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> Posted by Jamie M. Zimmerman, Senior Policy Consultant, CGAP

Achieving financial inclusion by 2020 will depend in large part on the proliferation of fast, affordable, and accessible digital financial services (DFS). Indeed these effective, scalable models were a clear theme at the FI2020 Global Forum hosted by CFI last fall. Yet as excitement for DFS dominated much of the public discussion, a small and diverse set of financial inclusion leaders convened a private side-meeting to discuss an often-overlooked question: what are the consumer risks to these new, innovative digital models?

The meeting, co-hosted by CGAP and UNCDF’s Better Than Cash Alliance, introduced the concept of “responsible digital finance” and revealed heightened awareness of and interest in an array of issues related to the potential consumer risks of digital financial services, including:
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> Posted by Center Staff

This edition of top picks features posts on how to effectively deploy new technologies to the base of the pyramid, the increasing prominence of mobile savings and credit services, and the growing potential for impact investing in microinsurance.

How can innovative technologies be distributed and adopted at scale in the last mile? Tomohiro Hamakawa of Kopernik addresses this question in a new post on Next Billion. Drawing from a recent Kopernik report, Hamakawa expounds on five key factors to serve as guiding principles in the roll-out of empowering technologies to the BoP: activating a local network of trust; lowering financial barriers; riding the technology adoption wave; focusing on tangible benefits; and staying engaged, showing commitment.

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> Posted by Eric Zuehlke, Web and Communications Director, CFI

Since launching microfinance activities in 1974, BRAC has grown to become one of the world’s largest financial services providers to the poor. BRAC’s microfinance operations, which include loans and savings, serve more than 5 million clients in eight countries. In 2012, BRAC started a financial education and client protection project that aims to help clients adopt financial behaviors that facilitate their well-being. Shameran Abed, Director of the BRAC Microfinance program, recently spoke with me to discuss BRAC’s work. Prior to joining BRAC, Abed served as an editorial writer at one of Bangladesh’s main English-language daily newspapers where he wrote primarily on politics. He also serves on the Board of Directors of bKash, a mobile financial services platform in Bangladesh.   

Eric: Can you talk about BRAC’s client protection work and what you learned from your project pilots in 2012 and 2013?

Shameran: We wanted to make sure that any clients coming into the BRAC microfinance program could be very well catered to. They should understand what our products are, what our terms are, what our rates are, and they should make an educated decision on whether they want to take our products. And if they do become our members then they should be treated well, treated with respect, and have access to information. I’m not saying that BRAC didn’t have all these things before two or three years ago, but we really wanted to double-down our efforts on these fronts. So that’s why we decided to do more work around client protection, client customer service, and financial education.

Eric: What do you think are the biggest risks facing microfinance clients?

Shameran: From a financial point of view, there are two or three risks that we’re particularly concerned about. One, of course, is something that’s been talked about a lot, the risk of overindebtedness. Bangladesh, although quite a mature microfinance market, is, in terms of overindebtedness, thankfully still quite low. But still I think overindebtedness is something that you always guard against because there is a lot of demand for credit and if microfinance institutions are not careful they can always have issues around overindebtedness of borrowers.

There are a lot of financial institutions nowadays that are kind of fly-by-night institutions that set up shop… Institutions that are typically unregulated. They come in, they offer products, they lure in clients, and then they disappear. I think around these issues the clients need more awareness, and these are some of the things our financial education components try to address.

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> Posted by Anna Koblanck, Communications Officer, International Finance Corporation

The Sakombi neighborhood in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is not an area where traditional banks spend their marketing money. The people who live and work here are street hawkers and day laborers, low-income people in the informal economy who are generally considered risky and expensive customers by most financial institutions.

Microfinance institution FINCA thinks differently. It conducts regular sales drives in Sakombi and in similar neighborhoods across Kinshasa, offering new customers the chance to open a bank account with just a one dollar deposit. These marketing drives build on a network of agents that FINCA is rolling out with the help of mobile and biometric technology.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Last week the Microcredit Summit Campaign released their 2014 State of the Campaign report, sharing insights and exemplary initiatives that support the global goal of resilience for all. Resilience outlines where the microfinance industry stands in its mission to end poverty, and how synergies with other services and sectors, like healthcare, mobile phones, and social relief payments, are key to achieving even greater impact.

Worldwide, 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty. One in eight people go to bed hungry and one in six children under the age of five are underweight. Every few years between 10 and 30 percent of the poorest households around the world work their way out of poverty, while roughly the same number fall below the poverty line. Several of these statistics, all highlighted in Resilience, come from the 2013 Millennium Development Goals report. In that report, it’s noted that in terms of the MDG to eliminate poverty, the world is about five years ahead of schedule, though of course progress around the world hasn’t been uniform. In one of the regions that has lagged, Sub-Saharan Africa, so too does financial inclusion. About 85 percent of those in the region don’t have a formal savings account, compared to 77 percent of the world’s poor globally. Even fewer individuals have access to formal credit or insurance products.

Nevertheless, the growth numbers of the microfinance industry for the past decade and a half are encouraging. In 1997, global client outreach totaled 13 million. By 2010, it grew to 205 million. After a dip in 2011 resulting from a loss of 15.4 million clients in India, industry outreach rebounded in 2012.

Resilience breaks down these numbers by income level, revealing an important trend. According to the statistics, during the past decade, for the first time the gap between total client outreach and the total number of clients who are among their country’s lowest income group has widened. At first glance, the numbers may be interpreted as suggesting that MFIs have become more interested in serving wealthier clients. The reality, however, is that more MFIs are adopting accurate benchmarking tools for assessing poverty, such as the Progress out of Poverty Index. It turns out, many MFIs’ previous estimates of their outreach to the very poor have been inaccurate – overestimating how effectively they are serving this client segment.

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> Posted by Eric Zuehlke, Web and Communications Director, CFI 

Budding entrepreneurs, vendors, and everyday people in emerging economies are creating new ways of benefiting from the internet, using their own ingenuity in ways that go beyond the original intended use of many web-based platforms. A recent slideshow from Yiibu, a Scotland-based design and consulting firm, offers a dizzying array of examples of how people use the mobile web to sell and pay for anything you can think of, mostly in Asia along with the Middle East, Africa, and Russia.

The growth in traffic from growing economies is a familiar story (Yiibu mentions that Chinese, Indian, and Russian sites now make up almost half of the Alexa “top 20”). What’s new is how the mobile internet has opened up new ways of doing business for anyone with a smart phone. Individuals, small businesses, and major corporations are selling a jumbled mix of products and services, from cars and iPhones to handmade crafts to travel visa services.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Over 16 million mobile money customers in Tanzania are now connected to one another thanks to an interoperability agreement announced Wednesday between mobile network operators (MNOs) Tigo, Airtel, and Zantel. An important act of market cooperation on the continent, the inability (or high cost) for mobile money users to send money to those of different providers has caused industry-wide fragmenting, impeding the utility and uptake of mobile banking services.

The newly connected services make up three of Tanzania’s four leading MNOs, and their mobile money products – Tigo Pesa, Airtel Money, and EzyPesa – are three of the country’s four mobile banking options.

The fourth player in the market is Vodacom with its M-Pesa service, the sibling service to the runaway success of the same name in Kenya. Included in the press release announcing the agreement was an expression of support from the three MNOs for a recent statement made by Vodacom in favor of interoperability, with mention that an interoperability linkage to Vodacom would be welcomed.

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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Senior Africa Specialist, the Smart Campaign

According to a recent Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report, of every eight dollars sent to Africa, a whole dollar is lost to accompanying transaction fees. This loss, estimated by ODI to be between $1.4 and $2.3 billion annually, is particularly significant given that remittances comprise a significant share of African states’ economies and are rapidly increasing; the World Bank estimates they totaled around $32 billion in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in 2013 and may reach $41 billion by 2016. These numbers attracted The Economist to ask, “Do the middlemen deserve their cut?

Looking at these practices through the lens of the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Principles, we question whether they are in keeping with responsible pricing. These charges can’t be explained by distance. In fact, large amounts of remittances are intra-country or intra-Africa, transmitted from urban to rural areas or by migrant workers from one country to another. Remittance corridors within Africa have some of the highest charge structures in the world. The 12.3 percent average charge for sub-Saharan Africa compares to a global average (without SSA) of 7.8 percent.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke and Sarah Samuels, Communications Associate and Operations Specialist, CFI

Did you know that there are over 100 local currencies in the United States alone? We didn’t either until we came across the Guardian article “Could community currencies produce a more sustainable financial system?,” which identifies how local currencies could help boost SME growth and lead to more economically and environmentally sustainable communities.

Local currencies are fun. They help convey a sense of community. Trying to support sustainable local economies is great, of course, but how impactful are these systems actually?

First, some background on these currencies, using a close-to-home example. Both of us are staunch proponents of supporting local businesses and community development, so we were quite surprised to learn that our very own city of Washington, D.C. has a local currency called Potomacs. Our local currency began in 2009 through the efforts of a community development organization called Ecolocity. The notes depict historical natives of DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The one-note has a picture of singer/songwriter Marvin Gaye, one of DC’s best-known artists. Bestowing local flair to community currencies by incorporating history and culture is common.

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> Posted by V. McIntyre, Freelance Writer for the Harvard Kennedy School

The Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion is building a movement toward full financial inclusion by 2020. This blog series spotlights financial inclusion efforts around the globe, shares insights from the FI2020 consultative process and highlights findings from “Mapping the Invisible Market.”

Here’s a financial inclusion puzzle for you. In marketplaces in Peru, small shop owners often take out loans from illegal and possibly dangerous lenders, gangs that operate on motorcycles. Cheaper and safer legal lending channels are available to these customers, but they don’t use them. How would you design a product that would draw these borrowers into the formal sector?

This was the question Guillermo Palomino, chairman of the microlending organization Edpyme La Cruz in Peru and advisor to several Latin American MFIs, brought to small group discussions in the Rethinking Financial Inclusion: Smart Design for Policy and Practice program offered by Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education.

The first step was to develop a clear statement of the problem: use of illegal loans may endanger customers and exposes them to high interest rates and it may also expose their communities to increased criminality. Palomino explains, “The customer has no legal contract, no real knowledge of what the interest rate is, what the penalties are, when they might be applied, or what might happen if they default with these lenders.”

However, an effective solution would involve understanding the appeal of illegal loans. The HKS group worked to define the factors contributing to the problem, both at the surface and at deeper levels.

In essence, the formal sector was not offering customers the ease they required. With the illegal lenders, Palomino explains, “You call a cell phone and a guy shows up on a motorcycle with a little bag. He’ll give you $500 and say, ‘Okay, I’ll be back next week.’” Formal loans, in contrast, require signatures, background checks, address verification, and projected cash flow. These are minor hassles for some, like the formally-employed rich, but major hurdles for the poor. As Palomino describes, “These microbusinesses don’t have people to handle paperwork, go back and forth for signatures or pick up money—because then who takes care of selling the apples or bags of rice?” In probing for underlying causes, the small groups discussed how the regulatory demands pertaining to the loan approval process also present a challenge.

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