The cash in solar power
Vortex, a manufacturer of solar-powered ATMs, is riding the growth wave on the back of rural expansion plans of various banks in the country
For Vortex Engineering (Vortex), India’s first solar ATM service provider, what began as a mere pilot project to capture the vast potential of the rural segment for banking services, has now become a successful foray into the alternative energy space. Since 2010, the Chennai-based company has expanded its ATM deployment multi-fold and has brought significant changes in the ATM technology, making it economically more viable and secure for banks and customers.
The company currently operates around 700 ATMs on the field in India. While a regular ATM, which consumes close to 1000 – 1500 watts per day, costs banks anywhere between Rs. 8 lakh to Rs.10 lakh to establish and maintain, a Vortex ATM consumes less than 100 watts per day and costs just Rs.1.75 lakh to Rs. 2.35 lakh.
“With RBI’s increasing focus on financial inclusion in Tier II and Tier III segments, there has been a growing importance among public and private banks across India to deploy ATMs in small villages and towns. This move has proved very beneficial to us and has given us tremendous opportunities to expand our services to a larger customer base,” says Vijay Babu, CEO of Vortex.
When The Smart CEO last spoke to Babu (in April 2010), Vortex had just won an order from State Bank of India to deploy 545 Gram teller Duo ATMs across semi-urban and rural India. Their focus back then was to hold pilot experiments with large banks, identify rural areas with acute power shortages and deploy ATMs in those regions, and also spread their wings across international markets. “It takes a while to scale from five ATMs to 100 ATMs a month. Luckily, we’ve had an extremely efficient senior management and support staff, who ensured that we made a smooth transition to the next stage of growth,” says Babu.
At the pace at which the Indian ATM market is growing, there will be 2,00,000 ATMs by 2015 and 3,50,000 ATMs by 2017. However, it must be kept in mind that typically it is the bank that decides whether they want solar or non-solar ATMs.
Vortex’s solar-powered Gram teller Duo ATM can be operated in temperatures ranging from 0 – 50 degrees Celsius and is installed with a biometric authentication and reliable cash dispenser. The small footprint, built-in backup and the unnecessity for air-conditioning lowers the total cost of installation of this ATM considerably.
Vortex currently has a plant in Chennai and one in Puducherry, the former holding a manufacturing capacity of 1500 and the latter having a capacity of 2500 ATMs per year. The company is looking to shift its Chennai plant to a bigger location in a few months to expand its manufacturing capacity to 7,500 ATMs a year.
In 2011 & 2012, Vortex had received funding to the tune of US $2.7 million from the International Finance Corporation (IFC). The investment was a part of the US id="mce_marker"0 million investment made by IFC, Tata Capital and Aavishkar. These funds have been channelised by Vortex to fulfil the company’s working capital requirements and to expand their presence outside India. “We have begun export initiatives to setup our ATMs outside India. We currently have 40 ATMs in regions such as Nepal and Africa. Particularly, we would like to tap the African market more aggressively by leveraging on our marketing and sales activities. It will take close to two quarters before we see any quantifiable results,” says Babu.
The company’s international expansion strategies in Africa and Nepal have been based on statistics which indicate that the ratio of rural to urban population in these countries is similar to that of India, and Vortex has the technology and equipment necessary to provide the platform for banks to connect with customers in remote areas in these regions too.
Improving on technology
Vortex has taken several initiatives to stabilise its ATM machines and add minor features to it. Firstly, in an effort to make the ATM operations more user-friendly, Vortex has introduced a technology wherein, once the transaction is complete, the ATM will produce a receipt in the language native to the state.
Secondly, more often than not, banks receive a handful of customer complaints about faulty or incomplete ATM transactions. In such cases, typically, it takes the bank a week to resolve it. The bank officials have to go to ATM, collect the images, pull out the electronic journal and compare both to resolve the complaint. Thus, addressing this concern, Vortex has introduced a patented technology called one-click resolution of customer complaint. With this, on a single click, the image gets pulled for the particular transaction in the electronic journal data (for an ATM transaction) and the report is generated immediately, thus, reducing the turn-around time significantly.
Another interesting feature that Vortex is looking to add in the future is a cash acceptor. “Cash dispensers have a great potential to function as cash acceptors. We are yet to run a pilot project and assess the feasibility of creating this model,” says Babu.
A 2012 report by ASSOCHAM (Associated chambers of commerce and industry of India) stated that private banks such as Axis Bank, HDFC and ICICI are becoming aggressive in expanding their ATM network into rural India. Vortex did, nonetheless, see a potential there and cashed in on the opportunity. “Our focus was predominantly on public sector banks until last year. But with a sea change being witnessed in the private banking industry, in 2011, we established relationships with private banks such as Federal Bank, Catholic Syrian Bank, IndusInd Bank and deployed ATMs in decent numbers. It is doing quite well now,” says Babu.
With increasing output comes a higher responsibility to fulfil the manpower requirements and keep a watchful eye on the working conditions of the 700 odd ATMs currently being manufactured and deployed by Vortex across India. Keeping this in mind, the company has scaled up substantially. Over the last two years, Vortex has expanded from two to 30 support centres outside of Chennai (all in Tier I towns and beyond).
While rapidly expanding its base in the rural markets, the overall response Vortex has received from its customers in these two years has been a revelation “An interesting thing we have learnt is, in rural areas, transactions are much higher than we had anticipated. Ideally, since the metros get around 300 transactions a day, we believed rural transactions would amount to 100 to 150 a day. But what took us by surprise is that even in remote rural areas like Karumandapam (neighbourhood city of Trichy) and interiors of Punjab and Ludhiana, at least 500 transactions take place, per day,” says Babu.
Considering that power shortage is increasingly becoming a cause for concern in urban areas too, Vortex’s solar-powered ATMs definitely see a future in the metros as well. Currently, the company sells the two cassette model. A cassette is a box-type device in an ATM, which has the capacity to carry 2500 currency notes of various denominations. Thus, the more cassettes in an ATM, the higher the capacity it has to hold currency notes. “What we are planning to launch in the near future is a three cassette model, which consumes 50 per cent less power than the earlier model. Thus, there is no doubt that it will provide the impetus for solar ATMs in urban areas too. It’s just a matter of time before it is implemented,” says Babu.
Rural vs. urban security
In the recent past, there have been several incidents where the ATM machines itself have been stolen or a customer’s account has been a victim to phishing attacks. In order to prevent this, Vortex has ensured that the machines are grounded to the floor. However, until now, they have not received complaints about phishing attacks on their ATMs. Anyway, according to Babu, the company is continuing to innovate to tackle this concern. One such experiment which they have initiated and which is at a pilot stage is contactless cards. Adopting a technology similar to NFCs (near field communication) in mobile phones, instead of swiping the card, the customer can use a contactless card to touch the screen and to carry out an ATM transaction without having to worry about card details being stolen or copied.
The way forward
In 2010, Vortex generated revenue of Rs. 1 crore which increased to Rs. 11 crore in 2011. By 2014, it is aiming at achieving revenue of Rs. 100 crore and increasing their ATM deployments to 10,000 a year. This is coupled with the recent trend of public and private banks opting for ATMs over branches, to better channelise their services to their rural customers. “At the pace at which the Indian ATM market is growing, there will be 2,00,000 ATMs by 2015 and 3,50,000 ATMs by 2017. However, it must be kept in mind that typically it is the bank that decides whether they want solar or non-solar ATMs” says Babu.
Being at the helm of affairs as the country’s only solar-powered ATM manufacturer, the challenge for Vortex lies not in evading the competition, but in keeping pace with the demand.
Deploy five ATMs a month
Deploy 100 ATMs a month
Received a funding of Rs. 60 crore from various sources
Received a funding of US $2.7 million (out of US id="mce_marker"0 mn from IFC, Tata Capital and Aavishkar)
Exported nine ATMs to a bank in Dubai
Exported 40 ATMs to regions like
Nepal and Africa
In talks with large banks
Established tie-ups with several public and private banks
Generated revenue of Rs. one crore
Generated revenue of Rs. 11 crore and above
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