> Posted by Debashis Sarker, Senior Manager, BRAC Microfinance Program, Bangladesh


Microfinance institutions in Bangladesh have more than 30 years of glorious experience of serving poor people with the twofold objectives of women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation. The proven microfinance lending model has been replicated in many developing countries, and more people in Bangladesh have become financially included over time. But what about financial inclusion of a most vulnerable group, persons with disabilities (PWD)?

People with disabilities simply did not get access to the leading lending sources in Bangladesh because of discrimination and accessibility barriers. Regular discrimination, taking the forms of negative attitudes, social exclusion, lack of economic opportunities, and unpaid or underpaid work, has long been an integral part of the lives of PWD. Extremely poor disabled people in rural Bangladesh mostly work in the informal sector with minimum wage rates, reflecting severe discrimination in the workplace. Family members often see them as burden. They may be turned down when trying to rent houses in urban areas. People with disabilities, especially women, are disadvantaged when it comes to education, employment, and even marriage. They may be left out of decision-making and participation in social occasions. In fact, many Bangladeshi people see disability as a curse and cause of shame to the family, and at the national level, Bangladesh has not yet passed an anti-discrimination law.

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Posted by Ignacio Mas, Independent Consultant

I guess it happens in all human endeavors; we sometimes get carried away wishing things were the way we think they ought to be. Let me provide three cautionary observations relating to financial inclusion: about how we measure it, how we talk about it, and how we assess it. The point is not to dampen enthusiasm about the possibilities, but to reflect on our progress in a more realistic way.

Industry Showcases and the Numbers Game

Through numerous industry conferences and blogs, certain players get put up as shining examples for the industry to follow. M-Shwari is perhaps the latest one, I guess because it delivers large customer numbers to an industry that is still largely focused on coverage rather than usage, and it represents the kind of telco-bank partnership that many have been fantasizing about.

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> Posted by Anne Gachoka, Research Supervisor, Digital Divide Data

Thanks to mobile and agent channels, formal financial services in Kenya now reach millions of previously unbanked customers with new and innovative products. Just look at M-Shwari, the new banking product offered to M-Pesa customers enabling them to move beyond money transfer and epay to small, short-term loans with eligibility based on data about their savings, mobile usage, and debt repayment history. Globally, this is all very exciting and represents an important breakthrough in providing financial services to the poor.

But, after studying the interactions between the poor and the financial sector through the Kenya Financial Diaries, a joint-research initiative between Digital Divide Data and Bankable Frontier Associates, I have come to the conclusion that banking will fail to deliver on the promise of improving the lives of the poor unless providers do more to improve pricing transparency and communication on terms and conditions. The Diaries study tracked the cash flows of 300 Kenyan households over the period of one year.

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> Posted by Somen Saha, Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar, with inputs from Marcia Metcalfe, Freedom from Hunger and Sabina Rogers, Microcredit Summit Campaign

Microfinance institutions (MFIs) and self-help groups (SHGs) in India are increasingly recognizing the potential of offering both health and financial services. In a query of 25 MFIs across the country providing integrated services, the number of borrowers totaled nearly 18 million. A new report, Integrated Health and Microfinance in India, Volume II: The Way Forward, highlights best practices in integrating health and microfinance programs, particularly in light of India’s aim for universal health care, showcases potential interventions that can be adopted by microfinance institutions and NGOs that serve SHGs, and outlines the role of India’s existing livelihood promotion SHG initiatives in addressing access barriers to health services.

For the 1.3 billion people around the world who live on less than $1.25 a day, poverty means vulnerability. The poor face a disproportionate risk of disease and a heightened financial burden that includes both the direct costs of medical care and the indirect costs of work time lost. This financial impact also limits the ability of the poor to fully participate in financial services, as poor health is one of the most frequently cited reasons for loan default and drop-out. Because the poor are one illness away from losing everything, there is an increasing realization that countries need a pro-poor pathway towards universal healthcare.

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This post was originally posted on the Grameen Foundation blog by Alex Counts, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation and a member of CFI’s Advisory Council.

Alok PrasadAs a result of a complex combination of unwarranted attacks and self-inflicted wounds, the microfinance sector in India experienced a crisis starting in late 2010 after many years of strong growth and recognition for its contribution to poverty alleviation and financial inclusion.  When I was asked to give a keynote address at a microfinance conference in India in 2012, I said that it was important to leverage the sector’s strengths and accomplishments, while also addressing its failures and shortcomings.

I visited India in May and July and found that these things were finally happening and leading to on-the-ground progress as well as tangible support from both the outgoing and the newly elected Indian governments.  And as this blog went to press, there was another promising development: the government published draft guidelines on creating a pathway for NBFC-MFIs to become specialized or “differentiated” banks, which would enable them to take deposits directly for the first time legally.  (Though not all NBFC-MFIs would likely be eligible unless the “stringent norms” proposed are made more flexible.)  

My May visit to Mumbai was centered around Grameen Foundation’s workshop “Designing for Adoption and Scale” (click here for highlights and here for my closing address).  

One of the highlights of the second trip was speaking with Alok Prasad, the CEO of theMicrofinance Institutions Network (MFIN), a respected microfinance industry association.  He spoke eloquently about the progress the industry has made recently and the reasons behind it.  Below are excerpts from our conversation. 

Alex Counts (AC): I sense a new optimism related to Indian microfinance after some difficult years.  Would you agree?  How would you characterize the last 12 months in terms of how the Indian microfinance sector has developed? What were some of the key contributions of MFIN?

Alok Prasad (AP): Clearly the mood is buoyant, but not in an irrational way! Looking at the last fiscal year (April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014), much has gone well for the industry. Growth, both in terms of gross loan portfolio and clients, has been strong. Portfolio performance stays at levels which commercial banks can only dream of (for unsecured lending). Branch networks have expanded, and new geographies have been covered. Funding (both debt and equity) has improved markedly. The regulatory environment remains broadly positive, notwithstanding the Microfinance Bill falling by the wayside.

In specific terms, the aggregate gross loan portfolio of MFIN’s member institutions (Non Banking Financial Company-Microfinance Institutions or NBFC-MFIs) stood at Rs. 279.31 billion (US$4.63 billion), an increase of 35%, over the prior fiscal year. Clients covered stood at 28 million, representing growth of 20% over the previous year. Debt funding grew by 46%, along with a definite revival of investor interest.

MFIN, I believe, has played a key role in bringing stability to the sector. Deep and sustained dialogue with the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has resulted in regulatory changes that are conducive to growth; a much greater appreciation of our industry’s role in promoting financial inclusion; and, the recognition that the industry is an essential component of the national financial architecture. From a systemic standpoint, the development of the credit bureau ecosystem had been a big win. As of this date, more than 150 million client records are present on the databases of two national bureaus. These records are updated on a weekly cycle; and, all lending is only after a bureau check. This has given remarkable results in controlling multiple lending and over-borrowing by clients. Our recognition by the RBI as the self-regulatory organization (SRO) for NBFC-MFIs is a sign of both a certain maturing of the industry and the regulator’s acceptance of that reality. A nice ‘new normal’ for an industry which just 18 months ago appeared deep in the throes of a crisis!

AC: MFIs outside of Andhra Pradesh have begun growing again.  Can you give us a sense of this growth and how it compared to other parts of the financial sector?  What are the main reasons?  Are there risks?

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> Posted by Joseph Smolen, Summer Associate, CFI

Are MFIs evolving enough to maintain relevance as a driving force in the sub-Saharan African (SSA) economy?

A recent survey of board members of microfinance institutions (MFIs) in SSA revealed two shortcomings at the governance level: 1) MFIs boards and leadership are not effectively incorporating new technologies and 2) there is a systemic lack of awareness related to market forces and competition. Taken together, these two areas of deficient governance suggest MFIs are not evolving quickly enough, and definitely not at the rapid pace of economic growth in SSA.

Which leads us to ask: are MFIs at risk due to their slowly evolving, and sometimes insular, business practices? The answer to this question is an emphatic no….for now. MFIs have been and will continue to be a key driver of economic growth, poverty alleviation, and financial inclusion in the region. However, sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing unprecedented growth, catalyzed by a variety of macro-level influences. This new dynamism in SSA (the second fastest region-wide growth, behind only developing Asia) brings with it faster change than previously seen in the SSA economy. What does this mean for microfinance? Simply that evolution has now become more critical than ever.

The economic changes in SSA bring with it myriad opportunities – both for domestic residents and foreign investors. Most striking is the increasing eagerness for foreign direct investments (FDI) in SSA. Currently, FDI has taken the form of large-scale investment in established institutional players with little effect on the lower income customer base of MFIs. As capital flows continue to seek opportunities, this could easily change, and other players could contest the space MFIs have historically occupied in the marketplace. While financial services to previously excluded individuals does not necessarily have to be provided by MFIs, there are significant risks that the microfinance space will be impinged upon by mainstream market players such as commercial or mobile banks as well as non-mission driven debt funds. The consequences of such changes include:

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

It’s a big couple of weeks for Africa here in Washington, D.C. On Monday, President Obama hosted a town hall meeting to welcome this year’s class of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Launched in 2010 by Obama, YALI supports young African leaders as they spur economic growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa. These Fellows spend six weeks at one of 20 U.S. universities and colleges undergoing leadership training and mentoring in business and entrepreneurship, civic engagement, and public administration. Next week, the State Department will host the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit with heads of state from 50 African countries to advance the U.S. Administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa and discuss security and democratic development.

Nearly one-third of all Africans are between the ages of 10 and 24, and approximately 60 percent are below 35. YALI is tapping into the drive and energy of Africa’s youth to effect change. Many Fellows in the YALI network are focused on improving access to financial services, whether it’s encouraging a savings culture in Zimbabwe, establishing microfinance programs for women and youth in Kenya, or creating a microfinance program to help start medical supply stores in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

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With under 40 days to go, the 17th Microcredit Summit is rapidly approaching. CFI’s Josh Goldstein will be speaking during a plenary session focused on new innovations for microfinance and other financial inclusion interventions to more effectively reach the excluded. With the theme “Generation Next: Innovations in Microfinance,” this should be a great opportunity to explore what is on the horizon to achieve full financial inclusion. In this post, Josh discusses industry context surrounding the Summit, and what he hopes he and those in attendance will be able to take away from the event.

I am a sometime skeptic about the proliferation of microfinance conferences, but the upcoming Microcredit Summit in Merida, Mexico seems particularly important and timely. Personally, I am very excited about it. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that I will be a speaker, and of course piqued vanity can certainly lead to bias, but I don’t suspect this is the case here.)

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> Posted by Juan Blanco, Associate, Financial Inclusion 2020, CFI

Mobile money services have spread like wildfire, making people less cash-reliant and able to easily carry out transactions like bill payments and money transfers. GSMA’s Mobile Money for the Unbanked program identified 14 mobile money sprinters – leaders of some of the fastest growing mobile deployments in the world. Among these, three case studies from mobile money services in Pakistan, Somaliland, and Zimbabwe have been published. The case studies highlight the reasons why these particular schemes have achieved significant customer bases and transactions volumes since their deployments.

Easypaisa (Pakistan). After only 11 months, Easypaisa registered 5 million transactions and by the end of 2012 it had 100 million transactions with a volume of $US 1.4 billion. Easypaisa was created in late 2009 by the MNO Telenor Pakistan and Tameer Bank, after Telenor acquired a 51 percent stake in Tameer. Telenor acknowledged that launching a mobile wallet product wouldn’t be the ideal way to set up Easypaisa since they only had a 22 percent market share and so the product wouldn’t encompass 40 million non-Telenor customers. Furthermore, regulations in the country called for very comprehensive Know-Your-Customer (KYC) procedures, creating the additional obstacles of increased registration cost and time.

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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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