A Singapore start-up helps banks open branches in remote locations for just USD 150

Singapore, May 2: An Indian-origin banker who was so consumed by the idea of making banking accessible for the unbanked, that he poured his entire life savings into a start-up here that enables banks to set up branches in remote locations for just USD 150.
Ram Sharma, a permanent resident in Singapore, and a veteran in the banking sector, having worked with Centurion Bank in India and Bank Albilad in Saudi Arabia, and his friend Ragu Nandan, set up a fintech start-up in 2016.
Based in Singapore, Bank-Genie develops digital solutions that enables banks to overcome prohibitive costs to set up branches in remote locations and make banking accessible to unbanked populations, according to the Today tabloid.
The germ of this idea took root in Sharma’s mind during a relatively mundane road trip he undertook in south India seven years ago.
Sharma and his friend found themselves travelling for about 100 km just to find an ATM.
“It struck me, why do ATMs remain here (in this town)? After this, there are villages where there are people living but there are no ATMs. Why should it be like that?” The Today tabloid quoted the 50-year-old as saying.
Sharma poured his entire savings and “mortgaged everything else”, except the roof over his head, to raise over a million dollars to fund the company.
Bank-Genie offers solutions that allow a bank to open branches and provide a suite of financial services with just “a tablet and a small Bluetooth printer and the card reader”, Sharma said in an interview with the tabloid.
“Nothing more than that, and this will cost you around USD150 to start a branch,” he quipped.
In 2017, fintech managed to secure an undisclosed amount in a Series A funding backed by two key institutional investors: SBI Holdings Group, a Japan-based conglomerate that was spun-out of Softbank, and the Dutch development bank FMO.
Such was the affordability of Bank-Genie’s solution that Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, one of the largest commercial banks in the West African nation, was able to set up 600 branches in 90 days, including in remote areas — “somewhere up the mountains, somewhere in the valleys,” he said.
In less than five years, Bank-Genie has ramped up its presence in Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan as well as in Kazakhstan, where Sharma almost got stranded in around two years ago when borders started closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The start-up has acquired more than 30 client banks and financial institutions across Africa and Southeast Asia, with 13 banks in the Philippines alone.
Scaling up its solutions took considerable effort, said Sharma, as the product built and installed for one bank cannot be replicated in another.
“Each country has its own requirements. There are statutory requirements, there are compliance things which need to be met,” he was quoted as saying in the Today tabloid.
“Some countries have regulations like customer data cannot reside outside the country due to privacy, so on and so forth. So banking is an animal which needs to suit each country differently,” Sharma observed.
The start-up worked closely from the onset with the central bank of each country it stepped into.
Sharma said that while the pandemic had scuppered some of his firm’s expansion plans, it also presented opportunities.
The growing need to practise social distancing had helped popularise the start-up’s Genie Q solution, which enables bank branches to take appointments, manage crowds and divert customers to less crowded branches where necessary.
Looking ahead, while digital banking and cashless payments continue to proliferate into urban and advanced markets, Sharma believes that there is much work left to be done in remote geographies.
“Our vision was always to bring a bank to every doorstep and democratise financial services so that financial services are accessible to the entire population in the world,” he said.
With more than 40 staff globally, the Singapore-headquartered start-up has chalked up revenues to the tune of USD 3.1 million for the financial year ending March 2022, up from USD 840,000 during the previous financial year, Sharma added. (PTI)