By Aashish Mishra
Kathmandu, Aug. 9: Public transportation is a personal affair for Sonika Manandhar. She remembers riding her father’s small blue three-wheeler, colloquially known as Bikram Tempo, as a child in the 1990s and experiencing an almost other-worldly joy.
As she grew, so did her father’s business which moved from three-wheeler to four. In fact, it was public transportation that enabled her father to provide for the family and support her until she earned a degree in computer engineering in 2011. So, Sonika feels she owes a lot to this sector.
But coming from a modest background, her dad would not have been able to get into the business on his own had the government not assisted him financially.
And this got Sonika thinking about how the transport entrepreneurs of today get no such support. Women transporters, she saw, have it particularly bad. “They do not have as much financial independence as men,” Sonika said, adding, “They can’t access bank loans because they seldom have any property in their name to mortgage. Even when they do, they cannot use it at their will without the approval of their families. This hinders their access to monetary resources.”
As a result, women in public transport sector are not able to grow, prosper and find the same success Sonika’s father found. Nowhere is this more evident than with Kathmandu’s Safa Tempos.
In the last decade of the 20th century, with more than 700 of the clean three-wheelers, Kathmandu had the largest fleet of battery-powered public vehicles in the world – owned and driven mostly by women. However, as the 2000s progressed, they began to decline; a decline brought on, as Sonika discovered, by terribly high battery costs.
“Safa Tempos require high-performance Lithium-ion batteries which cost nearly US$10,000. Lead-acid batteries are cheaper, costing only US$ 4,500, but they only last one to two years and need to be replaced frequently.
This makes maintaining three-wheelers expensive for women transport entrepreneurs and if they cannot get the required financial assistance, they tend to quit the business altogether,” Sonika explained.
This was unacceptable for Sonika so in 2018, along with her friend Tiffany Tong, she founded Aeloi Technologies and took it upon herself to bridge the gap between women entrepreneurs and hard-to-find finances.
“We work to collect and present the banks with data of the entrepreneurs’ financial history and spending behaviour so they feel comfortable in providing them with loans,” Sonika said.
Moreover, Sonika also mentioned that Aeloi offered banks a way to track their disbursed loans. “Instead of cash transactions, we offer a digital fund management service wherein we use digital tokens. This allows the banks to track where their money is going and how it is being used, thereby, building trust.”
One thing though, she stressed, digital tokens are neither cryptocurrencies nor related to them in any way.
Also, Sonika informed that Aeloi’s digital system had been designed with the users’ convenience in mind. “Our clients, the women Safa Tempo drivers, mostly use feature phones and find apps difficult. Therefore, our system is SMS-based and easy to use.”
With all this in place, Aeloi was set to achieve huge successes. It has helped nine women entrepreneurs receive training loans to start electric three-wheeler business and planned to produce 60 female Safa Tempo operators in 2020, but then COVID-19 hit and halted all progress.
Nevertheless, determined to forge ahead, they are presently working with the Standard Chartered Bank to help women drivers obtain subsidised loans of up to Rs. 1.3 million to purchase Lithium-ion batteries for their tempos. Aeloi has submitted 24 names to the bank in the first lot and if everything goes as planned, they plan to include more than 200 women in the loan scheme.
In addition to helping women drivers get access to financial support, Sonika and team also help them increase their income. They have collaborated with Women LEAD, a non-governmental organisation providing leadership development training to women, to help the tempo drivers get premium customers who pay more to reserve their vehicles while going to and returning from certain destinations.
They are also looking into the possibility of partnering with e-commerce platforms to use the tempos as delivery vehicles. These plans would have materialised by now had it not been for the pandemic, Sonika said.
Moreover, Sonika, or rather Aeloi, also helps women farmers. It offers them buyback guarantees, that is, they ensure that their produce finds buyers. “This helps the banks trust them because they know that the women will make money and repay their loans,” Sonika said.
After all, it is trust that makes the world go round. But often, it is the trust that women do not receive. In the Safa Tempo sector, for instance, women are not trusted by fellow drivers and even the passengers. If and when they need loans, they are not trusted by financial institutions. They doubt their ability to put up collateral, operate a business successfully and repay the money they borrow. Women entrepreneurs are forever stuck in a “cycle of mistrust,” Sonika succinctly puts it.
And as a female entrepreneur herself, she too has faced this cycle of mistrust. “People see us two women (Tiffany and Sonika) in fintech and immediately label us a non-profit organisation. They cannot comprehend that we are running a socially oriented for-profit business. Perhaps this would not have been the case had we been males.”
Fortunately though, Sonika has not had to deal with the distrust that so many women receive from their own families. In Sonika’s own words, her father, mother and two elder brothers have supported every decision she has made and are very proud of her achievements.
And boy, she has had achievements. Her work has been recognised by the likes of the United Nations, Microsoft, National Geographic, One Young World and Welthungerhilfe (one of Germany's biggest private organisations for development and humanitarian aid), to name a few. She also has more than a dozen national and international awards to her name.
Now, with so much work done and so many accolades earned, does Sonika plan to take it easy? Not at all. She plans to scale Aeloi up in Nepal and incorporate it in Singapore to facilitate fund-raising. She also plans to partner with various organisations to further help women tempo drivers and farmers and move to blockchain to make their digital token technology more secure.
Most importantly though, she and Tiffany plan to change the company’s name Aeloi to Aloi. Why? Because people kept butchering it. “It’s Aeloi, pronounced alloy. But people have called it Elee, A-E-lee, A-E-Lie and so much more. So, it’s time to make the name simpler to tell.”