> Posted by Lynn Exton, Managing Partner, Exton & Partners Risk, Governance & Analytics LLP

With the benefits of digital financial services (DFS) for enhancing financial inclusion now widely accepted, many microfinance institutions (MFIs) have or are planning to add new digital products to their delivery channels. But just because the benefits of DFS are relatively straightforward doesn’t mean the calculus behind whether or not institutions should take the digital plunge is. Institutions encounter practical challenges when adopting DFS, like big up-front investments in resources, the need for buy-in from staff and management, and the necessity for clients to change their behavior and adopt new technology. As with any new product, DFS also can introduce a wide range of risks to the MFI.

The Digital Financial Services Working Group recently released its newest publication, entitled, “The Digital Financial Services Risk Assessment for Microfinance Institutions – A Pocket Guide.” The guide was developed to assist MFIs in understanding the risks and corresponding mitigation strategies associated with DFS as well as to support institutions in choosing among the diverse business models available for providing these services. The DFS Working Group is a virtual community of practitioners and organizations developing knowledge management products promoting inclusive finance.

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

Growing up, my father fixed cars in exchange for payment in whatever form his customers could afford – granite tables, sheep skin rugs, and so on. In our town, he was the king of barter. Unfortunately, it was rather difficult for my mother to re-barter these items for things our family actually needed, like food and clothes. The system was limited in participants and so in utility. But thanks to the internet, the art of barter is back.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

The CFI’s Financial Inclusion 2020 project team has been talking to the experts lately to get their views on the main recommendations that came out of our 2013 Roadmap to Inclusion process.

One of the high level recommendations was as follows:

Regulators need to craft regulation that allows technology-enabled business models to emerge, while balancing access and protection for base of the pyramid consumers.

We asked some of the experts to give their views on whether this recommendation is moving forward across the developing world. The general response was, “Not fast enough,” and so we probed to find out more about what is getting in the way.

Many of the players in financial inclusion envision a rich technology-enabled ecosystem in which customers can affordably use electronic means to make payments (inter-operably, of course) and to access savings, credit, and other financial services. In this vision, providers sometimes compete and sometimes partner to offer various services. Financial institutions, telecommunication companies, payment providers, governments, and others find themselves part of a complex network that seamlessly enables consumers to manage and enhance their financial lives.

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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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> Posted by Carol Caruso, Senior Vice President, Channels and Technology, Accion

Guatemala presents great potential to advance financial inclusion through the adoption of digital financial services (DFS). Only 22 percent of the population has a bank account with a formal financial institution – in most cases one of the three largest commercial banks – while almost every Guatemalan household has a mobile phone (8.8 million unique subscribers among a total population of 15.5 million). Yet most financial transactions are still conducted at bank branches. The logistics challenge of reaching isolated rural communities results in high distribution costs for the banking sector, hence it is no surprise that in 2012 Fitch Rating described the banking system as highly inefficient.

Some innovation in delivering financial services has taken place in the last few years. A few banks have implemented agent networks and the three mobile network operators now offer mobile financial services. But the results achieved are far from what the players and the supervisory authority were expecting in terms of usage and increased financial inclusion. For example, the leading mobile money service, Tigo Cash, is being used by MFIs in a limited way. Instead of empowering clients to use the available mobile wallet, clients primarily use Tigo agents for cash-in/cash-out transactions. While this over-the-counter (OTC) service through an expanded distribution channel has benefits and works in nascent environments, it is far below the potential of DFS in Guatemala.

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> Posted by Martin Burt, Executive Director, Fundación Paraguaya & Teach A Man To Fish

The following post was originally published on the World Economic Forum blog. 

If we’re aiming to not simply alleviate poverty but eliminate it altogether, we need to understand its causes. But we also need to know what non-poverty looks like.

Until recently, this has not been easy. Now, technological innovation is helping us achieve things that were once impossible, and the effects are far-reaching.

At Fundación Paraguaya, we have developed a methodology called Poverty Stoplight. To assess levels of poverty, we show people a series of three photographs and ask them to choose the one that best describes their situation. We do this in each of 50 “critical indicators,” such as access to water, levels of nutrition, dental care, and so on. These pictures are color-coded to represent degrees of poverty: red is critical, yellow is poor, and green is non-poor.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

New World Bank analysis indicates that along with the already devastating loss of life, the Ebola outbreak could cause “potentially catastrophic” economic effects on West African countries, especially in the three hardest hit. According to the analysis, Liberia’s GDP could fall by 12 percent, Sierra Leone’s by 9 percent, and Guinea’s by 2 percent.

Efforts to contain the epidemic are fueling much of the economic slowdown, like the closings of businesses, transportation infrastructure, and critical air and sea links with other nations. As mentioned in a post on this site a few weeks ago, microfinance institutions are being affected, too.

Between 80 and 90 percent of the economic losses suffered from Ebola are related to containment behavior, a dynamic consistent with recent SARS and H1N1 outbreaks. A lower supply of available workers – due to employee illness, death, and caregiving – is a smaller factor. At the same time, health systems are collapsing under the onslaught of the epidemic, leaving those with other serious illnesses unable to receive treatment. These conditions cause shortages, panicked buying, and speculation, which lead to rises in food prices and inflation. Economic life in the affected areas was already extremely tough to begin with. In Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, more than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

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

Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Having recently married and changed my last name, I can attest that there is a refreshing feeling that comes with a new name and clean slate. It is an opportunity to leave the past in the past and start anew.

Starting fresh with a new name must be especially freeing if the past was not a sweet smelling rose. According to a recent report, the Bank of Ghana (BoG) is cracking down on MFIs that repeatedly change their names to cover their tracks after they have duped members of the public. Raymond Amanfu, the Head of Other Financial Institutions Department of the Bank of Ghana reports, “Every day, I get at least five applications from companies wanting to change their names….Quite a number of them are actually messed up and want to clean up by changing their name.”

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> Posted by Sonja E. Kelly, Fellow, CFI

In most places around the world the subject of pensions is a sore one. In 2012, for example, in looking at arguably the crème of private employers, Fortune 100 companies, only 30 offered their U.S. new hires pension plans, down from 47 in 2008. For public sector employees in the U.S. in the same year, the pension plans of 26 states were less than 70 percent funded. In lower and middle-income countries where financial security is weaker, the situation is even worse. In India, the pension system only covers roughly 12 percent of the population.

The severity of these figures is amplified when we look at demographic trends. Between 2010 and 2020, the population of older adults will almost double in middle-income countries. Worldwide over the decade, it will increase by 40 percent. By 2050, there will be roughly 1.5 billion older adults, 315 million of whom will be in India.

Aging presents unique challenges and opportunities to the financial inclusion industry. During a session at the Microcredit Summit in Merida, Mexico a few weeks ago, five panelists met to discuss this topic. John Hatch (FINCA), Pilar Contreras (HelpAge), Caroline van Dullemen (World Granny), Reynold Walter (REDCAMIF), and myself all acknowledged the demographic reality—as populations age, if countries have not helped their societies and economies to prepare, they will face a global train wreck in the form of older people without adequate means of support and support systems that are overwhelmed. Financial inclusion can and should play a unique role in helping both individuals and whole countries mitigate risks.

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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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