Akanksha Hazari’s data company helps underserved communities earn rewards for water filters, tuition fee support, and more.
Akanksha Hazari’s road to becoming one of India’s most promising tech entrepreneurs was an unconventional one. After graduating from Princeton University in 2005, she dreamed of climbing the diplomatic ranks and worked as a project manager for the Aspen Institute, attempting to end the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict by creating joint business ventures in hopes they would facilitate peace. At the time, Hazari believed she’d spend her career in the policy world—but life had other plans for her.
In 2009, she volunteered with TechnoServe, an organization that uses business solutions to fight poverty. While serving as a consultant in several rural villages in India, she noticed that residents didn’t have access to basic services such as clean water—but they did have access to mobile phones. In fact, upwards of 80 percent of Indian households at the bottom of the economic ladder own a mobile phone.
She asked herself, “Why can we put a mobile phone in everybody’s hand, but we are not delivering electricity or water or education or health care, or any of these things that are far more important?” Hazari, now 33, says.
The experience led her to found m.Paani, a data company that harnesses the power of mobile technology to help Indians earn rewards for in-network shopping (think basic necessities such as food and household goods) that can be traded for other vital things, such as water filters or school tuition fee support.
The idea has earned Hazari a nomination this month for the Vital Voices Global Leadership Award, which honors and invests in women leaders who undertake daring work. Hazari and her team also won the Hult Prize and $1 million in seed money to get the company off the ground. In the three years m.Paani has been on the market, the company has been able to connect India’s low-income consumers to the digital economy.
For Hazani, choosing to return to her country to help underserved communities was motivated by one simple desire: to even the playing field.
“In many countries, particularly in India, hard work does not equal results, and there’s something fundamentally wrong with that system,” she explains.
Through m.Paani, Hazari hopes to use what works—mobile technology—to solve what isn’t working, while in turn empowering both consumers and local business owners to “achieve aspirations, bridge access to basic services, and enhance overall quality of life.”
While m.Paani has earned Hazari accolades from both the tech and business sectors, being recognized for her work isn’t as important to her as helping others.
“For me, it’s very important that I contribute to the world that creates equal access to opportunity,” she says. “Anyone who works hard, the system should be set up in a way that they can be successful and see the rewards of that hard work.”