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> Posted by Anna Kanze, Chief Operating Officer, Grassroots Capital Management, and Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

2016 has been dubbed “the year of IPOs” in India: as of September, there had been 21 initial public offerings (IPOs) worth nearly $3 billion, according to Indian news source Livemint. Among these are two high-profile IPOs for microfinance institutions (MFIs): Equitas Financial Holdings and Ujjivan Financial Services. IPOs are seen as the hallmark of commercial success, but in those industries like financial inclusion that are driven by social missions, inevitable questions arise over whether organizations can preserve their double bottom line priorities when they go public. The cases of these two Indian MFIs offer some answers to this increasingly pertinent question.

But before we get to that, let’s look at why these institutions went public in the first place.

Never waste a good crisis, right? In 2010, when the Andhra Pradesh crisis froze microlending in India, regulators and MFIs rose to the occasion and implemented measures that restored confidence in the microfinance industry and helped cement the social mission of microfinance in India. Most notably:

  • Social Standards – In an effort to promote responsible lending, a group of the largest for-profit MFIs in the Indian microfinance sector formed the Microfinance Institutions Network (MFIN). MFIN developed a Code of Conduct by which members commit to client protection, ethics, and transparency, and the group began to “self-police” adherence to responsible lending principles.
  • Credit Bureaus – The members of MFIN also collaborated with High Mark Credit Information Services to form the first credit bureau to track microfinance borrowing in India. All MFIN members contribute data to the microfinance credit bureau.

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> Posted by Isabel Whisson, Deputy Manager, Microfinance Programme and Ultra Poor Graduation Initiative, and Onindita Islam, Management Professional Staff, Microfinance Programme

This year BRAC in Bangladesh became the largest microfinance institution, in terms of number of clients, to be Smart Certified, signifying to our country market and to the industry writ large that we treat our clients with adequate care.

As a non-profit dedicated to poverty reduction, client welfare has been central to BRAC’s mission since its inception in 1972. In Bangladesh in general, almost all microfinance institutions are non-profits, and so microfinance has always been seen as a tool for alleviating poverty in the country.

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> Posted by Lizzy Bolze, Analyst, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

The following post was originally published on the Accion blog. 

Accion client Ma San Htwe selling fish in Myanmar, one of the key areas discussed at European Microfinance Week 2016.

European Microfinance Platform is celebrating 10 years of supporting inclusive finance innovation, and hosted European Microfinance Week 2016 (EMW) in Luxembourg a few weeks ago. At the conference, I joined discussions about key organizations and challenges in the industry. Here are five of the main takeaways from the week:

1. The Underserved Refugee Population

The Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) is helping to provide financial services to the refugee population, which is now approximately 20 million people. In reality we don’t know very much about the socioeconomic needs of refugees, and much of the research is focused on humanitarian efforts. SPTF is working to research and provide guidelines to financial service providers to better serve the financial needs of this population. The guidelines will be published on SPTF’s website in the coming months. Learn more about leading organizations supporting refugees from CFI’s blog series on refugees.

2. Opportunity in Myanmar

Representatives from VisionFund, Advans, UNCDF, and M-CRIL provided a look at the economic landscape of Myanmar and the future of financial inclusion there. In Myanmar, 70 percent of the population was excluded from formal financial services until 2011, when microfinance rapidly expanded. After 2011, 267 licensed Monetary Financial Institutions (MFIs) opened. This opportunity comes with many barriers to inclusion, such as a lack of government regulation and funds and capacity-building issues. However, there is widespread optimism with an adoption of regulations proposed by the Smart Campaign, as well as further demand for microfinance in Myanmar. Investors should consider moving into the region for long term impact.

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> Posted by Jayshree Venkatesan, Financial Inclusion Consultant

On November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister of India made an announcement that notes of denominations Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 would become illegal tender overnight in a move that was termed demonetization. In turn, the government would issue a note valued at Rs. 2000, which would replace the notes taken out of circulation. According to the RBI’s most recent annual report, the total currency in circulation in India was INR 16634.63 billion (~USD 256 billion). The withdrawn notes constituted nearly 85 percent of this currency.

Phasing out old notes and replacing them with new ones is a standard practice followed by central banks globally. In the Indian context, however, there were two factors that contributed to this standard practice resulting in chaos and an economic shock on the poor.

The first was the short span of time given to react. The announcement was made on television after business hours on November 8, and the affected tender was rendered illegal by midnight of the same day. As a result there is enormous pressure on the banking system, and a frenzy of citizens trying to make the necessary adjustments. The second factor was the disproportionately small share of Rs. 2000 notes ready to replace the phased out currency. While the short span of time resulted in an instant shock to several segments of the population that predominantly operate in the cash economy, the limited Rs. 2000 notes translated into a cash crunch that has brought large parts of the economy to a grinding halt.

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> Posted by Center Staff

In its second year, Financial Inclusion Week expanded its reach and once again displayed how the financial inclusion community is engaged and working for better services for the un- and underserved.

We are excited to share an electronic magazine which captures the Week’s vibrant conversation.  In this roundup e-zine, we hope to capture the energy and insights of Financial Inclusion Week 2016. Inside, we share event photos and videos, and dive into the conversations of the week’s events, while highlighting the client perspective.

We are excited to share insights on this year’s theme, keeping clients first in a digital world. The Financial Inclusion Week conversation covered a breadth of topics and geographies – from the role of digital media in financial literacy in Nepal to the client protection risks associated with nano-loans in Rwanda. As we listened to the many conversations, two words showed up again and again. Throughout all of the perspectives shared, we observed that many stakeholders are looking to new digital channels to help them understand and engage clients.

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> Posted by Misha Sharma, Project Manager, IFMR LEAD

Last week was a rather challenging one for the Indian economy. On November 8, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a dramatic demonetization exercise that rendered all Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes void starting November 9, with the objective of curbing black money, corruption, counterfeit notes, and the financing of terrorism – all of which has leveraged these larger currency notes (with values equivalent to about US$7.50 and $15.00).

The next morning saw newspapers flooded with advertisements by e-wallet companies thanking the Indian Government for its visionary move and congratulating the Prime Minister on “taking the boldest decision in the financial history of Independent India.” They even claimed Indians to be the biggest beneficiaries in this exercise, indicating this was a positive step towards solving the problem of financial inclusion and encouraging more and more people to transition to the digital world. Several banks printed front page advertisements praising this move as progress towards a cashless India. A full-fledged commercial bank endorsed the move with the tag line –Who says you need cash to get by in life?

All I could think while reading these advertisements and endorsements is that we couldn’t be any more oblivious, as we are forgetting the plight of those who remain excluded from the formal economy.

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> Posted by Daniel Balson, Lead Specialist for Eurasia and MENA, the Smart Campaign

This is the fourth and final blog entry in a series exploring how financial services can be leveraged to assist refugee populations. This entry will consider the future of refugee financial services and what our sector can do to ensure that the future is an inclusive one that serves genuine needs and protects refugee rights.

Syrian refugees shop at a market with their bank card given by the Turkish Red Crescent.

It is worth asking whether the financial inclusion sector is at the forefront of the movement to financially include refugees. The humanitarian sector has long struggled to determine how to provide assistance during a crisis in a way that is sustainable, effective, and accountable. Recently, humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have begun considering whether it’s possible to use payments as an on-ramp for financial inclusion of refugees. Cash transfers have historically facilitated corruption and failed to make it into the hands of the people who needed it most. In-kind donations of goods such as tents, food, sleeping material and other items undermined local merchants who made their livelihoods selling these very goods. In response, the sector has begun experimenting with digital financial payments. In Afghanistan, for example, the World Food Program (WFP) has issued e-vouchers and mobile money to cover food aid. The first e-voucher pilot was carried out on a small user base of 603 recipients in Kabul for a three-month disbursement cycle from April to June 2014. The total value of e-vouchers disbursed was US$72,360. The program proved successful and the WFP launched several follow-on pilots across the country in the subsequent year.

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> Posted by Ellen Metzger, CFI

Community savings groups are at the heart of successful rural banking

Before joining the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, I spent four years in rural East Africa managing an ultra-poor graduation program. At Village Enterprise, we focused on savings group creation and distributed conditional cash transfers rather than livestock (as is customary with graduation programs) in order to empower choice and facilitate ownership among our participants. Over years of traveling the bumpy back roads of Uganda and Western Kenya meeting with hundreds of savings group members, I met very few participants who went beyond their local savings groups to take loans from financial institutions such as MFIs. Those few who did created great success stories. In light of the recent article “Your Inflexible Friend” in The Economist, which offers a review of microlending’s history, I reflect on why we don’t see microlending in the rural areas of Uganda and Western Kenya and how that can change.

A good reputation is critical. In these areas, tragic stories of delinquencies and defaults travel faster and are remembered longer than stories of success. In Kenya especially, where there is more competition in rural areas among financial institutions than in Uganda, reputation precedes the products and services. These reputations can vary dramatically every 5 kilometers you travel. When groups are asked about being linked to a particular financial institution, one community will trust the organization, the next community a few kilometers away will cringe at the name. Microfinance institutions are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in trust, so it’s imperative for them to design trustworthy products and ensure adequate follow-through on their services every time.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

The Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion announced today a $4.4 million, three-year partnership with The MasterCard Foundation to tackle the challenges facing consumer finance in an increasingly digital world. As a reader of this blog, you’re almost certainly familiar with the work of the Smart Campaign. The Smart Campaign is a global campaign committed to embedding client protection practices into the institutional culture and operations of the financial inclusion sector. Since 2009, we’ve worked globally to create an environment in which financial services are delivered safely and responsibly to low-income clients. The partnership marks a shift in strategy for the Smart Campaign, as well as a deepening of its footprint in Sub-Saharan Africa.

To date, the Smart Campaign’s flagship certification program has certified over 68 financial institutions, serving 35 million clients worldwide. Recent certifications include Opportunity International Colombia, ENLACE in El Salvador, and BRAC Bangladesh, part of the world’s largest anti-poverty organization.

Under the partnership, the Smart Certification program will continue. But with support from The MasterCard Foundation, the Smart Campaign will increase its focus on convening a broader range of players in the financial services field—including regulators, industry associations and financial technology firms—to take on client protection issues emerging from new technologies, to elevate the voice of the clients they serve and to effect change at the national level.

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> Posted by Center Staff

The 2017 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 April 17 – 21, 2017 at the HBS campus in Boston, Massachusetts.

The 2017 HBS-Accion Program builds on 11 successful years and over 700 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.

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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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.