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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Fifteen years ago in the microfinance space you may have been able to get away with understanding very little about your clients. Without much competition, MFIs could probably still make a decent profit by offering one product to all their clients using only one delivery channel. Thankfully, those days are gone.

The base of the pyramid is no longer a hidden or forgotten market segment. In fact, according to the recently-released 2014 Microfinance Banana Skins report, the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. Overindebtedness once again tops the charts as the biggest perceived risk, perhaps indicating that many clients are now able to gain access to multiple services providers. In some areas, an excess of providers may now be crowding the market.

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> Posted by Rishabh Khosla and Vikas Raj, Senior Investment Analyst and Senior Investment Officer, Accion Venture Lab

In May, India’s new government, led by Narendra Modi, was elected in a landslide. Popular frustration with the Congress Party’s increasingly ineffectual 10-year reign, made most visible by persistently low GDP growth, allowed for one of the most lopsided victories in Indian history, and the first time a non-Congress candidate had an outright majority in parliament. Wisely, Modi focused his election campaign rhetoric on economic issues and more efficient governance to revive GDP growth. The markets have reacted positively: the bell-weather BSE stock-index is up 20 percent since the start of the year. Two weeks ago, the government finally proposed a budget for the next year – the first real concrete recommendations for the economy since coming to power two months ago.

India is a key market for financial inclusion investors like Accion Venture Lab because of the size, depth, and strength of its entrepreneurial pool, as well as the persistent lack of financial services for the poor. Despite the huge success of microfinance in India, two-thirds of the working-age population lacks a bank account, mobile payments have yet to take off, and access to credit for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) remains abysmal.

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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 Juan Blanco, Associate, Financial Inclusion 2020, CFI

In Latin America and the Caribbean, approximately 40 percent of families live in houses to which they have no title or that lack sewage systems, water, electricity, or proper building materials, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). However, current annual investments in living solutions by the base of the pyramid in LAC total $56.7 billion, confirming the increasing buying power of this segment and the growing opportunity in developing housing finance business models.

A few weeks ago I attended an event hosted by the IDB to launch the report Many Paths to a Home: Emerging Business Models for Latin America and the Caribbean’s Base of the Pyramid. The report was written by Christy Stickney for the Opportunities for the Majority Initiative (OMJ), a part of the Private Sector Group of the Inter-American Development Bank. OMJ provides finance to small, medium-sized, and large companies, as well as financial institutions and funds to support the development and expansion of business models that serve BoP markets.

The report analyses cases within OMJ’s housing portfolio in countries such as Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru. Stickney found  two main housing solutions for the BoP, a “complete” housing solution and an “incremental” housing solution.

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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 Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

On a trip to the antipodes you expect to find things a bit upside down. You look out on the underneath side of the universe and see mammals that lay eggs. On my recent trip there, I discovered that the microfinance world is a little upside down, too.

The biggest microfinance program in Australia, Good Shepherd Microfinance’s No Interest Loan Scheme (NILS) is mind-bendingly different from most microfinance operations. In the first place, it charges no interest or fees – technically it’s a repayable grant. Secondly, it is explicitly designed to assist people to obtain consumer goods, such as a refrigerator, washing machine, or laptop, not to operate a business. And thirdly, far from addressing the informal sector, most of the borrowers are recipients of some form of public welfare support.

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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 Sonja E. Kelly and Ruben Marquez, CFI and Bancomer

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Shakespeare

While Juliet’s musings on the essence of her Romeo might be poetic, she is quite wrong. Words determine a great deal about how we think about things—and one word change could change hundreds of thousands of people’s use of financial products.

Percent of People Who Report Saving in the Past Year

In Mexico, if you were to ask those at the base of the pyramid whether they save, they would likely tell you no. CFI’s Country Profiles show the Global Findex Data in the figure at right.

When asked whether they had saved any money in the past year, roughly 14 percent of people in the bottom 40 percent of the economy in Mexico answered yes. This same group of people in all upper middle income economies (of which Mexico was a part at the time of the survey) were about twice as likely to say yes to this question.

Does this mean that the poor in Mexico just don’t prioritize savings? Probably not.

In Mexico, there is a difference between the word for “saving” (ahorrar) and the word for “keeping” (guardar). When you ask people at the base of the pyramid whether they “keep” money for the future, they are much more likely to answer yes.

The Findex survey (the source of the above data) may have inadvertently run into this problem in Mexico. The difference between two words could explain the low incidence of saving reported at the base of the pyramid compared to countries with a similar income level.

When we take this language difference into account, there are implications for institutional knowledge, financial education, and product marketing.

On this front, Bancomer in Mexico has found that there is a reorientation to be done within the bank itself—while Bancomer is listening to clients, for listening to be effective it must be listening for the right language. Within the bank, integrating the vernacular of low-income clients has led to new views on this income segment. Past market research has included the question of whether potential clients are saving—with dismal results. With the recognition that this population is saving, but just calling it something else, there is a different perception of the kinds of products that customers might be interested in.

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> Posted by Amanda Lotz, Financial Inclusion 2020 Consultant, CFI

Javier moved from Honduras to the United States with his wife and their children in search of better work opportunities and to escape the violence in their community. His parents chose to stay behind. Luisa moved from the Philippines to Canada to pursue more lucrative opportunities as a nurse, hoping to support her family back home. Yousef fled from Syria to Lebanon, as a refugee, to escape civil unrest.

Javier, Luisa, and Yousef – fictitious characters – are only symbolically representative of some of the enormous global migrant population – estimated to total 232 million people in 2013. Certainly not homogenous, their reasons for leaving their home country can vary tremendously and may include economic opportunities, natural disasters, and security or political concerns.

In spite of the complications of migrating, there is an undeniable and increasing opportunity for financial service providers to serve migrants and their families. Today, I will focus primarily on migrants who move for economic and employment opportunities, though we recognize that these issues are more nuanced for migrants like Yousef who have fled their country of origin for the sake of their safety. I will save this smaller subset, 7 percent of all migrants, for another post. Though, I will mention that MasterCard has an innovative partnership with Banque Libano-Française for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which you can read more about here.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Financial capability is cornerstone to financial inclusion. After all, without the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to make good financial decisions, the utility of accessible financial services is greatly compromised. However, financial capability levels need addressing, even in countries that have relatively high services penetration such as the United States. Thankfully, the urgency is increasingly recognized, for example, through efforts such as Financial Literacy Month in the U.S. About a decade ago, April was designated as a month to call attention to financial literacy, and in 2012 the shift was made to include attitude and behavior change: President Obama proclaimed Financial Capability Month. To celebrate, here’s a rundown of where the United States stands with financial capability, and a few public and private efforts aimed at improving this financial inclusion area.

According to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, about 40 percent of American adults report keeping close track of their spending and about 35 percent have a budget. In terms of effective money management, consumer debt in the U.S. totals more than $2 trillion. In perhaps the most alarming statistic of all, half of Americans indicate that they have less in savings than they would need to live for one month in an emergency and a quarter have less than they need for two weeks. Roughly 65 percent of American adults have not ordered a copy of their credit report in the past year and about 30 percent don’t know their credit score. When asked to grade their level of financial proficiency, 40 percent of Americans give themselves either a C, D, or F.

But Americans do recognize the importance of financial capability. Eighty percent of adults indicate that they would benefit from advice and answers from professionals on basic finance questions. Many would like to speak with financial education service providers, such as credit counselors, followed by banks, and then financial planners.

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