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.