> Posted by Saran Sidime, Operations Assistant, the Smart Campaign

Despite – or because of – economic growth, booming exports, and increased foreign investments in many African countries, income inequality on the continent, by many accounts, is increasing. As a region, sub-Saharan Africa has a higher level of inequality than the rest of the developing world. Globally, seven of the top 10 countries in terms of inequality are in Africa.

Contributing to the discrepancy is the lack of formal financial services within the region, according to Shaking up Finance and Banking in Africa, a policy brief produced by the Africa Progress Panel, which draws its analysis from the 2014 Africa Progress Report. Only one in five Africans have any form of account at a formal financial institution. Like most parts of the world, the poor, rural dwellers, and women are particularly excluded. The strategic deployment of sustainable and inclusive finance is a vital ingredient to ensuring that Africa’s long-term growth encompasses all individuals equitably.

Between 1990 and 2012, the proportion of Africans who were poor fell from 56 percent to 43 percent, according to the World Bank. However, when you account for population growth, the total number of individuals living in poverty increased. The most optimistic scenario, calculated by the World Bank, indicates that across this 22 year window, the number of Africans living in poverty increased from 280 million to 330 million. On the other side of the spectrum, Africa is now home to over 160,000 people whose personal fortunes exceed USD 1 million, which represents a doubling in the number of individuals of such wealth since the turn of the century.

Haroon Bhorat, Senior Fellow at Brookings’ Africa Growth Initiative described the problem, saying: “Simply put, income inequality is the thief of the poverty-reducing effect of growth.”

The agriculture sector is a key priority area for expanding financial inclusion to combat income inequality. Rural dwellers are the most financially excluded people on the continent. Overwhelmingly, farmers lack access to all formal financial products – credit, savings, and insurance. Farmers need to both insure themselves against environmental risks, and make investments in seeds and other productive inputs to boost their productivity. Without insurance, they have to invest their earnings into dealing with emergencies like poor harvests, droughts/floods, and illness, rather than investing in boosting productivity. Their lack of access to loans and savings make them unable to respond to market opportunities, like buying fertilizers, pest control, and new equipment.

A transformed financing environment will allow the continent to tap into the vast potential of its domestic resources. Supporting farmers associations and the integration of financial services access therein can bring a wealth of benefits, including: increased access to financing via transactions records kept within associations; increased market access; and increased access to informational services and skills-building opportunities. Inclusive finance can also yield less intuitive benefits that boost productivity systemically. Kofi Annan, Chair of the Africa Progress Panel, asserts the potential for pension funds to – along with their imperative role in supporting aging – finance energy proliferation. In Ghana, Mozambique, and Nigeria, for example, pension funds have allowed governments to tap into deeper pools of savings that exist to actively finance the energy sector. Annan said: “One of the greatest barriers to the transformation of the power sector is the low level of tax collection and the failure of governments to build credible tax systems. Domestic taxes can cover almost half the financing gap in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Financial services also present huge opportunities for supporting education – one of the biggest factors to boosting equality. For every 100 African children that enter the school system, only four will make it to a tertiary institution. This is the lowest rate in the world. Savings and loans can offer families the support they need to ensure that their children are empowered to live productive lives.

The good news is that, along with the gradual expansion of traditional banking systems, peer-to-peer banking and mobile banking have increasingly taken root to further address the needs of those excluded from the financial system, democratize the financial playing field, and boost growth that benefits all. Among developing regions, mobile money is most widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by Southeast Asia and Latin America. Constantinos Kypreos, Vice President & Senior Credit Officer at Moody’s and co-author of the report Mobile Banking Supportive of Economic Growth and Banking Sector Prospects, stated in an interview that with time, mobile phone banking will boost economic growth and create opportunities for banks to expand across the continent.

Developing the financial sector is one of the most urgent challenges facing the region. As the governor of Ghana’s central bank put it, “An efficient financial sector provides the rudiments for income growth and job creation [and]…financial development contributes to the reduction of poverty and inequality.” The Shaking up Finance and Banking in Africa brief concludes that inclusive financial systems serve as the bridge that connects economic growth to the wellbeing of people. We at the Center for Financial Inclusion agree.

Image credit: Accion

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