Akanksha Hazari

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2014
This description of Akanksha Hazari's work was prepared when Akanksha Hazari was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014 .


By creating ‘extrinsic rewards’ for products and services purchased by communities, Akanksha is nurturing positive behavior among the urban poor and creating opportunities that were previously inaccessible.

The New Idea

Akanksha Hazari is empowering underserved families with the skills, knowledge and tools necessary to achieve the life they aspire. She is achieving this through a mobile-based rewards program that empowers underserved communities by connecting their spending and positive behaviors to valuable points that are redeemed for social impact rewards to transform their lives.

Akanksha leverages the power of the poor as ‘consumers’ to build creative partnerships with companies and other service providers. For every product purchased by members of the community, Akanksha gets companies to invest a percentage of their profits in a ‘development fund.’ The fund in turn is utilized to bring on board different non-profit partners who can provide essential services to the community, such as skill development, education, and health services. At the core of Akanksha’s idea lies the ‘reward point’ system, which allows members of the community to avail of different opportunities for points accumulated against their spending and positive behaviour. For instance, a family can win points by regularly maintaining a log book of expenses and income and redeem this for classes on financial literacy.

Through this engagement with communities, CSOs, and companies, Akanksha is creating new form of hybrid value chain in which every stakeholder finds increased value – companies can increase markets and goodwill within communities, non-profits can access new funds and spread their impact in new communities, and the community is uplifted by being able to access essential services and new opportunities.

The Problem

India, like much of the developing world, presents an uneven playing field for a huge section of society. Despite high levels of economic growth at the national level, those at the bottom of the pyramid (“BOP”) face significant hurdles in ameliorating their livelihoods and quality of life. An analysis of Indian economics reveals that while finances and services exist to serve the aspiring poor, there have been few systems to effectively link them.

According to a McKinsey report, 1.05 billion people in India (or 5 out of 6 Indians) are at the bottom of the pyramid, living on an annual household income of less than INR 200,000 (USD 4000) per year or 16,667 (USD 350) per month. Low-income households do not have the purchasing power to afford basic services such as healthcare, education, or skill-building to improve their quality of life. While in aggregate, the bottom of the pyramid spend INR 224 billion (USD 4.5 million) every year on consumer goods and mobile services, there are no systems in place that can effectively leverage that combined purchasing power to meet the aspirations of the poor.

Meanwhile, companies have tried to reward consumers at the bottom of the pyramid for their purchases and brand loyalty by giving them more consumer products. This does not meet the aspirational needs of the poor or empower them economically in any way. The lack of any data on the needs, aspirations, and motivations of this target group of consumers results in products and ‘freebies’ being pushed to them.

On a societal level, the need to provide actionable knowledge and skills to help low-income individuals advance to jobs with higher skill requirements will only become more pressing. In Maharashtra, where m.Paani currently operates, the Indian National Skill Development Corporation (“NSDC”) estimates that by 2022, there will be an excess supply of 450 thousand workers in the ‘Minimally Skilled’ bracket. Similarly, the NSDC estimates that there will be a deficit of 3.36 million workers in the ‘Skilled’ bracket over the same period.

The Strategy

Akanksha created the first loyalty program in India designed to redistribute a percentage of profits from a large company to meet the aspirational needs of low-income communities. She piloted her program in the Sewri slum, one of the largest and most diverse slums in Mumbai. Recognizing that mobile phones had the highest penetration of all products within the community, she successfully partnered with a leading Telecom to establish a community-oriented loyalty program.

In return for market acquisition and brand loyalty, Akanksha got the telecom partner to commit to reinvest a percentage of their profits from the sales in the community, back into a ‘community development fund.’ Every time a community member buy credit on their phones, the telecom partner monetises 10% of that amount, which is aggregated in the development fund maintained and managed by Akanksha’s organisation, m.Paani.

Through participatory appraisal methods, such as community meetings and surveys, Akanksha then worked with communities to identify their most important needs. For example, one community identified their need as water filtration systems, as many people were falling ill due to water-borne diseases during the monsoon season. Others identified academic tuitions for their children, health services, and English speaking courses. With this feedback, Akanksha then went on to find partners (CSOs and private providers) who could provide the communities with opportunities, from education and skills development (mobile-based English training / other vocation specific training / 10th grade preparatory tuitions), employability (mobile-based career counseling / job preparation training / placement), financial inclusion (mobile-based financial literacy education, key financial products), to health (water purification, mobile-based health education, discounted prices at neighbourhood pharmacies and clinics).

Based on the communities’ priorities, Akanksha designed a creative rewards system for the members in the community to win reward points for displaying positive behaviours, and then redeem those points for the opportunities they seek. Again through participatory appraisal, Akanksha identified the behaviours that, if changed to positive ones, can most effectively impact the quality of life in the community. These ‘positive behaviours’ include demonstrating the uptake of important knowledge or other empowering actions. For example, families get points for performance on educational m.Classes (a series of classes in which participants listen on their mobile phone and answer a set of questions at the end), for opening a savings account, or maintaining an income and expense book that will help them monitor their expenses and plan their savings. The points system is structured so that the rewards can be earned between two weeks to three months, to sustain the interest of the community.

Other than the rewards, Akanksha further incentivises these positive behaviours by helping the community understand why this behaviour is important. For example, the m.Paani field worker collects data on income-expense records every week and provides families analysed charts that show them how much money they spend in different areas (groceries, travel, education), which family member spends how much money, and so on. She then helps them plan how they can reduce their costs and increase their savings. Seeing the positive results of this behaviour serves as an intrinsic reward that Akanksha found motivates them to continue practicing the behaviour.This persisted even when the extrinsic reward of points was taken away, in between the pilots she has conducted.

Akanksha leverages the exisiting distribution channel of local kirana shops (mom&pop shops) in the communities to run her rewards program. This means that an m.Paani user can go to a kirana shop and sign up for the rewards program, put credit on their phone and earn points for it, and also redeem their points for rewards including hygiene products from the store. The model addresses the skills and knowledge deficit in low-income communities by providing a financially self-sufficient model to BOP consumers who would otherwise be unable to finance further learning and professional development.

Akanksha’s system is currently impacting 1000 user families in Mumbai, who have gained opportunties of up to Rs. 5000 each in three months. m.Paani has also demostrated the positive impact of the rewards on quality of life. For example, 2/3 of participants redeemed their points for a home water filter, something they could not attain without the m.Paani model. 100% of the participants are using their reward as intended, e.g. they have installed the home water filters appropriately and are consuming safe water instead of unfiltered tap water, as was the case previously. Since installing the home water filters, families are reporting a reduction in illnesses and decreased expenditures on health services.

With the success of her pilot, she is now rolling out her idea across Mumbai. m.Paani’s user base is increasing at a rate of 33% every month, since the Telecom partner has now started advertising m.Paani as their partner. Further seeing that much of the population living in urban slums are rural migrants, Akanksha is now expanding her system so that urban slum dwellers can transfer their points to their families in villages, empowering them to aid the development of their rural home communities as well. In the long-term, she also sees the potential of m.Paani to leverage the data it collects on consumers, including their spending habits and aspirations, to influence how companies engage with them.

The Person

Akanksha Hazari was born to working class parents in Pune. Her father worked on a ship and she was largely home-schooled by her mother on the ship.

When Akanksha was a teenager, her family moved to Hong Kong. While taking advantage of the free sports coaching the Hong Kong government provided, Akanksha discovered her love for squash. She quickly went on to be selected to play for the state and then the national team. She toured the world playing squash, as the only Indian in the all-Chinese Hong Kong team. As much as this provided her the opportunity to play competitive sports at a global level, she remembers this experience as being isolating, much like her childhood growing up on the ship.

Akanksha enrolled in Princeton and landed in the USA the day after 9/11. As students, she and her friends would continually read and watch news reports about policy changes. But soon they became frustrated as they were unable to understand the meaning and implications of the policies. Through research, she uncovered that there weren’t any platforms for youth to interact with and voice their opinions to political leaders who were making policy decisions that would severely affect them. To address this gap, Akanksha, along with her peers, founded the Young Professionals for Foreign Policy Forum (YPFP). YPFP has now scaled as an international organisation with more than 100 young professionals, recognised and regularly consulted by nearly 20 national governments. During her time there, Akanksha developed many innovative programs, such as the Ambassadors Program, where diplomats from different countries host young people at their homes for dinner and discuss foreign policy relations between the two countries in this informal and safe space.

At college, Akanksha chose to pursue politics and Middle Eastern studies. She was later a part of the prestigious Aspen Institute, where she learned how to use policy to influence peace processes. She then began working for a project based in the Gaza strip, a joint venture between Israelis and Palestinians. Akanksha’s work led her to relocate to Palestine to further explore how conflict influences business practices on the ground. Her experience led her to recognise that there was an urgent need for basic infrastructure that can be used to strengthen economies to leverage peace process efforts. Using her Arabic speaking skills, Akanksha then found a job working in a clean technology investment firm in the Middle East.

Eventually, Akanksha realised that her expertise and understanding of the developing world would be best put to use in India and returned to work with TechnoServe, to help develop their agricultural investment portfolio by investing in agricultural enterprises. Through her work, Akanksha travelled extensively to farms across India and developed a deep understanding of the agricultural industry in India and the consequent value chain markets. Working with TechnoServe, Akanksha gained three main perspectives. She observed a stark lack of services for health, education, and other developmental indicators. At the same time, she observed, that in spite of the under-development, there was high mobile penetration pan-India. And she also realised that the idea that ‘India does not have good distribution channels’ is a myth, as many communities are not supplied with medication, but still have Coke in their grocery stores. Akanksha went to do her Masters in Cambridge with the intention of starting an enterprise that would use India’s advantages – mobile penetration and distribution channels – to solve the problem of lack of access to opportunity for low-income, remote, rural communities.