles away. There are also language issues, since there are many languages and dialects in India.

Can Xerox technology fix the language problem?

Yes. Customers can have copies of their application forms in their local language, but then after they scan it we take the content and put it on top of an English-language form [for processing at the central bank]. So the customer can deal in the local language, but at the back end we can use the English language.

How else can your technology help hack rural banking?

In rural branches, connectivity can be very slow. A typical problem our ethnographers found when they interviewed rural bank branches is that the scanned forms can run into several megabytes. We figured out a way to just transmit the content entered on top of the form--the handwritten content and signatures and stuff--since those are the only things that need to be transmitted. What we send over is only a few kilobytes. Also, our devices can actually be mobile, and move from village to village, rather than be a brick-and-mortar branch.

Why do you believe Xerox is uniquely positioned here, rather than makers of smartphones, say?

We have research expertise in image processing and document management. Mobile phone banking is still not capable of handling operations like account opening. As of today, the kind of images you get on smartphones do not compare with the quality of scanned images on our devices.

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd be a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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7 Comments

  • Mahesh Kumar

    Disturbing! It is a classic case of pushing their technology in a field where it is not required. The reason people in rural areas don't have bank accounts is not because they can't fill up a few forms. The fact is they don't have enough savings that warrant opening up a bank account.

    "Real" solutions like m-pesa are much more likely to promote financial inclusion, than these unnecessary technologies. Certainly makes for good PR for Xerox, but I hope that RBI doesn't fall for these superficial solutions.

  • Rahul R

    Fair point, I agree with you mostly. But understand that it is a beginning, not a final solution. You should give them more time rather than being completely dismissive about it.

  • Giridhar R

    Xerox actually hsd a good hold in rural market when it was tied up with Modi and had a huge chunk in the photocopy market in India. After Outsouring its activities it has not lost considerable chunk in market share but lost its local touch. I remember instances when photocopy machines has reached tribal AP hamlets when there was no communication and people did not know much about mechanisation. My thought is that they should focus on other customer friendly and easy servicing technologies;rather, than rebranding equipments for other organisations. It would be great if they tied up with Postal Department in their plan to start postal bank. If they still plan to be a stand alone company it would be a misadventure again.

  • Ignatius

    Really a good initiative , helping rural India is also the need of the hour , we all know that Reserve Bank of India is in plans to provide Licenses for new bank and the plan is to have as much as coverage in the rural India.  

  • giridhar

    Dear Friend, Everybody knows that SBI in the banking field is one of the biggest in India, with its assocites like State bank of Hyderabad, State bank of Mysore and few others they are the biggest banking system in India . It Postal Department comes up with a independent banking system, (governement of India has asked to isolate the existing small time postal banking) they can dwarf even the state bank group. In this case they need very high technology to cater to such a large geographical area and hence documentation companies likes xerox, and other high technology banks from India and abroad can make a huge difference. How ever as already informed Xerox has already lost a huge chunk of its market share and knowledge of the market in india to others just by their shortsighted managment decision and wasting they time and money in such impractical intiatiatives. Infact it is hard to understand what is behind the back of the management brain. Hope it is not anti- national.

  • Rama Kandarpa

    Very interesting and innovations like these are required for financial inclusion. It would be interesting to know more of the pilot study- the participating bank and the results.