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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Senior Director, the Smart Campaign

The merits and pitfalls of mobile credit continue to be debated hotly in financial inclusion circles. Mobile products are making credit more accessible through branchless banking and alternative underwriting and business models. But experimenting with new ways of lending when your borrowers include those at the base of the pyramid brings steep risks and some models can be downright reckless. Which side of the fence are you on?

The Smart Campaign is seeking to assist the sector to develop a consensus about responsible online credit practice, and the good news is that these questions have recently become top-of-mind for a range of stakeholders. Quona’s Johan Bosini and Positive Planet’s Bezant Chongo gamely volunteered for an Oxford-style debate on whether mobile credit is good for its clients at the 4th Annual Mondato Summit in Johannesburg back in May.

The convenience and ease-of-access of mobile credit products are immensely beneficial to the unbanked, according to Bosini, speaking for the pro side. When juxtaposed to traditional lending products that take, for instance, in Benin, an average of almost 5 weeks to access (involving multiple trips), mobile credit seems supersonic, he emphasized. Using alternative data and analytics, mobile credit unlocks access for individuals without credit history. The reality for the poor, as elucidated by the Financial Diaries and other research, is that incomes fluctuate widely. Now with mobile credit, a person in a pinch can help smooth the inevitable bumps in income with a few clicks on the phone.

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> Posted by Allyse McGrath and Dennis Ferenzy, Analyst at CFI and Associate Economist at IIF

Contrary to popular rhetoric, banks do not view fintechs primarily as competitors. Increasingly, they seek them as partners. This is the message of How Financial Institutions and Fintechs Are Partnering for Inclusion: Lessons from the Frontlinesa new joint report from the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) and the Institute of International Finance (IIF). The report, launched today, finds that banks, insurers and payment companies don’t see fintechs as “little more than pinpricks for a banking mastodon with trillions in assets,” as The Economist colorfully described the fintech-bank relationship in 2015. The relationships between these players are more symbiotic than combative, because fintechs and mainstream financial institutions bring different strengths. With partnerships, fintechs get to scale their technology and access capital, while financial institutions gain assistance to improve product offerings, increase efficiency, and lower costs.

As it turns out, these are all goals with special relevance to low-income customers who look for products and services that are more convenient, less expensive, and higher quality. That makes financial institution-fintech partnerships a crucial strategy for meeting the financial needs of the unbanked and underbanked around the world. During our in-depth interviews with over 30 industry participants, both mainstream financial institutions and fintechs, CFI and IIF identified dozens of effective bank-fintech partnerships working at the base of the pyramid in emerging markets. The report highlights 14 of them.
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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Director, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Where were you in 2006? I was living with friends in a “beach house” in San Diego. Since then, I lived in China, went to grad school, shifted careers, married, and had two kids. So much has changed in my life over the past decade. The same cannot be said on the topic of valuing socially-focused financial institutions.

In 2006, Clay O’Brien wrote the first-of-its-kind paper on “Valuing Microfinance Institutions.” This paper surveyed members of the Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) – which was then called the Council of Microfinance Equity Funds (CMEF) – and concluded that:

  • There was not enough transparency in terms of methodologies and benchmark data;
  • There was a need for a more robust, standardized valuation methodology; and
  • The social value of double-bottom line investments was not accounted for – or was accounted for negatively – in the valuation.

FIEC recently revisited the topic of valuing double-bottom line investments with its valuation working group to better understand how the topic has evolved over the past decade. What was found? Despite changes in the broader industry (new players, adjacent sector investments, etc.), very little has changed in terms of valuing financial inclusion investments. Our findings are compiled in a brief paper, Valuing Microfinance Institutions: Where Are We Now.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

WeBank started piloting facial recognition for KYC (“know your customer”—verifying that a customer is who they say they are) last year—we heard about it when we talked with Jared Shu, a partner with McKinsey, as part of our deep dive about the different ways banks pursue financial inclusion. At that point, the technology was mere possibility, with some question about whether the regulator would allow it. Now, it seems, facial recognition is indeed serving as a form of identity in China. With the help of technology, customers can quite literally authorize a transaction using their face.

Alipay, a mobile payment app launched by Alibaba in 2004 and used by 120 million people in China, is partnering with Face++ (pronounced “face plus plus”) to allow people to use their face as a credential to make payments. The technology is a natural extension of using a fingerprint to verify a person’s identity, and it is far more secure than just comparing a signature on the back of a credit card to a signature on a receipt.

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

In the aftermath of the Panama Papers, the words “offshore” and “tax-haven” are often taboo rhetoric within the investment industry. Perhaps even more so in the impact investing space, where fund managers have both fiduciary and social responsibilities. The Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC; of which CFI is the secretariat) recently published the report Offshore Financial Centers for Financial Inclusion: A Marriage of Convenience to better understand attitudes and practices when it comes to how equity impact investors use offshore financial centers (OFCs). To dive into this topic CFI and consultants Daniel Rozas and Sam Mendelson interviewed FIEC members from the U.S. and Europe. Conversations resulted in varying opinions on the practice of using OFCs, with three key considerations for doing so: administrative efficiency; tax liabilities; and transparency and ethics.

Among all FIEC members interviewed, administrative efficiency was unanimously a primary driver in making the decision about where to domicile funds. Fund managers cited the importance of understanding local regulatory requirements, the presence of embassies, bank relationships, management facilities, remittance corridors, and convenience of location as important considerations in their decision. The reality is many low income offshore countries lack the infrastructure and capacity for supporting the administrative requirements of investments. Additionally, there are increasingly stringent AML/KYC requirements that disproportionately affect lower-income countries creating administrative burdens. The new CFI report states: “…this is at least one of the goals of using OFCs – not to avoid the regulators, but to outsource some of the reporting burden to entities that specialize in this service that have relationships to do it efficiently.”

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Path to Bhutan’s top government offices

Path to Bhutan’s top government offices

In 2014, the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan (RMA), the country’s central bank, made a commitment under the Alliance for Financial Inclusion’s Maya Declaration to develop a national financial inclusion strategy. It backed the overall pledge with specific commitments detailing the main pieces of the strategy. Since then, it has diligently put these pieces into place. Over the past three years, the RMA created regulations for microfinance organizations (deposit-taking and non-deposit taking) and agent banking. It set up a mobile payments system, a credit bureau and a collateral registry. This is an impressive set of accomplishments for a country starting from a relatively blank slate in these areas.

But is it enough? I wonder whether these initiatives will spark the provision of financial services that contribute to the inclusive economic growth Bhutan is seeking.

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

How does a microfinance institution know what transformation will be like from an NGO to a formal financial institution? In an increasingly complex industry with competition from commercial banks and the entrance of fintechs, many microfinance NGOs are considering transformation to realize their growth potential and help attract investment. However, the road to transformation can often be bumpy, as noted in the Center for Financial Inclusion’s publication Aligning Interests: Addressing Management and Stakeholder Incentives During Microfinance Institution Transformations.  Regulatory compliance issues, information technology hurdles, and aligning with the needs of the NGO and investors can often complicate the process. For Enda Tamweel, the largest and oldest microfinance organization in Tunisia, the decision to transform has come with external pressures, operational challenges, and a focus on maintaining their mission. Read the rest of this entry »

> 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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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.