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> Posted by Rishabh Khosla, Tahira Dosani, and Vikas Raj, Accion Venture Lab

Small businesses are the engine of employment, contributing up to 85 percent of new full-time jobs in low-income countries, and two out of three new jobs in countries like the U.S. The IFC finds a strong correlation between the health of the small business community, economic growth, and poverty alleviation.

Despite these Herculean responsibilities, micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) the world over struggle to access the financing they need to maintain cash flow, hire new employees, purchase new inventory or equipment, and grow their businesses. The IFC estimates that the unmet demand for MSME finance in emerging markets is $2.1-2.6 trillion (around 1/3 of outstanding loan balances to this segment). Unlike larger firms that can access capital markets, MSMEs must seek financing from banks or non-bank finance companies (NBFCs). Yet traditional lending approaches often fail to address this “missing middle” because the cost of diligence and underwriting is too high relative to the potential revenues from the smaller loans that MSMEs need. This situation is worse in emerging markets because of a lack of reliable financial data and high levels of informality. According to the Harvard Business Review, the financial crisis only exacerbated the situation: borrower balance sheets are still recovering, and banks, faced with new regulatory requirements, have reduced the share of lending to MSMEs in 9 out of 13 OECD countries.

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In this thoughtful and provocative blog post Ignacio Mas lays down a series of challenges for everyone working on financial inclusion. We think that the questions he’s asking need to be talked about. We’re asking three experts — on customer-centricity, on fintech start-ups, and on regulation — to respond to his provocations, and for the next three Wednesdays we’ll publish one of them.

Have you noticed how narrow the interventions of the chorus of financial inclusion supporters have become? Academic researchers are immersed in proving whether an SMS message sent at the right time can push people to repay their loans more promptly (a.k.a. nudges), or whether someone with more savings is likely to be happier and more empowered in some way (a.k.a. impact evaluations). NGOs fund numerous papers and conferences to promote the idea of seeking early and frequent customer feedback in product design (a.k.a. human-centered design), or of looking into customer data for some clue as to what interests them and how they behave (a.k.a. big data). Donors set up round after round of tenders with subsidized funds to spur fully-grown banks and telcos to try out a new product feature (a.k.a. challenge grants), or to prop up the marketing and distribution wherewithal of selected players (a.k.a. capacity building).

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> Posted by Center Staff

A new micro-pension platform targeting those working as domestic laborers, appropriately named Gift a Pension, launched in India last month. The platform is run by the Micro Pension Foundation (MPF) nonprofit and gives employers of domestic laborers a convenient way to support their workers in enrolling for the National Pension Scheme (NPS) Lite government product, a smaller version of the NPS offering. Across the country an estimated 40 million work for households in roles including maids, guards, cooks, and drivers. In the weeks since the program opened, over 1,000 domestic employers have registered themselves and gifted pensions to their workers. The platform offers more than its name suggests, as gifting workers five-year term life insurance is also available.

Here’s how the service works. First, MPF encourages employers ensure that their workers understand the structure and benefits of any accounts before enrollment happens. The Gift a Pension site includes a collection of educational tools and videos for employers to use to aid their workers’ familiarity with products and with the importance of managing finances for the long-term. Once this initial learning phase is complete, the employer registers themselves with the Gift a Pension site and enrolls their worker using information from the various documents that satisfy the necessary know-your-customer requirements. To open the account, the employer pays a one-time servicing fee (Rs 300) as well as the first contribution into the account. The worker then receives in the mail a guide to go along with their new account and their personal prepaid pension card. In a few weeks’ time the worker will also receive a government-issued Permanent Retirement Account Number (PRAN).

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> Posted by Kaj Malden, Project Manager, PlaNet Finance China

Huimin Microcredit client engaging in budgeting exercise

Poor rural women in China face challenges not dissimilar to poor rural women in other developing countries. Many are homemakers and child rearers, with much of their work tied to the home, offering little social or professional mobility. However, there are some dynamics in China that make women’s conditions somewhat different. The Communist Revolution of 1949 promulgated an ideology that favored gender equality and claimed women “hold up half the sky” (半边天). According to a recent study by the World Economic Forum, gender inequality is more apparent in the developed economies of Japan and Italy than in China. Modern China’s One-Child Policy, however, leads to a cultural view that “values males and belittles females” (重男轻女). The fact that China’s gender ratio skews towards males may support this view and suggest that parents favor males. Additionally, China’s massive urbanization continues to create large flows of migrant workers, posing other challenges for women. Husbands often find work in neighboring provinces or eastern coastal cities, leaving their wives to manage the household’s finances and run the family business independently.

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> Posted by Center Staff

This edition of top picks features posts highlighting initiatives to optimize smallholder finance data collection and usage, efforts to improve youth financial capability, and insights on how mobile money services can effectively reach women.

To better provide financing for the 450 million smallholder farmers around the world, there’s a big opportunity in developing shared knowledge bases and coordinated learning agendas for this topic area. A new post on the CGAP blog shares the work of Dalberg Global Development Advisors and the Initiative for Smallholder Finance to ascertain the state of the smallholder financing knowledge base and put in place a number of complementary tools so that those addressing this financing gap can work together, repurpose what others have already learned, and build off of the field’s scarce resources to drive it forward. The post highlights a smallholder impact literature wiki, an interactive map of smallholder finance tools, a framework for data collection that includes a shared learning agenda, and new briefings offering supply and demand side insights as well as indications of where data is lacking.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

Shamsin Ahmed of BRAC in her powerful piece, “The ‘Normal’ Ones”, makes an impassioned plea for greater tolerance and more treatment options and opportunities for those who suffer from some kind of psychosocial disability (mental illness). People with psychosocial disabilities make up at least 16 percent of the population in Bangladesh, and yet less than 1 percent of the national health budget is allocated to mental health care. For those of us who work on financial inclusion, I would argue that there needs to be much greater attention directed towards poor mental health as an obstacle to achieving economic citizenship.

Originally published on bdnews24, an online Bangladeshi newspaper, here is “The ‘Normal’ Ones”.

When I was eight years old I watched an Indian movie where the mother of the hero had gone mad, possibly from trauma of being tortured or having witnessed the death of the hero’s father by the villain. And in one scene this mad mother was running around the village in her white saree, disheveled, bushy hair, and villagers were running after her with sticks and stones, calling her “pagol”. I asked my father, “Why are the people stoning her? If she is the crazy one, shouldn’t she be the one stoning them?” My father was disturbed as well as deeply moved by my question as I was told years later.

People always say those who have mental illnesses are not “normal”. It’s funny how no one thinks it’s necessary to define “normal”. I grew up knowing anyone with some sort of disability, be it psychological or physical, was “not normal”. No one said they are unable to live like everyone else. No one said they are unable to lead “normal” lives not because of their disability but because of the “dis-enabling” environment that those without mental illness, who have a say in the making of our society, create for people with mental illnesses. No one admits that those of us who have a “sound mind” have continuously shunned, isolated, and stigmatized people with mental illnesses.

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> Posted by Hillary Miller-Wise, CEO, Africa Region, Grameen Foundation

Veteran journalist Walter Cronkite once said of America’s health care system that “it is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.” Imagine what he would have thought about some of the public health care systems in the developing world.

Consider Kenya, which is now a middle-income country, due to recent rebasing of the economic calculations. Public expenditure on health care is about 6 percent of GDP, compared to 9.3 percent in OECD countries. About 33 million Kenyans – or nearly 75 percent of the population – are uninsured, of whom 70 percent live on less than $2 per day. And there is no Obamacare on the horizon.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

The impact investing space is growing and benefitting an increasingly diverse array of areas including financial services, agriculture, healthcare, housing, energy, and more. Expanding too is the number of impact investing organizations incorporating impact measurement as part of their investment activities. As more players enter and the industry matures it’s even more important that the industry embraces the capture of impact data and assessment of progress against stated goals. This information validates the industry, helps investors manage investee companies, and improves investor and investee strategic decision-making. It also positions the industry to convince funders, especially new ones, to mobilize additional capital.

Last year the G8 created the Impact Measurement Working Group as part of its Social Impact Investing Taskforce. A few weeks ago the group released its “Measuring Impact” report, which includes seven guidelines for impact measurement and five case studies of how investing organizations have put the guidelines to good use. The initiative by the G8 reflects an elevated priority and the development of the industry.

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> Posted by Tyler Owens, CFI Staff

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The current era of financial services for the poor is marked by the growth of high-tech delivery mechanisms, innovative start-ups, new socially responsible investing models, and more traditional banks growing their portfolios of base-of-the-pyramid clients. Different players in increasingly crowded markets often collide in trying to win over more clients. Just one recent example is the newly public Alibaba, which has issued more than $16 billion in small loans over the last three years through its SME loan company AliFinance. The result of all this can lead one to question the role that traditional MFIs will play in the years and decades ahead. What will be their unique value proposition and how will they earn and maintain market share and the loyalty of their clients?

There is evidence that microfinance industry practitioners and stakeholders are not prioritizing questions of relevance and long-term customer retention. All too often, thinking strategically about the place of an MFI in a rapidly changing financial services landscape takes a back seat to the daily crush of competition and loan book performance. The 2014 Microfinance Banana Skins report—which is built on surveys of industry practitioners and insiders—concluded that the most urgent risks the industry faces are those of day-to-day business operations, such as credit control, competition, and management quality. The report went on to say that “longer term risks associated with the survival and evolution of the industry such as technological change, product development and funding are considered to be less urgent – and are less well defined.” It concluded that paying scant attention to long-term risks in the industry—at a crucial point in its development—may be a serious risk in itself.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Albeit a relative newcomer to microfinance, China’s market has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2012 the country had 6,000 microcredit providers, but only 25 percent had been in operation for more than three years. Today the number of providers is a few thousand higher, spanning nonprofit institutions, government programs, microcredit companies, commercial banks, rural credit cooperatives and banks, village and township banks, and P2P lenders. Even Alibaba, China’s internet giant, is involved. It has offered loans to over 230,000 micro-entrepreneurs through its AliFinance arm, launched in 2011.

Earlier this year Accion’s Channels and Technology team conducted a comprehensive assessment to determine the training and knowledge-sharing needs of the microfinance providers sustainably serving the poor in China. The assessment was carried out in partnership with the China Microfinance Institution Association, the China Association of Microfinance, and the PBC School of Finance Tsinghua, with support from the MetLife Foundation. As part of the assessment, the team compiled a landscape of the country’s microfinance institutions. Offering a snapshot of the state of the market and the challenges that lie ahead, here are some of its findings.

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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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