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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 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 Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

In recent months several prominent banks in Kenya have collapsed, with Chase Bank (no relation to JPMorgan Chase) most recently placed under receivership by the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) earlier this month. Additionally, this month it was announced that three majority government owned banks will be consolidated, and that voluntary mergers and acquisitions in the banking industry will be encouraged as a way to strengthen institutions. To better understand what this all means, I sat down with John Lwande, Director of the Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) program.  

DP: From your perspective, can you update us on what is happening?

JL: It appears that following an extended audit tussle last month, Chase Bank, which had established itself as the jewel among small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) lenders in the market, and attracted funding from big name international investors, collapsed on the 7th of April. While Chase pushed the blame towards the accounting surrounding the bank’s Islamic banking assets, more serious implications point towards governance problems. To illustrate the severity of these governance issues, for instance, we are told that the bank made a staggeringly large amount of loans to its directors, an average of KES 1.35 billion per director (USD 13.5 million). This is not a routine staff and associate loan. Actually, Chase had a loan program for staff. Its average loan size was KES 1.9 million (USD 19,000). How could an SME bank, a financial inclusion flag bearer, allow its directors to lend tens of millions of dollars to themselves?! In a recent interview, three leading Kenya bank executives decried the lack of governance and fiduciary responsibility of bank directors in the country and called upon auditors to be firm in their opinions to mitigate the risk of bank failures and avoid panic.

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> Posted by Madeleine Dy, Program Specialist, CFI

The Investing in Inclusive Finance program at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion explores the practices of investors in inclusive finance. Across areas including risk, governance, stakeholder alignment, and fund management, this blog series highlights what’s being done to help the industry better utilize private capital to develop financial institutions that incorporate social aims.

“What does he know that I don’t know?” This is exactly the question proponents of peer learning want to provoke. In academia, peer learning has received significant attention and new peer learning communities are sprouting up around the world. From the virtual Peer 2 Peer University, or P2PU, which was founded in 2009, to the Indian non-profit Avanti with its peer Learning Centers in India, to more informal community-driven websites like Skillshare where anyone can teach anyone else about a skill.

The Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI), the Boulder Institute of Microfinance, and Calmeadow Foundation are applying the power of peer learning in our upcoming “Governance Leadership in a Competitive World” seminar in Mexico City on October 3-4, 2013. The seminar asks MFI board members and CEOs to come together to address governance and risk challenges microfinance institutions are facing. The seminar will employ a highly interactive combination of case-based peer discussion, experienced industry speakers, and problem-solving.

Peer learning actually isn’t a new concept. It had its birth around 1916 with education thinker John Dewey’s Constructivist Theory which asserts that knowledge is created through experience, rather than through the usual teacher to student lecture and memorization. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian development guru, took it a step further with his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which critiques traditional teaching frameworks that treat students as empty vessels into which knowledge is deposited. Freire challenged society to ensure that all participants in the classroom, both teachers and students, work together to create knowledge equitably.

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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.