> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Senior Africa Specialist, the Smart Campaign

On June 18 and 19, I attended the “African Microfinance Pricing Transparency Leadership Forum in Nairobi, Kenya on behalf of the Smart Campaign. The conference convened key African microfinance market actors, including regulators, policymakers, and technical assistance providers, to discuss policies in support of pricing disclosure and client protection. It was hosted by MFTransparency (MFT), Planet Rating, and the Agence Française de Développement. Participants came from all over the continent, ranging from Ghana to Mozambique. As a new member of the Smart Campaign team, I took away a few thoughts for our own work.

The concept of transparency from MFIs is gaining ground. No longer can an MFI withhold pricing data without censure from peers. Participants voiced the need for greater intervention from their governments in the form of reporting standardization, regulatory oversight, and financial education programs so that clients can better interpret pricing information.

We should capitalize on this momentum and seek out partners who are truly committed to transparency and to improving the market environment. We should also encourage discussions among on-the-ground actors regarding difficult subjects such as pricing caps, improving small MFIs’ operating efficiency, and proper fee disclosure. And as MFIs commit to sharing more information, the industry should work to ensure that clients can understand and use pricing information to make good choices.

But many actors are reluctant to take on the responsibility and costs of bringing transparency to the market. Participants voiced concern about taking on greater costs and duties regarding regulation and providing recourse. Further, in some countries, confusion remains over how regulatory and oversight responsibility is allocated among government agencies.

Those working in microfinance can help lay the groundwork for sector transparency in Africa. We in the Smart Campaign should focus on forcefully communicating the incentives for transparency and the mid-to-long-term benefits to MFIs and their associations. We should support collaboration and knowledge-sharing among market actors and support the development of strong truth-in-lending legislation that protects borrowers. Actions must reflect the national regulatory context and engage local partners who understand specific local issues. Even with stronger legislation and increased regulation, there are many non-regulated actors slipping between cracks (e.g. very small, non-deposit taking organizations) and the Smart Campaign and others need to find ways to protect the clients of these institutions as well.

Populist policies are not always the most effective policies for client protection. MFT presented empirical evidence that, despite their recent popularity, pricing caps are not more effective than a client protection agency or strong client protection legislation. MFT’s evidence shows that if price caps are introduced, they must be comprehensive (i.e., address all fees and additional charges) and will result in the smallest borrowers and lenders being forced out of market. It is key to encourage legislative steps and the creation of a regulatory body rather than laws directly focused on interest rates and caps. At the same time, the lengthy timelines for legislation processes to introduce such protections can discourage people from taking action. Meanwhile, the thorough collection and effective communication of data being done by organizations such as MFT and MIX is an important part of improving the microfinance environment.

The Smart Campaign, MFT, MIX, and other organizations that support pricing transparency need to look at how to encourage action following energizing discussions such as the MFT forum, acknowledging realistic expectations of prospects for near-term versus long term achievement.

Image credit: African Microfinance Pricing Transparency Leadership Forum

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