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

Last June, in my hotel room in Delhi, I read in the Sunday edition of the Times of India that hiring white girls to work wedding parties is the new status symbol in Bangalore. Though this might sound surprising, alabaster skin as the ideal of beauty (and the status that goes with it) is neither new to nor specific to India. This is not a trivial matter but a deadly serious business.

One need only look at skin whitening products, like Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely”, which are great sellers in the beauty product category in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand—indeed, in 30 countries around the world. The Unilever Sri Lanka website reads: “Today, 250 million consumers across the globe strongly connect with Fair and Lovely as a brand that stands for the belief that beauty empowers a woman to change her destiny.”

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

It’s been an exciting few months for client protection in the microfinance industry. FINCA Kyrgyzstan, MBK Ventura in Indonesia, SKS Microfinance in India, and a number of other MFIs around the world demonstrated that they successfully integrate the client protection principles into their practices and joined the rapidly growing list of institutions that are Smart Certified. Today, we’re pleased to share that the number of clients across all the Smart Certified institutions surpassed the 15-million-client benchmark.

To date, 28 microfinance institutions, from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South Asia, have achieved Smart Certification, including some of the world’s largest and best-known MFIs. These institutions are not only ensuring that their clients are equipped and best positioned to effectively use financial services, they’re also demonstrating to their respective markets and the global industry the good business that is responsible microfinance.

“Momentum to improve client protection is accelerating, with scores of MFIs across the globe improving their client protection practices, and being recognized for it through certification,” stated Isabelle Barrès, director of the Smart Campaign, in a press release. In Eastern Europe, there are certified institutions in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, with the certification of the nation’s network of FINCA MFIs, the country’s market crossed an important threshold. “As measured by MixMarket data, more than 50 percent of all microfinance clients in Kyrgyzstan do business with certified MFIs,” noted Barrès. The certified MFIs in Kyrgyzstan include the first formal financial institution serving low-income entrepreneurs in the region, as well as a relatively young institution, and encompass a range of service offerings like individual, group, and agricultural loans. Elsewhere in the region, the proportion of clients in certified institutions by country market is about 45 percent in Bosnia, and 40 percent in Tajikistan.

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> Posted by Aissatou Diallo, Special Assistant to the CEO, BRAC USA

For the three countries most affected by Ebola – Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea – the impact of the disease on society came in waves. The first wave happened around March, after the virus was first confirmed in the region. It was characterized by denial, disbelief, and a general numbness. The second wave, in May, happened as the disease spread geographically with a corresponding increase in cases and deaths. During this time, people felt overwhelmed. Even though a lot of people still doubted that the disease existed, they knew something was wrong because people were getting sick and dying at an alarming rate. The third wave, in August, blew the lid wide open on shortcomings and vulnerabilities in the region as Ebola spun out of control. Health systems collapsed, schools closed, communities were quarantined, and supply chain systems broke down. People lived in fear.

These factors contributed to severe economic losses in the region, especially for actors in the informal economy (e.g. traders and farmers) who depend on moving freely to sell their goods at markets and have little financial flexibility or cushion to absorb a shock to the system.

I just returned from a five-week trip to Liberia. In the towns and villages I visited, people told me that August was characterized by bleakness and despair. Communities looked like ghost towns, social ties were weakened, and there were sick people dying on the streets because no hospitals or care facilities were available.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Fellow, CFI

Marisol is a 69-year-old woman in Aguablanca, a mid-sized community near the coast in Colombia. She hasn’t saved much for her older years. She receives a small social pension—about a dollar per day—from the public pension program, Colombia Mayor. While it provides an income floor for her, Marisol would like to be working as an entrepreneur. She even has a plan: “If I had a little capital, I could buy chicken legs, beef, and bananas here at a cheap price and then sell them in the Pacific towns at three or four times the price. And then I could bring back fish from the coast to sell here at the fairs.” But she cannot get a loan because of the age caps on credit at the financial institutions that operate in her area.

Marisol explains that it is not her lack of zeal or a declining health that is keeping her from increasing her income through this business dream of hers. “Strength and desire do not fail me,” she says. “It’s the money that I lack.”

Marisol was one of the people that we interviewed as part of the creation of an issue paper on Aging and Financial Inclusion, a project conducted by the Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign and in collaboration with HelpAge International. Her story is not unique—many older people report being denied access to credit and insurance in their later years. Most older people who had low or informal income when they were younger have not saved for their older years.

The new paper examines the unmet financing needs of older adults, a population segment growing rapidly in developing countries. With a focus on Latin America, the paper discusses the barriers to and market opportunities in expanding financial access to aging populations.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign, and Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

When clients are facing loan default, they’re often in the most precarious financial position of their lives. As we detailed on this blog last week, navigating the default process can be exceedingly complex for clients. It can be complex for providers, too. No doubt, on both ends the stakes are high. In a new Smart Campaign research report released last week, What Happens to Microfinance Clients who Default?, we examined how providers behave at this juncture and the factors informing these practices.

The research team selected three very different markets to compare – Peru, India, and Uganda.¹ An analysis of three markets does not represent the entire sector. However these three countries represented great diversity in legal and regulatory systems, market infrastructure, in particular credit reporting, and use of group versus individual loans, among other factors. These three countries are also locations where the Smart Campaign has cultivated supporters and partners, which persuaded providers to share information on sensitive debt collection practices.

In total, we conducted interviews with 44 providers. In addition to MFIs, the most helpful interviews were with credit bureaus. Fonts of information, they helped us understand the topography of market debt as well as the information MFIs have when making decisions. And, as we came to understand, information was a critical determinant to what actions MFIs took when a client defaulted.

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, and Kathleen Stack, Vice President, Programs, Freedom from Hunger

Recently, Dean Karlan published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Next Stage of Financial Inclusion.” The key points of his article are that while non-profits led the way in developing microcredit for the poor and started the movement for financial inclusion, for-profit companies have increasingly found it worth their while to offer financial services for the base of the pyramid. The entrance of new players to the market, Karlan offers, is a testament to the success of the early microfinance-focused non-profits. However, Karlan suggests that non-profits still have an important role in continuing to innovate in the financial services space. We agree. This is particularly true for extending financial services to people that banks still consider unprofitable: “the too rural, the too poor and the too young.” We would add disabled populations and the “too old.”

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign, and Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

Imagine you are a new microfinance loan officer in a rural area of your country and extremely proud to have found a stable, well-regarded job. Your sales territory, while requiring significant travel, is familiar – this is where your father’s extended family is from, and in fact, a few of the borrowers in your portfolio are distant cousins. You manage a portfolio of just under 300 borrowers, most of whom you see on a weekly basis.

This week, at one of the repayment meetings, you are approached by a client in distress and near tears. She apologizes that she is unable to pay back the outstanding balance on her loan due to circumstances out of her control, and asks for an additional six months to repay. Her fellow group members have been covering for her for the past two weeks and seem to be losing patience with her. Given that this was the woman’s first loan and that your country’s credit bureau covers only five percent of the microfinance market, you have no information on her credit history or current debt burden.

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> Posted by Steven Werlin, Communications and Learning Officer, Chemen Lavi Miyò Program, Fonkoze

A new initiative of Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) promises to push financial inclusion for some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Prior to Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake in 2010, roughly 800,000 Haitians had disabilities. An estimated 300,000 more were injured in the earthquake. The Secretary’s office is facilitating a partnership between Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest MFI, and Texas Christian University (TCU), with additional support from the Digicel Foundation, to carry out a program that offers financial and livelihood empowerment services for PwDs.

The pilot for the project will test a combination of Fonkoze’s Chemen Lavi Miyò (CLM) program, which translates as the pathway to a better life, and TCU professor Dawn Elliott’s More than Budgets (MTB) program. CLM is a comprehensive graduation program for the ultra poor, based on the approach developed by BRAC. It is a tailored, sequenced program that provides participants with cash installments to build businesses, productive assets (such as goats, chickens, and merchandise to sell), a savings account at Fonkoze, and regular training and confidence-building support in areas of enterprise management, health and nutrition, and life skills. Most importantly, CLM offers weekly one-on-one meetings with trained case managers. It targets the poorest families – those too poor to use traditional microfinance services. Many participants graduate from the 18 month program and go on to join a group credit program to further support their business efforts. MTB, employing a combination of education and incentives, is a personal financial training program that was developed to help poor, unbanked Texans build up savings, gain access to financial resources, and reduce financial vulnerabilities. The program has been applied in homeless shelters and with people recently released from prison.

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

In the client protection section of the FI2020 Roadmap to Financial Inclusion, a specific recommendation was made for financial providers to embrace consumer protection as part of their professional identity, and applying a “financial consumer bill of rights” was identified as a key action point.

Looking into the state of this industry area for our upcoming FI2020 Progress Report on Financial Inclusion, I came to realize that the subject of consumers’ bills of rights is not as straightforward as it seems. Although the recommendation from the roadmap was aimed specifically at providers, the truth is that this is an area where a diversity of players is getting involved. I found a range of approaches: codes of conduct, codes of ethics, charters of rights, and bills of rights, coming from a wide spread of stakeholders, from MFIs to global associations to governments. At the heart of each of these initiatives was the same objective: for service providers to operate ethically and responsibly.

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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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