Written by Laura Urrutia

An estimated 1.8 billion self-employed informal sector workers in Asia, Africa and Latin America are at risk of living in post-retirement poverty unless effective systems are put in place to help them save for the future now.

It is one of the biggest challenges facing both governments and individuals in emerging and developing countries – and one that social entrepreneurs like Gautam Bhardwaj are working hard to address through platform-based technology and innovative thinking.

Bhardwaj is an Ashoka Fellow who pioneered the concept of micro-pensions in 2005 and in 2016 co-founded pinBox Solutions, a social pensionTech that supports the design, building and deployment of inclusive digital micro-pension schemes for non-salaried workers in developing countries.

Despite the enormity of the challenge, Bhardwaj believes it is possible to save a billion people from poverty by bringing together the key players in the ecosystem, from government regulators to financial institutions, using technology and improving financial literacy among the population.

“Over 1.8 billion self-employed workers across Asia, Africa and Latin America are not eligible for a pension and are walking towards old age poverty,” Bhardwaj says. “That’s 80% of the workforce across those countries. By 2050, the size of the destitute elderly population, and the problem of pension exclusion will have become too large, too late, too expensive, and entirely irreversible.”

After working closely with governments, regulators, DFIs (Development Finance Institutions such as World Bank, ADB, UKAID and UNCDF) and mainstream financial institutions on pension policy and digital strategies for expanding coverage to low income, non-salaried workers in Nepal, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Uganda, India, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Kenya and Indonesia, Bhardwaj believes there is an opportunity to change the way traditional pension funds work, where these products are exclusive to salaried workers.

“If we design solutions from a citizen’s perspective, we can more effectively solve the problem,” he says. “For example, most informal workers, such as non-salaried self-employed individuals, who don't have an employment contract nor worker benefits, earn daily incomes and can’t afford large ticket sizes. Allowing them to instead save small amounts in line with their own income flows can make saving for old age more affordable. Similarly, most informal workers are not insured and are forced to use either past savings or expensive loans for pay for even insurable risks. If pensions were layered with insurance and liquid savings, people could avoid dipping into their retirement savings or falling into a debt trap to pay for a health shock, for example.



“Interestingly, the necessary building blocks for comprehensive pension inclusion already exist in most countries. It's easier today to use technology, like the one we developed, to leverage the existing digital financial services ecosystem for pension inclusion. It's wonderful to see so many countries starting to walk down this path.”

The recent experience of pinBox Solutions shows that there is reason for optimism.

In 2018 pinBox assisted the Government of Rwanda in launching Africa’s first fully digital, government-sponsored micro-pension and insurance scheme which already has nearly 1.8 million subscribers. Two years later, pinBox deployed its pensionTech platform in Kenya with several financial institutions which were able to offer an integrated and affordable pension and insurance solution to Kenya’s 17m non-salaried workers.

In his home country of India, Bhardwaj worked as an advisor on pension reform to the Ministry of Finance between 1998 and 2010, helping with the set-up of India’s National Pension System that today has approximately 40 million subscribers. Now pinBox Solutions aims to get 100 million workers in the informal sectors of India’s economy to start saving for retirement over the next five years.

“The problem is very large,” he explains. “Of the roughly 500 million workers in India, over 400 million are self-employed and are not eligible for a pension benefit – purely because pensions are traditionally part of an employment contract. By 2050, if this situation is allowed to continue, India will have nearly 300 million elderly without pension benefits. At that point, a tax-funded social pension of even 50 rupees a day would cost nearly Rs 5.5 trillion per year.

“The good news is that there is a sizeable excluded population that can save. Our estimate is that around 250 million informal sector workers can today afford to save for old age. If we get it right, and even if 10% of this population starts saving 50 rupees (USD 0.60) a day, we could achieve around 8 trillion rupees (USD 100 billion) in new long-term savings in the economy within the next decade.

“For most in India however, there is no concept of retirement. Without retirement savings, most people will need to continue working until they die. Also, we are talking about a predominantly young population – for whom retirement seems very fuzzy and far away. We therefore need a gigantic effort on retirement literacy to prompt thrift and self-help for retirement by our young.

“To a certain extent, we’ve been able to solve the problem of the mechanics of saving for retirement in several countries. We are using APIs (Application Programming Interface) as glue to integrate the ecosystem and to make it as easy and simple as possible for people to save for retirement. We’ve integrated recently with WhatsApp, so anyone of the 500 million people using WhatsApp in India can now fill in a form in 6 minutes, instead of 60, in any language, to set up a portable retirement account.”

Thanks to Bhardwaj’s deep understanding of the context and the ability to address problem from different angles, pinBox Solutions has been able to solve problems in making micro-pensions and insurance products available to informal workers.

The key to the strategy lies in the use of white label technology that is ready to use and easy to customise, making solutions easy to implement across countries, institutions and ecosystems. At the same time, educational tools for retirement literacy are made available through the platform, along with further resources such as relevant data, research, and policy papers for advocacy. Cooperative and collaborative multi-stakeholder actions on digital micro-pension inclusion is also a key pillar of the pinBox Solutions strategy to succeed.

Bhardwaj’s work is featured in a research report on leveraging platforms for good, carried out by ASPIRe, that has identified key guidelines for projects focused on having a positive impact on society.

The ASPIRe report includes the case studies of another 13 innovative social projects using platforms at the core of their theory of change developed by Ashoka Fellows, featuring practical guidelines for the kind of impact at scale that initiatives like Bhardwaj's have achieved. The principles are a useful guideline for anyone trying to apply platform thinking and technology for social good, as every design decision about participation, data, openness and agency of the users is a fundamental building block of the impact a platform can create in society.

Examples like pinBox Solutions showcase the value of taking leadership in aligning goals and values among all those involved by facilitating constructive dialogues.

Another key lesson comes in the way pinBox Solutions has distributed the ability to solve problems, thus empowering every link in the system – from governments to institutions to individuals – to solve problems by using the knowledge, tools and data that pinBox has made available. In this way, platforms act not just as service providers but as “connectors” for crucial parts of the ecosystem. As the report demonstrates, platforms for good provide a stage for the participants to engage with each other, create shared value and address problems contextually by enhancing their capabilities with relevant tools and resources, including data, knowledge and connections. All of this facilitates further innovation by engaging new and different stakeholders to contribute to the solution.   

Bhardwaj believes the way pinBox is addressing the problem of retirement savings for informal sector workers in different emerging countries will allow impact at scale and estimates that by 2027 more countries could attract another 50 million workers to save for retirement. He hopes his work will inspire more initiatives that will introduce new and inclusive ways of saving for  retirement.


Pinbox is one of the models we have studied along with the 13 others for our recently released Leveraging Platforms for the Good of All report.