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> Posted by Center Staff

The 2016 Harvard Business School – Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance is now accepting applications for what will be another exceptional week of learning and exchange among world leaders in financial inclusion. The program will take place March 28 – April 2, 2016 at the HBS campus in Boston, Massachusetts.

The 2016 HBS-Accion Program builds on ten successful years and over 600 alumni – CEOs, presidents, executive directors, and other high-level professionals – from roughly 100 countries.

Today’s landscape of financial services for the base of the pyramid is increasingly complex, with a diversity of products, providers, and support organizations extending services to previously excluded populations. Disruptive technologies and new ways of doing business are creating new possibilities for reaching more people with more types of services. It’s an exciting time for financial inclusion, though for leaders steering their organizations through this landscape, the pace and magnitude of change may look overwhelming. Financial service providers participating in the program will benefit from the guidance of some of the world’s best business minds to better understand the possibilities and the pitfalls of today’s financial services marketplace. Policymakers, regulators, and investors will find it valuable to get a closer look at how the industry is evolving in countries around the world.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Sub-Saharan African countries may be leading the world in mobile money and growth in access to accounts, but the state of financial consumer protection in Africa is in urgent need of attention.

In the EIU Global Microscope’s 2014 overall rating of the policy environment for financial inclusion, African countries scored very close to the global average (44 SSA vs. 46 Global out of a possible 100). However, these countries were substantially below the average on consumer protection indicators – market conduct (27 SSA vs. 43 Global) and grievance redress (35 SSA vs. 45 Global).

These numbers have human consequences. The Smart Campaign commissioned research in two African countries – Benin and Uganda – which revealed the frequently harsh environment in which microfinance is conducted. In Uganda, research on what happens to clients who default showed that, lacking regulatory oversight and the calming influence of credit reference bureaus, lenders in Uganda feel compelled to resort to practices such as rapid confiscation of a borrower’s assets. They are afraid that if they do not act quickly, the borrower may flee. In the research on client experiences from Benin, clients reported major gaps in trust and transparency. For example, many reported being surprised by fees that were not explained or expected, having no place to turn when problems arose, or being publicly shamed for late payments.

The research pointed to very low trust on both sides between providers and customers. In fact, in Smart Campaign conversations with African microfinance institutions about consumer protection, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Who will protect us (the lenders) from them (the borrowers)?”

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

It’s important to recognize the work of others, but so easy to let the days slide by silently – until a major transition occurs.

Last week there was such a transition, in the form of a gala to recognize the achievements of Alex Counts, founder and for 18 years, CEO of Grameen Foundation. So I decided to mark the occasion with these thoughts.

The story of the organization’s founding is a simple one, reflecting the naiveté and boldness of youth. As a recent college graduate, Alex moved to Bangladesh to apprentice at the Grameen Bank. On returning home to the U.S. seven years later, in 1997, and with $6,000 provided by Muhammad Yunus, he started the Foundation to carry Grameen Bank’s work for the very poor into countries around the world. He didn’t know what he didn’t know, as is the case for most entrepreneurs, social and otherwise. Grameen Foundation operated on a shoestring in those early days.

Over the next 18 years, Alex built an organization that today works in Asia, Africa and Latin America with a multimillion dollar budget and a high-powered board of directors (just a little self-promotion – I’m honored to be a member). Grameen Foundation has assisted some of the best and most mission-driven microfinance institutions in the world – Fonkoze, Grameen Koota, Cashpor, CARD Bank and many more – to raise money, improve their operations and try new things, with a constant eye on serving the very poor and the least-included, especially women. The Foundation was an early entrant into what is now the Fintech space, with the MIFOS initiative and the Grameen Technology Center, and it has become an important innovator in the use of mobile phones as a tool in support of the financial, agricultural and health needs of the poor.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I wanted to recognize Alex from a more personal point of view.

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FI2020 Week is a global conversation on the key actions needed to advance financial inclusion. From November 2-6, 2015, stakeholders around the world will participate in more than 30 events and share their voices over social media, with #FI2020. In recognition of the importance of savings to financial inclusion, and with the happy coincidence that World Savings Day is on October 31, we invited Chris de Noose, Managing Director of the World Savings and Retail Banking Institute (WSBI) to help launch FI2020 Week with this post.

For more than 90 years, the World Savings and Retail Banking Institute – WSBI – and its members have spearheaded annually a day dedicated to promoting the virtue of people saving money.

Called World Savings Day, it was the first initiative of WSBI, which represents the interests of savings and retail banks in 80 countries. Celebrated at the end of October, the day remains relevant for members, who engage actively in celebrating it in their local areas. World Savings Day is etched in the minds of Europeans, including those from Germany, Austria, Spain, and Italy. It also is celebrated beyond Europe, in places like Brazil, India, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Thailand, for instance.

For Brussels-based WSBI and its members, World Savings Day places focus on the stabilising role played by savings and retail banking in the overall financial system. It evokes some of the ethos of local banks: responsible partners in communities; close to the customer; serving households, small and medium-sized firms (SMEs), and local authorities.

Why saving is important

Savings are important on many levels. First, savings are important for households. People save to create a nest egg, a rainy day fund – a way to financially “smooth out” some of the uncertainty in an often uncertain world. Second, and on a macro-economic level, it provides funding to banks in the form of deposits. Those savings then can be converted into loans. Loans for SMEs, for example, when they expand or retool. Savings are also important for social entrepreneurship, finance that brings to life start ups, for example.

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

Accion MfB staff explaining the PLWD product to clients

Last month, Accion Microfinance Bank (MfB) in Nigeria launched the People Living With Disabilities (PLWD) product to provide loans to a marginalized group that has largely been left out of the financial system – people with disabilities (PWD). To mark the occasion, some of the first clients of these loans including a member of the albino community and visually impaired clients attended an opening ceremony, which also included officials from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

The PLWD launch was the result of close collaboration across organizations and continents. CFI’s Joshua Goldstein and Bunmi Lawson, Managing Director/CEO of Accion Microfinance Bank, met with officials from the Central Bank of Nigeria to garner their support. In addition, CFI’s PWD team in India, including CFI partner v-shesh, advised Accion Microfinance Bank.

At the launch, Bunmi Lawson stated that, “Many people living with disabilities are financially excluded. We are pleased to be able to give them the opportunity to improve their means of livelihood to give them a brighter future.”

I asked Emeka Uzowulu, Head of Business and Product Development at Accion Microfinance Bank in Nigeria to share how this product came about and what their future plans are for reaching PWD.

1. Congratulations on the launch of the PLWD product! Can you give a brief background on how this product came about? What was the history of developing this outreach to persons with disabilities and what was key to getting it off the ground?

At Accion Microfinance Bank, our mission is to economically empower micro-entrepreneurs and low income earners by providing financial services in a sustainable, ethical, and profitable manner. We realize that a sizable number of this group are living with one form of disability or another which limits or frustrates their efforts to be productive, as well as that of their families. In consideration of these challenges, we are committed to identifying and partnering with them in making their futures brighter by providing access to loans, savings, and insurance at a very minimal cost.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What are microfinance clients’ thoughts on fair treatment from financial services providers? The Smart Campaign’s Client Voices project went to the source and asked clients what they think. Clients were consulted on what they believe constitutes good and bad treatment and their experiences with microfinance providers.

The Client Voices project, a qualitative and quantitative investigation, covers four country markets: Benin, Pakistan, Georgia, and Peru. Today we are releasing the results from Benin and Pakistan, and this post focuses on the results from Benin. Stay tuned for another post on Pakistan soon.

Over the past six years, the Smart Campaign has worked extensively with financial institutions, regulators, networks, rating agencies, and other financial inclusion industry actors to strengthen client protection policies and practices. But until now, we had not heard directly from clients. To embed the process in the local scene and ensure it would be actionable, in each country, the Campaign convened a group of researchers and market leaders to provide local insight and guide the research. In March 2014, the Campaign and its research partner Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) began investigative efforts, which included focus groups, in-depth interviews, photo association exercises, and surveys.

So, what did we find in Benin?

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> Posted by Habitat for Humanity International

Microfinance in Cambodia has seen tremendous growth throughout the past two decades. The first microfinance institutions were initially established by relief organizations to provide cash transfers to poor families, to build incomes and reduce poverty. Fast forward to 2015, and the financial landscape is thriving with over 45 regulated microfinance institutions (MFIs) operating in the country. Improved financial access is contributing to 7.3 percent GDP growth and reducing poverty rates for those living under $2 per day.

Despite impressive economic growth, housing quality for many Cambodians remains below standards. A 2014 study conducted by the Ministry of Planning in Cambodia revealed that nearly 27 percent of homes in rural areas still use temporary materials for walls and roughly 83 percent have temporary floors.

As migration brings more people to urban and peri-urban areas, and as a young population seeks to build new housing, there is a growing need for financial products that match the term and usage that housing requires. Recently, housing microfinance (usually characterized by larger loan amounts and longer terms than traditional microfinance) has gained traction in Cambodia as a funding source for home construction and home improvements for low income families.

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger

Known as the “hardest interview you’ll have with a client,” the interview you have with a client who is leaving is also, however, one of the most important interviews for a microfinance institution – and likely any organization or company concerned about the costs of client acquisition and retention.

The latest debates on the success of microfinance have encouraged Freedom from Hunger to dig deeper into our repertoire of “impact stories” and critically review the reasons why microfinance clients whose lives were not improving were dropping out, particularly since critics often suggest that microfinance tends to result in negative outcomes among participants.

Since 2007, Freedom from Hunger has been developing and testing an “impact story” methodology to discover client experiences that are representative of the entire clientele of an MFI or even multiple institutions, ranging from success to failure and whatever is happening in between.

Thus far, Freedom from Hunger has collected over 700 client impact stories from 25 local partners located in ten countries throughout Latin America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Six countries were visited a second time after an interval of three or four years to re-interview the impact story participants. This is a significant effort to take qualitative interviews and conduct them with a small random selection of clients and use the information for fairly meticulous research purposes.

With these impact stories, we wanted to answer some basic questions. Why are some clients successful and why are some not? Why do some clients drop out? Are all the reasons for drop-out negative and does the drop-out result in a client being worse off than if they stayed a client? Can we tell if microfinance is to blame for their negative status? What can we do to improve?

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger


First of all, a disclaimer. I am by no means a mental health expert. Like many, I’ve had my own experiences which have led to interests into the causes and impacts of mental health issues as well as the coping mechanisms we might use when we or someone we know suffers from a mental illness.

It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, as you might know, and it has reminded me of a conversation that Josh Goldstein, Vice President of Economic Citizenship and Disability Inclusion at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, and I started a while back — a conversation that also led to an exchange of ideas on his blog post “Four Interventions to Help Victims of Trauma Find Hope and Dignity” in which he summarized his remarks at the 8th Annual PCAF Pan-African Psychotrauma Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya. (Josh’s full conference remarks can be found here.) During this conference, Josh tried to answer the question of whether microfinance institutions (MFIs) can help victims of trauma who suffer from mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to find hope and dignity through self-employment.

In his post, Josh suggests steps to be taken by our sector to be inclusive of those suffering from mental health disorders. In this post, I’ll address two of those steps:

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> Posted by Shaheen Hasan, Manager, FI2020 at CFI

The “customer centricity” mantra has become a common refrain among donors, policymakers, practitioners, and providers working on financial inclusion. Indeed we would be hard-pressed to find anyone working in the sector who wouldn’t identify him or herself as focused on customer needs. In the Addressing Customer Needs section of the Financial Inclusion 2020 Progress Report, however, we report that the number of financial service providers who are actually investing in and implementing these ideas at a scalable level are still few and far between. Although the truly customer-centric organizations are in the minority, we found a host of good examples, and we highlight some examples we like in the report.

A critical element of addressing customer needs is building the right consumer insights infrastructure to gather and translate data into better product offerings and the targeting of new market segments. Organizations use a multitude of methods to assemble insights. Some players, such as Equity Bank in Kenya and Tigo in multiple countries have built up in-house research capabilities. Banco Azteca in Mexico, for example, has one of the most sophisticated market research systems to amass and analyze information on customers. It has used that information to build up a clientele of millions of savers, borrowers, remittance receivers (and some senders), and insurance policy holders. Janalakshmi, an Indian microfinance institution, with the support of CGAP, developed a tool, Kaleido, which utilizes its front-line staff to get a “360 degree” view of a household, providing a rich source of data for developing new products as well as assessing the financial progress of a household.

With increasing availability of data on client behavior and new techniques to analyze that data, there is a rich wellspring to mine for insights relevant to market segmentation, product design, and delivery improvements.

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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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