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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 Carmen Paraison, Project Associate, the Smart Campaign

The views expressed in this post don’t necessarily reflect those of CFI.

The Development Bank of Nigeria (DBN) was conceived in 2014 and this year it has come into fruition with the green light from the Federal Executive Council on April 5th. The only step standing in the way of disbursement of funds is the required approval from the National Assembly. With $1.3 billion in its coffers, the new development bank aims to spur economic development by increasing access to finance for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) through relatively lower interest rates compared to commercial banks, and relatively longer loan repayment periods.

The DBN will serve as a wholesale bank to microfinance banks (MfBs) which will in turn provide medium and long-term loans to MSMEs. It will provide loans to all sectors of the economy including manufacturing, the services sector, and other industries not currently served by existing development banks, thereby filling an important gap in the provision of finance to MSMEs.

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> Posted by Sabine Spohn, Senior Investment Specialist, Private Sector Operations Department, Asian Development Bank

The following post was originally published on the Asian Development Bank blog.

In late 2016, many presumed Indian microfinance institutions would be adversely affected by India’s sudden demonetization law. Surprisingly, events unfolded quite differently to expectations.

On November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the withdrawal from circulation of all Rs500 and Rs1,000 bank notes in a bid to combat black money and curtail the use of counterfeit cash. The objective was also to slowly introduce the country’s population to a digital economy. The action was driven by good intentions, although it initially caused many disruptions in the economy.

In India, where ADB’s Private Sector Operations Department has been carrying out the Microfinance Risk Participation and Guarantee Program since 2012, many of our partner microfinance institutions temporarily stopped lending to low-income people as they were not clear how those loans would get repaid – in particular in rural areas. In the first few days and weeks, collection rates dropped to as little as 10-20 percent.

Five months after demonetization, the uncertainty has started to fade.

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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 Robert Stone, Project Director, Savings at the Frontier

In his excellent debunking of the myth that technology solves everything, Geek Heresy, Kentaro Toyama argues that “technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces… Even in a world of abundant technology, there is no social change without change in people.” That means a change in their capabilities, in the broadest sense, as defined by Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher. In Sen’s work, especially in The Idea of Justice, he argues that justice requires people to have the freedom to do what they would choose to do if they could, if they had the capability to choose.

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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 Tanvir Rahman Dhaly and Panuel Rozario Prince, BRAC

The market for microinsurance in Bangladesh has been growing rapidly over the last 10 years, with over 25 million subscribers. Yet it is still met with skepticism among many poor microfinance clients. As of this January, BRAC, in partnership with Guardian Life Insurance Company, joined the market making its Credit Shield Insurance product available nationwide to a further 5 million of its clients across the country.

Its first microinsurance product, BRAC initially started piloting Credit Shield Insurance in November 2014. After years of testing, we finally have a solution that is simple, accessible, affordable and, unlike most other microinsurance products on the market, voluntary for our clients and their families, while being sustainable for the institution.

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> Posted by Elissa McCarter-LaBorde, CEO, Vitas Group

Alex Silva and Jeffrey Riecke’s recent blog post entitled “What’s ‘Responsible’ about Impact Investing Exits?” hits squarely on the head a critical issue facing our industry. But it doesn’t go far enough. They ask “What if responsible investors sell their stake to an investor that doesn’t place priority on the social mission?” They argue for investors to take a “pragmatic” course and find “a buyer in the middle,” meaning something in between the “high-priced but questionable offer” and the “capital-starved social investors.” This left me wondering, who exactly is in the middle?

In the past, the NGO founders of what are today profitable microfinance banks were expected to be the keepers of a social mission, if not through ownership then through some form of continuing sponsorship or governance role. Compared to five years ago, today we see term sheets that force NGO shareholders out in the name of successful exits. In fact, even the large open-ended funds, presumably more socially-responsible leaning ones, and the development finance institutions (DFIs) that technically don’t require tighter exits of 5-7 years, are coming with term sheets that require a put option (an option contract giving the owner the right to sell assets at an agreed price) in 5-7 years back to the NGO founder or the company, or that include a drag-along right that forces a majority sale to a future “strategic buyer.” In other words, if the minority investor finds a strategic buyer who wishes to buy a majority stake or to acquire the whole company, the investor can drag other shares along to constitute a majority sale.

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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.