Sunday, Apr. 30, 2006Vikram AkulaFinding Novel Ways to Support India's PoorBy JULIE RAWE
Loaning a few bucks to third World entrepreneurs may not sound like cutting-edge banking. Indeed, microfinance might attract more investors, as "actorvist" Tim Robbins suggested at a recent U.N. gala, if it had a hipper name, like "MiFi" or "MiPod." But Vikram Akula is using advanced technology—smart cards—to make venture capital available to more of the 800 million people in India who live on less than $2 a day. In the hinterland, where there are few landlines, let alone ATMs, the founder of SKS Microfinance is starting to dispense loans, typically $116, on smart cards, which its loan officers had been using to record repayments electronically. The plastic approach intrigued Visa International, which is now pairing SKS with cell phone-based card readers. The cash-free system is more efficient and safer too. As Visa's emerging-markets chief, Debbie Arnold, put it, a cash-laden loan officer "might as well carry a big bull's-eye on his back." Akula, 37, has already made SKS one of the fastest-growing microlenders, having dispensed $52 million to 221,000 clients since 1998. SKS keeps its default rate below 2% by using software that provides real-time data. When he spots a red flag, he says, "we're on it like a swat team." Such transparency has attracted Silicon Valley types, with David Schappell of Unitus, a nonprofit venture-capital firm devoted to microfinance, likening SKS to the little coffee shop that became Starbucks. Microccino, anyone?