Welcome back! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make this world more sustainable and equitable. Today I’m super excited to be in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I’m going to meet Sonika Manandhar, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeloi. Sonika is working hard to make an impact on UN SDG 13: Climate Action, and she’s tackling several other UN SDGs along the way! Let’s see how she’s doing it!
Spiffy: Namaste, Sonika. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Can you start by telling me what challenges you’re addressing?
Sonika: It’s nice to meet you too, Spiffy. Aeloi works with women micro-entrepreneurs, especially ones in the informal sectors with less access to formal finances because they lack collateral, credit history, and proof of income. Did you know that 163 million informal women entrepreneurs have an estimated US $1.7 trillion financing gap? We help solve this credit gap problem with our fund insight software. We do this by directly connecting funders with micro-entrepreneurs. Our main innovation is our digital token technology and our business model, which has a gender-intentional approach, that builds more trust between lenders and borrowers.
Spiffy: Tell me more! What motivated you to improve the informal sector for women and the planet?
Sonika: I am a daughter of a former micro-entrepreneur. My father started a transportation business when he purchased a minibus with a loan supported by the government. The government’s trust in my family’s entrepreneurial ability completely changed our future. Because of that, the daughter of a former micro-entrepreneur could become a computer engineer. Aeloi, our social enterprise, was born because we wanted to ensure that other informal sector micro-entrepreneurs, like my father, could access the same financial opportunities to grow their business—just like we did.
Spiffy: How would you say Aeloi is working to create a more equitable world?
Sonika: The problem that drives our company is “how to grow trust at the last mile?” This is especially true for women who are less visible in the conventional financing systems. We have developed and implemented loan insight software by putting women at the center of our design. We use digital tokens to trace financing that is invested into micro-entrepreneurs and value chains. To directly reach the grassroots economy, our platform connects micro-entrepreneurs, financial institutions, and vendors in a digital financial ecosystem. To ensure equal participation of women micro-entrepreneurs who have low literacy levels, we designed a system that doesn’t require smartphones or mobile data, making our technology as inclusive as possible.
Spiffy: What milestones have you achieved recently?
Sonika: Well, Spiffy, we work with the electric vehicle (EV) sector in Nepal, and what makes this sector particularly unique is that it started out three decades ago with 714 EVs, which are driven mostly by women micro-entrepreneurs. The main problem is that these women have a difficult time finding affordable financing to upgrade their vehicle batteries. As a result, most of the EVs are sitting and rusting in garages. A recent milestone we have achieved is that we were able to help women get credit from a commercial bank with interest rates as low as 3-5%—rates that used to go as high as 24% for them!
Spiffy: Wow, Sonika, that’s exciting. I’m always curious about how entrepreneurs deal with failure. What about you? Can you share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up? What did you learn from failure?
Sonika: In 2015, I applied to the Global Solutions Program—a think-tank-based program focusing on climate change, at Singularity University in Silicon Valley. I failed to gain admission twice, once in 2015 and again in 2016. Finally, in 2017, I was accepted. That is where I met my current co-founder Tiffany. What I learned from this experience is that perseverance is the key to success and it will always take you to better places. So keep at it.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? Perhaps something you’ve learned from one of your clients?
Sonika: Well, Spiffy, through my work with Aeloi, I recently came across one of the EV drivers, Debi Shrestha—I like to call her Debi didi (sister). I was fascinated by how her journey as a driver started. Fellow male drivers didn’t believe she could learn to drive. She persevered and now owns two electric minibuses and proudly drives them around town. Unfortunately, one of her minibuses is parked in a garage because she couldn't get banks to trust her for the finances she needed to upgrade her battery. Despite the fact that she has had to go through this "journey of distrust", she keeps at it and is trying to get her other vehicle on the road again. We are happy that Aeloi is playing some part to make that happen.
Spiffy: That makes me happy too. I can’t wait to see how else Aeloi continues to impact the lives of women, and others, in Nepal and elsewhere in the world! Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today, Sonika, it’s been an honor.
Sonika Manandha, co-founder and CTO of Aeloi, is a software engineer who likes to use her decade of experience to make technology easy for all literacy levels. She has received training at Singularity University in the Silicon Valley and Korea Aerospace Research Institute. Sonika and Aeloi have won awards from UNCDF, UNESCAP, and Welthungerhilfe. She was also named a Young Champion of the Earth 2019 by UN Environment, and an Emerging Explorer by National Geographic Society. (Nominated by One Young World. First published on the Ladderworks website on September 20, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.