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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Last week global leaders across industries gathered in the tiny mountain town of Davos, Switzerland for the 2015 World Economic Forum (WEF). (Though you probably already knew that, given the annual event’s ever-swelling stature and press.) The WEF fosters strategic dialogues in the hopes of developing ideas, insights, and partnerships around the most pressing issues and transformations reshaping our world. This year’s WEF included sessions from Jack Ma of Alibaba on the future of commerce, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on global responsibilities in a digital age, IMF Director Christine Lagarde on global monetary policy, former Israeli President Shimon Peres on political affairs affecting the region, and Bill Gates on sustainable future development. Of course we were following the topic of financial inclusion, and the action that got underway made it a week worth noting. Here’s a snapshot of some of the financial inclusion happenings at Davos.

In the “Inclusive Growth in a Digital Age” session held on Wednesday, a panel, which included MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga, considered how our age of digitization can confront income and wealth inequality, support investments in education and work-based training, and address vulnerable employment. Among the points of discussion was mobile phone penetration leveraged for financial services access. A full video recording of the session is available, here.

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The most exciting trends and startups in inclusive finance this year

> Posted by Vikas Raj, Director of Investments, Accion Venture Lab

There has been a lot of buzz in the financial technology (FinTech) space over the last several months, with a high-profile IPO, several more apparently on the way, and more and more venture funding flowing into FinTech startups. Bold ideas for financial services innovation are getting more visibility – just this month, Australian Wealth Index (AWI) listed the 50 Best FinTech Innovators, and CFI’s Elisabeth Rhyne conveniently categorized the list so it’s easy to see at a glance where the innovations are.

At Venture Lab, we found the AWI list interesting but also felt it missed something significant: namely, that one of the biggest opportunities for FinTech is figuring out new solutions to include the billions of lower-income people who are today excluded from formal financial services. And it’s not charity that compels us to reach these customers – it’s good business. These customers represent a big market. In fact, they’re such a significant part of any emerging market’s customer base that any global providers with dreams of international expansion must cater to them if they want to succeed.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Associate, CFI

Inclusive financial services in Africa are blooming. Between the turn of the millennium and 2011, the number of African MFIs reporting to the MIX increased from 58 to 397. From 2000 to 2014, the gross loan portfolio expanded over tenfold to $6 billion. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of borrowers served by MFIs in Africa increased from 1.6 million to 8.5 million. These numbers represent the development of an economic development tool for economies with very small financial sectors. It is impressive progress for an undeveloped industry beset by sparse human capital, problematic governance, and minimal external commercial interest.

AfriCap, which was the first private equity fund to invest exclusively in African microfinance institutions, and other microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) funded by social investors have been a key growth factor through capitalizing MFIs and offering technical assistance and training. This interest is relatively new. The African MIV portfolio grew at an average annual rate of 36 percent between 2006 and 2013. This compares with an average growth of 38 percent for investments in the Latin America & Caribbean region since 2006, and 8 percent in both the Middle East & North Africa and South East Asia regions. The strong connection between MIV financing and microfinance sector growth was also noted in a World Bank paper, Benchmarking the Financial Performance, Growth, and Outreach of Greenfield Microfinance Institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa. The paper, released in 2014, explains the relevance of greenfield MFIs to effecting financial inclusion in undeveloped financial markets. These institutions are financed in large part by equity and debt from development finance institutions, as well as a now-significant cohort of MIVs.

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> Posted by Karin Malmberg, PIIF Manager, PRI

How do institutional investors in inclusive finance ensure that their investee institutions manage their social as well as financial performance? How do these investors contribute to the sustainable growth of the industry? And, perhaps most importantly how do they ensure that end clients are fairly treated and adequately protected?

The Report on Progress in Inclusive Finance 2014 by the Principles for Investors in Inclusive Finance (PIIF) Initiative addresses these questions, analyzing data submitted by inclusive finance investors on their responsible investment practices.

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> Posted by Kaj Malden, Consultant, PlaNet Finance China

For China’s young microfinance sector, which could benefit from more regulatory oversight and transparency, ratings have the potential to catalyze healthy growth. Efforts to incorporate ratings throughout the country’s market, however, have so far been largely ineffectual. A new report from PlaNet Finance China and Planet Rating, The Role of Microfinance Ratings in the Sustainable Development of China’s Financial Inclusion Sector, part of PlaNet Finance and Credit Suisse’s “Microfinance Robustness Program”, outlines how ratings could provide welcome growth and strengthening for Chinese microfinance, and describes the current obstacles that stand in the way.

Mainstream ratings systems evaluate creditworthiness of debt and financial products for companies. They also contribute to setting benchmarks for the wider financial services industry. Specialized microfinance rating agencies evaluate some of the same qualities traditional rating agencies do, but they are trained in microfinance and investigate other financial inclusion-specific indicators, such as social performance. Microfinance ratings function as institutional ratings, not credit ratings, as in the case of mainstream ratings. These more nuanced ratings for the microfinance sector first emerged in Latin America, where microfinance boomed in the late 1990s.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Associate, CFI

“Cautious optimism” was the overriding sentiment towards the Indian financial inclusion investment space at the fall 2014 Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) meeting in Zurich. Four years after the Andhra Pradesh crisis, in financial year 2014 the regulated microfinance market in India saw its loan portfolio grow by 35 percent and client outreach increase by 4.7 million individuals, achieving a record 28 million clients. Although, as FIEC member Christian Etzensperger of responsAbility Investments AG noted, this is “catch-up growth” for India, where only 35 percent of the adult population has a bank account. On an institutional level, the remarkable growth of Bandhan Bank, India’s largest microfinance institution, illustrates the successful scaling up of MFIs. While Etzensperger noted the “dynamic revival of the microfinance sector…partly due to the inertia of the Indian banks”, he also alluded to the significant role played by the policies of the newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as well as those of the recently appointed Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Indian investor sentiment in general soared on the news of these leaders taking the helm, a trend that clearly resonates in the Indian financial inclusion equity community.

What have these leaders done to inspire confidence in the trajectory of microfinance?

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The following post was originally published on the Microfinance Gateway.

As the microfinance industry grows and becomes more complex, governance plays an increasingly important role in managing sound institutions and preventing crises. Corporate governance provides the framework through which an institution’s diverse stakeholders—investors, board members, management, and employees—set the strategic vision, monitor performance, and manage risks.

The Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion has recently announced a partnership with The MasterCard Foundation to launch the Accion Africa Board Fellowship program. The new program will promote peer-to-peer learning on governance and risk management practices at financial institutions that serve low-income clients in sub-Saharan Africa, a region with more than 6.6 million microfinance clients.

We spoke with Beth Rhyne (left), Managing Director of the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, and Ann Miles (right), the Director of Financial Inclusion at The MasterCard Foundation, to learn more about their vision for the program.

Good governance helps an institution fulfill its mission, increase efficiency, and improve its ability to attract customers and investors. Why do you think the microfinance industry in Africa needs such a program at this time?

Miles: Good governance begins at the top of any organization. The policies that are set, and the signals that are sent, by board members and CEOs permeate throughout an organization. They are a major component, perhaps the major component, in determining how an organization succeeds in its given mission. So, how a board does its work is critically important, and it’s something that we at The MasterCard Foundation care about a lot.

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> Posted by Center Staff

The microfinance industry in sub-Saharan Africa, boasting roughly 6.6 million clients, is growing fast. This expansion of financial services to the base of the pyramid, bolstered by an increasingly diverse array of providers and products, is enabling many lower-income individuals, entrepreneurs, and households to access and use essential tools like loans and savings accounts for the first time. To ensure the stability and success of the institutions that provide services, however, strong institutional governance and risk management needs to be a core priority. A new CFI initiative, generously supported by The MasterCard Foundation, sets out to address this.

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> Posted by Michiel Sallaets, Communications Manager, Incofin Investment Management

To continue Sri Lanka’s development in its post-war, post-tsunami era, it’s essential that greater investments be made in the country’s agriculture sector and in its financial services for the base of the pyramid.

In Sri Lanka, about 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Agriculture is the main source of income for these people and many of them work at the smallholder level. Loans are necessary for farmers to adequately invest in seeds, fertilizers, tools, and other productive inputs. Loans can also prove instrumental in compensating for the occasional inadequate harvest. Yet, the proportion of people who have taken out loans in Sri Lanka in the past year is a dismal 9 percent. Only 22 percent of the population in the past year has saved in a financial institution.

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This is our first in a series of responses to the provocative post last week from Ignacio Mas. Ignacio asks why the “current innovation frenzy in digital financial services in the U.S.” does not translate into action in BoP markets across the world, and puts forth a number of hypotheses.

“There are three things none of these digital players want to deal with – and never will. They do not want to get a banking license that embroils them in onerous regulation. They do not want to conduct primary identity checks on their customers (Know Your Customer, or KYC), which require physical customer contact. And they do not want to touch their customers’ cash.”

What follows is a response from Tahira Dosani and Vikas Raj of Accion’s Venture Lab, which invests in new fintech start-ups.

While it is true that much of the current innovation in digital financial services has been focused on higher-end consumer segments and less on financial inclusion, in our view this has not been a result only of digital players’ intentions. In fact, mainstream digital financial service companies’ difficulties in serving the financially excluded arise primarily from three key factors – cost, connectivity, and capability. Simply put, these customers are more expensive to acquire, harder to access, and require targeted products, pricing, and distribution. Customers that are banked, connected, and well-understood are the low-hanging fruit today, and that is why they are targeted by large players.

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.
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