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> Posted by Todd A. Watkins, Paul DiLeo, Anna Kanze, and Ira Lieberman

Fintech is a shiny attractor for impact investors. Emerging financial technologies shimmer with disruptive potential for the delivery of a wide array of financial, educational, health, and social services for the poor. While microfinance still makes up a major share of impact investing portfolios, many investors appear to have moved on to fintech, the next wave of creative destruction. Rather than be toppled by it, microfinance institutions (MFIs) look to ride that wave too, to extend reach, reduce costs and prices, improve and deepen client services, and improve risk management.

Fintech, whether new digital services or proprietary software used to evaluate and underwrite credit, brings glittery potential for MFIs, no question. But in fairy tales unicorns glitter too. Are MFIs chasing something equally illusory? Microfinance has decades of success growing and strengthening a high-touch business model. As growth slows, should MFIs now abandon that approach and use high-tech to go low-touch for cost efficiency? If MFIs stay their course, will they be overtaken by new entrants with new models, like Chinese online peer-to-peer lender Yirendai, which went IPO on the New York Stock Exchange last year? Or instead, will MFIs find innovative high-tech ways to further leverage their deep relationships with clients and understanding of client needs?

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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Director, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Ant Financial, the Chinese inclusive finance powerhouse founded by Alibaba Group, and Euronet Worldwide, a U.S. giant in the money transfer game, are in a bidding war over MoneyGram. Financially, this makes sense as the global remittance market is estimated at about US$600B and MoneyGram commands a market share of roughly 13 percent of the world’s largest remittance route, from the U.S. to Mexico.

When two large companies compete to acquire another large company you might hear about it on CNN Money and promptly move on to other thoughts. But this particular news struck me because it touches on three of the (many) insights about the future of financial inclusion that I took away from attending this year’s Harvard Business School – Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance just last month.

Big players will increasingly drive the financial inclusion sector moving forward while, in the past, only small companies served the financial needs of the low end market. Microfinance has shown the poor to be a commercially viable customer segment, and as competition heats up, many big financial players are looking for ways to better tap into the commercial potential of new clients at the base of the pyramid. These big players have the deep pockets to innovate, experiment, and take the risks required to figure out how best to serve the billions of people still financially excluded. In addition to Alibaba’s Ant Financial, China’s WeChat, the social messaging app which connects over 800 million people, now allows for money transfers.

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> Posted by Ira W. Lieberman, Todd A. Watkins, and Anna Kanze

We’ve identified the problem: Microfinance is no longer sexy. It’s old news. It can’t deliver “impact,” and its effect on alleviating poverty was oversold and has underwhelmed. It’s well and good to offer working capital loans, but at the end of the day, the poor need education, health care, water for drinking and irrigation, roofs, and electricity together with a wide variety of financial services. It’s time for investors seeking real innovation to move on to the next big thing that will transform the lives of poor people and save our planet. Never mind microfinance’s decades-long track record of listening to the poor and underserved clients and effectively developing products and services based on their needs.

Of course, we issue these statements with considerable sarcasm. But, all joking aside, industry trends and shifting sentiments are presenting investors with a real question: Should they abandon the reliable and successful platforms and infrastructure that microfinance institutions (MFIs) have built? In turn, MFIs are saddled with the question of whether to stick to what they know best, or instead, to use their platforms to deliver expanded product offerings that increase access to other essential services.

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> Posted by Paul DiLeo, Todd A. Watkins, and Anna Kanze

Discussion of impact investing has grown increasingly heated. There’s a conference nearly every week. Several weekly clipping services­—even a daily one—share news of the latest investments and conversions: 100% for impact! New benchmarks! New sectors! Perpetual motion! What fuel is creating this heat? The cold conviction that someday soon, all investing will be impact investing!

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe worried about losing its gravitational pull, a debate waxes and wanes over whether microfinance should be disqualified as an impact investment, either because its subsidized, non-profit origins magnetically repel VCs or because randomized controlled trials find that the average benefit to clients of microcredit is modest.

Which is ironic, because microfinance and its sister star, financial inclusion, remain the largest impact sectors in annual investor surveys.

This hyperactivity and incoherence can only mean one thing: the term “impact investing” has achieved its financial industry apotheosis: it means whatever we need it to mean. It’s a gaseous cloud that shapeshifts depending on who’s looking.

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> Posted by Paul DiLeo, Todd A. Watkins, and Anna Kanze

Most foundations and development finance institutions have moved on from microfinance, in search of the leading edge of innovation and impact. They have concluded that their work is done now that leading microfinance institutions (MFIs) have definitively cracked the capital markets with healthy balance sheets and two large, heavily oversubscribed Indian IPOs just in the last year. Meanwhile, impact investors, particularly in the U.S., are divided on whether microfinance is, or ever was, an impact investment. In any case, they prefer to focus their attention on new “disruptive” business models. In impact industry publications, conferences and even terminology, microfinance is dead; yesterday’s solution at best.

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> Posted by Miranda Beshara, Arabic Microfinance Gateway

Alex Silva, Executive Director, Calmeadow

Governance is a business imperative, and investors are willing to pay a premium for effective corporate governance. This was one of the key takeaways from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Governance and Strategic Leadership Seminar, held recently in Amman, Jordan. We’ve seen this stated priority of governance in the MENA microfinance market exhibited elsewhere, too. A joint IFC-Sanabel report assessing the top perceived risks facing the microfinance industry in the Arab world uncovered that the market’s stakeholders viewed weak corporate governance structures as one of the more threatening risks out of roughly 30 risk categories. Financial service providers in particular perceive this risk to be rising.

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> Posted by Allyse McGrath, Specialist, CFI 

Join us in accelerating financial inclusion conversations globally!

We are excited to announce the third annual Financial Inclusion Week, an initiative to drive the global conversation around financial inclusion. In 2015 and 2016, over 70 partner organizations brought together thousands of people worldwide to discuss the most pressing actions needed to advance financial inclusion globally. In 2017, from October 30 to November 3, we will continue the conversations from last year and engage an even wider community of stakeholders to explore this year’s theme: New Products, New Partnerships, New Potential.

Around the world, digital channels are revolutionizing the way that customers access financial products and transforming the landscape of the financial inclusion industry. Financial service providers are harnessing an array of new technologies, data, and schools of thought to re-configure their products and how they offer them. New providers, including fintech startups, are entering the inclusive finance fold and legacy providers are increasingly partnering with them to expand service offerings and reach previously under-served customer segments. These new products and new partnerships bring great potential for creating a more inclusive global financial ecosystem. However, they may also bring new problems – such as issues surrounding data security, transparency on mobile platforms, and discrimination in alternative credit scoring. During Financial Inclusion Week 2017, partner organizations around the globe will hold conversations focused on how new products and partnerships are advancing financial inclusion.

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> Posted by Virginia Moore, Communications Director, CFI

Last week, the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) participated in LendIt USA, an annual conference that brings together leaders and startups in fintech, lending, and venture capital to discuss trends, innovations, and the future of the industry.

So, what were we doing there? We attended to help introduce what we do to this audience of over 5,000 people, partnering with LendIt organizers to launch its very first financial inclusion track. CFI managing director Elisabeth Rhyne spoke on a panel about responsible credit along with representatives from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Marketplace Lending Association, LendStreet, and AEO. Championing the Smart Campaign and consumer protections, Beth brought a global perspective on what responsible credit looks like in practice. She also debated the elephant in the room—or as she put it, “the dead cat on the table:” interest rates. Our director of research Sonja Kelly also moderated a lively session on how smartphones in emerging markets are expanding access to credit with executives from Branch, Cignifi, Juvo, and PayJoy. We’ll have more on these sessions soon.

It was exciting and satisfying to see so much interest in financial inclusion from conference attendees who may not readily know the definition of financial inclusion, appreciate its value, or recognize how they’re contributing to it.

What Is the Value of Financial Inclusion to Fintech and Investor Communities?

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

(click to enlarge)

This week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Verizon announced that it’s unveiling new 5G wireless connectivity for its mobile customers. More “G”s are not a surprising announcement, as mobile networks strut their speed at this annual event like body builders at a weightlifting competition. For those unfamiliar with what exactly 5G means, the network will provide speeds of a gigabit per second and faster, but only in a select group of cities in high income economies.

As we celebrate global innovation, we can also take a moment to highlight those who continue to have limited to no connectivity—with implications for global development. While 5G revs up, an astounding number of people are left out of mobile connectivity and therefore mobile money—even in countries known for their digital financial services uptake.

Our CFI Fellow Leon Perlman examines this phenomenon in his upcoming report. As a sneak preview, in his report Leon shows connectivity maps in a select group of emerging markets, such as the one above. Take this example of Tanzania, a market with growing mobile money usage. In this market, mobile network coverage misses large swaths of rural areas toward the center of the country. Certainly, those areas have lower population densities than other areas, but they are home to many people. The mobile financial services ecosystem depends on connectivity infrastructure that provides reliable and sufficiently high-speed data transmission. Lacking that, people in rural areas are left out in large numbers. In the map above, the blue splotches indicate mobile network coverage, and the dots are where mobile money agents are located.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Time flies. It’s hard to believe that the Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) program will soon begin its fifth cohort of fellows. Over the past few years and four cohorts, the ABF program has included more than 125 CEOs and board members from over 40 financial inclusion institutions across 35 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. If you’re an inclusive finance leader in sub-Saharan Africa, now’s your chance to join the governance and strategic leadership program. Applications are now open for the fifth cohort.

ABF recently held two seminars in Cape Town, welcoming the fourth cohort of fellows and graduating the third cohort. With new case studies on disruptive technologies, and an emphasis on interactive role plays and simulations, the seminars proved once again that peer-to-peer exchanges are an effective way to examine best and worst governance practices. To hear the fellows’ takeaways from the two seminars, watch our new video above.

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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.