Apon Wellbeing is an initiative designed to provide affordable health care, insurance, credit, and other benefits to ready-made garment (RMG) workers through collaboration between service providers, manufacturers, and communities. In an interview with the Dhaka Tribune’s Syed Samiul Basher Anik and Mahadi Al Hasnat, Apon Wellbeing Managing Director Saif Rashid shares insights into the project and explains how it strives to ensure the health and economic wellbeing of RMG workers in Bangladesh
Apon aims to increase the real income of the RMG workers by reducing their costs through an inclusive model. It also allows the workers to gain access to zero-cash health coverage, allowing them to get free medical diagnoses and prescriptions from doctors, and life insurance coverage up to Tk35,000.
For the innovative initiative, the program has received a grant of $50,000 as the champion of Inclusion Plus, a global competition from Metlife Foundation that awards entrepreneurs and nonprofit and other social impact organizations for scaling up innovative projects that aim at accelerating financial inclusion in the country. It also received an additional grant of $1,000 for the Audience Choice Award at the competition.
What is your project Apon Wellbeing about?
It is an innovative scheme designed to address the wellbeing of industrial workers, particularly RMG workers, through an inclusive business model in Bangladesh. Apon sets up grocery shops inside factories, selling packaged and non-packaged food and other household necessities to workers at a slight discount.
In partnership with many consumer goods manufacturers these wares cost the workers about 8% to 10% less than at retail shops outside the factory. Each purchase from the shop earns a worker points that accumulate on his or her Apon account. For every 100 Bangladeshi taka spent, the worker earns 1 Apon point. With 75 points, the worker gains access to zero-cash health coverage, which provides free medical diagnoses and prescriptions, other health services from designated service points, and life Insurance coverage.
Do you think a job is not enough for the low-income workers to secure long-term well-being? If yes, then how does your project help the RMG workers improve their standard of living?
Low-income workers need access to affordable services and products which are important for long-term wellbeing. Apon not only ensures access to quality and affordable health-nutrition products and services for workers and families and increases their real income but also minimizes their monthly expenditure through health insurance. Apon is planning to link them with suitable financial services such as mobile money and banking solutions to increase their savings and cost reduction. The Apon platform will catalyze innovation of required products and services by other entrepreneurs for this segment of customers in future.
Tell us about your work and passion.
I am passionate about market-driven economic empowerment. I want to create an ecosystem that is inclusive of the low-income people. I have learnt one thing from my years of experience of working with development projects and inclusive business: the economic prosperity of women can bring economic prosperity for the country.
I believe one small step can make a big difference. I try to develop new models and try to spread my knowledge on how to generate more impact and how to make businesses more inclusive vis-a-vis the poor. We are a very small team of innovators who are not afraid of taking up big challenges and testing out new models.
How do you define innovation? What’s the first step to innovation?
I believe innovation is about thinking differently, as well as being flexible and open to new learning. Innovation can come from anywhere. We need to be open in terms of recognizing and accepting differences and adapt to those. For entrepreneurs like us, the first step of innovation is understanding the problem for which you need to be open.
Does a person need to be specially trained to engage in innovation?
Innovation is a mindset and it’s challenging to develop one. As human beings we are naturally innovative but our society, culture, and systems do not often nurture and groom that natural skill during our formative years. I believe we need to change the ways we nurture young minds within the family, society, and education system. We need to nurture their creativity and capacity for innovation.
Are innovation and digital transformation related to each other?
Yes, they are. Due to the acceleration of digital transformation around the globe, innovation became even more crucial for sustainability. Digital transformation and disruption are pushing all the boundaries and shaking up all segments of organizations, country, economy, and society. This is also creating opportunities for people of all segments to become innovative. Innovation can come from anywhere and from anybody.
What are the essential elements for popularizing/promoting innovation culture?
As I said earlier, it starts from parenting and family. Are we creating opportunities to help our kids identify problems and solve their own problems? Second comes our education system and schools. Are our kids into scores and academics or are the schools nurturing critical skill sets such as creativity, problem solving, empathy etc? And then comes the role of a supportive ecosystem and society at a large.
We need stakeholders (large and small) to be more conducive and supportive of innovation. There is a much bigger conversation about how to do that and I believe a lot of entrepreneurs and organizations are working now to redesign the tools and methods to create a more innovative support system in Bangladesh.
In your opinion, how are innovation and the financial industry linked?
Innovation in the financial industry was very scarce until recently. Banks and other financial institutions were targeting disadvantaged and lower economic segments of the population group as their market until 2003-2005 (except examples like microfinance). Designing innovative products and services for financial inclusion as well as creating access to new tools and methods for financial inclusion became critical after the global financial crisis in 2008.
Since then, the sector has become more and more enthusiastic about innovation, which is also promoted by governments, donors, and NGOs. Financial industry is a critical element to growth and sustainability of any economy and thus innovation is also critical for this sector.
How do you connect a competition like Inclusion Plus with positive outcomes for the economy? What makes Inclusion Plus different from other competitions?
Projects like Inclusion Plus promote open innovation. At the same time, the competition is centered around financial inclusion for the disadvantaged. It also creates the opportunity for entrepreneurs and innovators to develop new ideas and tools for financial inclusion. It’s creating an innovation platform as well as supporting the innovative ideas to flourish at the same time which is very critical for any sector to grow and sustain. Globally disruptive innovations are shaping individual life and economy to a great extent. We see examples like mobile money, bitcoin, block chain, etc. challenging traditional methods and tools.
But we need more of these innovations in future to solve the challenges faced by the world at large. Inclusion Plus supports innovations from anywhere and at any stage if they have the potential for solving some of the world’s pressing challenges in financial inclusion and that’s how it’s different.