UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Eric Obeysekare, a doctoral student in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology, recently helped a team of innovators place third in Vodafone Americas Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project. His team created a mobile application that provides simplified bookkeeping and data-collection tools for financially illiterate micro-entrepreneurs.
In its 10th year, the competition tasks participants with creating innovative wireless technologies that address critical issues facing the global community. Obeysekare, who serves as the project’s chief technical officer, along with CEO Aneri Pradhan and chief financial officer Nick McNally, received a $100,000 grant for their project, ENVision Mobile.
The project aims to advance business for micro-enterprises — those with fewer than five employees — whose owners are often among the 2.5 billion individuals worldwide who exclusively use cash for financial transactions. Most of these small-business owners record financial transactions using pen and paper — if they document this information at all.
The time-consuming and inconsistent nature of this process helped the team identify an opportunity to aid a technologically underserved population.
“Many micro-entrepreneurs sell consumer goods in a corner store or bodega, for example, but do not keep records of their inventory and sales,” said Obeysekare. “The app allows users to track inventory, record sales, forecast orders, and gather important information about their businesses like profit-loss, bestselling products, and more.”
All of this, the team says, empowers micro-entrepreneurs to make data-driven decisions about their enterprises.
"By having more data about their business, we aim to make micro-entrepreneurs more successful so they can better support themselves and their families," said Obeysekare.
The app also creates a more efficient and accurate record of transactions and is optimized to operate in offline and poor data areas. This provides micro-enterprises in hard-to-reach locations with access to traditional banking services that may otherwise be unavailable.
In addition to managing daily financial transactions, ENVision Mobile creates a verifiable credit history for the user. By recording transactions through the app, users create an organized and quickly accessible sales database that lenders can review to more confidently invest in these businesses.
“After using the app regularly, [the micro-entrepreneur] has created a financial history that the community bank uses to understand her business traction,” the team said in their application. “ENVision Mobile [helps users] track the performance of their portfolio in order to increase accountability and opportunity for greater financial inclusion.”
Each team member used their own firsthand experiences in developing countries to guide the project.
“This idea came from a real need seen firsthand by Aneri during her work with ENVenture, a social enterprise that works with micro-entrepreneurs in the clean energy sector in Uganda,” said Obeysekare. “And based on my and Nick's experiences in developing countries, it was clear that this was a need not just for ENVenture but for micro-enterprises everywhere.”
Obeysekare served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon from 2011 to 2013, and in 2016, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to study startup culture in Rwanda. He returned to Penn State with an interest in understanding how technology can benefit developing countries and their economies, and is continuing his graduate research in the field.
In addition to their financial award, the team will receive support and guidance from Vodafone to advance their products and reach an international marketplace.
“With the grants awarded through the Wireless Innovation Project and the mentoring each winner will gain access to via Vodafone, we’re excited about the potential each of our winners could have in the global community,” said June Sugiyama, director of the Vodafone Americas Foundation. “[ENVision Mobile is addressing a critical issue] we regularly see affecting developing countries, and by putting powerful solutions in the hands of individuals via mobile technology, we believe true impact can be made.”
The team views its collaboration with Vodafone as critical to its success, as smartphone adoption in these markets continues to expand.
“Vodafone was the perfect partner to work with as the idea is scaled up and deployed in the real world,” said Obeysekare. “By providing relevant digital tools to micro-entrepreneurs, ENVision also hopes to drive smartphone adoption in partnership with Vodafone.”
With the competition completed and the app now available in the Google Play store, the team will use the prize money to refine its product-market fit and to further develop the product through tests in India, Uganda, and the United States.
Obeysekare, meanwhile, will continue using his global perspective to advance the project and complete his dissertation.
“My dissertation is about startups and innovation in Rwanda,” he said. “Working on ENVision Mobile fits nicely with this research, and it furthers my passion for startups and social enterprises.”
Watch the team members discuss their project here.