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> Posted by Hannah Sherman, Project Associate, CFI

South Africa’s largest mobile phone operator, Vodacom, announced last month that it will stop offering its mobile-banking product M-Pesa in the country at the end of June. M-Pesa is sustained by large numbers of users but, given the widespread presence of banking services throughout South Africa, fewer customers are taking up the service than in other African markets.

“The business sustainability of M-Pesa is predicated on achieving a critical mass of users. Based on our revised projections and high levels of financial inclusion in SA there is little prospect of the M-Pesa product achieving this in its current format in the mid-term,” CEO Shameel Joosub said in Vodacom’s statement.

M-Pesa, which is a runaway success in Kenya, its flagship country, had more than 25 million customers across 11 countries at the end of March, a 27 percent increase over the previous year.

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> Posted by Hannah Sherman, Project Associate, CFI

To create sustainable impact in the financial inclusion landscapes of emerging markets, providers must engage, train, and/or learn from vast networks of customers. Prospective customers must develop the skills to effectively use financial products. Doing this well is both difficult and expensive. Arifu, based in Kenya, attempts to minimize this challenge by bringing together providers and consumers in a cheap, efficient way. Arifu is a new kind of platform that provides customer capability-building through mobile technology. Arifu tests, refines, and hosts content developed by various educational organizations via SMS on mobile phones. Arifu’s business model is designed with scalability in mind, and it claims that it can be 90 percent cheaper than conventional customer outreach programs.

Arifu’s digital learning experts work with providers to design and develop behaviorally-informed training, advertising, and data collection programs. Department-level financial accounts, budget controls, custom alerts, and cost-benefit analytics help organizations minimize, measure, and justify their programs down to each interaction.

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> Posted by Lizzy Bolze, CFI Analyst

Africa Board Fellows at the HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance. Pictured left to right: Felix Achibiri, Fortis Microfinance Bank, Nigeria; Titos Macie, Socremo, Mozambique; Elijah Chol, South Sudan Microfinance Development Facility; Charles Njuguna, Faulu Microfinance Bank, Kenya

It seems almost commonplace for financial institutions across sub-Saharan Africa to be confronted with currency devaluation, interest rate caps, political conflicts, increasing capital requirements, and disruptive technologies – not to mention the impact of wars, disease, climate change, and natural disasters. With all these complications and risks, I am left to wonder how can boards of financial institutions in Africa focus on anything other than constantly extinguishing crises?

In March, alumni of the Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) attended the HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance. During the weeklong executive education program, CFI staff had the opportunity to sit down with the four fellows pictured above to discuss some of the challenges they are facing.

A common challenge was the hardship caused by currency devaluations. MFIs often receive loans in U.S. dollars, and so as the value of local currency diminishes, squaring their balance sheets becomes increasingly tough. Elijah Chol of South Sudan reported that the Minister for Finance and Economic Planning announced a 500 percent devaluation of the South Sudanese Pound last December. At the South Sudan Microfinance Development Facility’s annual meeting a day later, the board was unable to take immediate action because the devaluation was so unexpected. Though prices in South Sudan’s market have since improved slightly, the impact of such extreme devaluation has posed great challenges across the microfinance sector.

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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 Rafe Mazer, Financial Sector Specialist, CGAP

CGAP recently launched a Mystery Shopping Technical Guide, based on our experiences sending lower-income consumers to seek financial products in markets as diverse as Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines.

The method of training actual consumers to conduct mystery shopping has proven helpful to understand the challenges they face in achieving financial access and receiving quality product advice. In several markets we found that sales staff often restrict information on fees and charges and do not provide consumers with the lowest cost product option that matches their needs. For example, in Mexico and Peru we saw sales staff who neglected to offer low-fee savings products available at their institution, while in Ghana sales staff never mentioned the APR of a loan, as they are required by law to do. In Malaysia, insurance sales staff did not use the mandatory Customer Fact Find Form which helps assess customers’ needs and product suitability.

These findings are not surprising to those who study client protection and financial advice, and studies in markets such as the U.S. and India have found similar issues with sales staff. All of this raises a fairly important question of “Can we fix financial advice from frontline bank staff?” Or is the incentive to mis-sell too great and monitoring a sufficient number of individual sales practices too burdensome? This is a discussion I have had with regulators. How do you use policy to drive behavior change in a market? The short answer is that it’s not easy; the long answer is that behaviorally-informed policies, product regulation, and market monitoring tools can help.

But what about the committed leadership of organizations that have signed on to the Smart Campaign (which include providers we have visited during these mystery shopping exercises)? If mystery shopping shows that sales staff do not always keep the customer’s best interests in mind, can we fix this with provider or industry-level changes in sales practices or perhaps through sales staff training? I would like to take advantage of this forum to hear from providers who have implemented policies to fix sales staff misconduct so we can start to document good practices for monitoring sales staff behavior. To help kick things off, here are a few ideas from my side, based on our mystery shopping work:

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> Posted by Carol Caruso, Senior Vice President, Channels & Technology, Accion

Providing micro financial services is often a costly endeavor. As practiced in most places today, it involves many manual processes which limit the potential for scaling up and expose vulnerability to poor service, errors, and fraud. Furthermore, as telco operators and fintech companies bring services to customers through new distribution mechanisms, microfinance banks (MFBs) need to explore innovative ways to competitively deliver their services. Hence, it is promising to see a rise in the use of tablets, smartphones, and other devices housing applications that digitize field operations. Digital field applications (DFAs) offer MFBs a way to take advantage of technology to solve some of these challenges. Globally MFBs have deployed DFAs in a wide variety of ways. For example, loan officers equipped with DFAs can process loan applications and answer client inquiries in the field, eliminating paper forms, digitizing data, and saving time and money for organizations and their clients. Bringing financial services out to clients can achieve a much-needed personal touch and can even increase the richness of the client interaction. For example, client education and consumer protection awareness can be more effective when digital messages are delivered by a field staff member. DFAs can also improve credit operations. When assessing loan applications and risks, field officers can operate more efficiently if digitally equipped.

In order for MFBs to successfully leverage these tools, both for their and their clients’ benefit, they must understand their business case, and incorporate best practices for implementation that have been derived from lessons learned by others. There is no shortage of pilots that have been halted due to challenges arising from lack of experience and understanding – despite hardware availability or subsidies.

With this in mind, Accion’s Channels & Technology group have published a case study aiming to provide some clarity on the impact of DFA use by examining the business case, implementation process, and effects for three MFBs: Ujjivan Financial Services in India, Musoni Kenya, and Opportunity Bank Serbia (OBS). Our case study presents a consolidated review of the findings from the three MFBs, with an accompanying Excel-based business case toolkit, available for MFBs to examine the potential impact a DFA might have on their business. Individual cases presenting the findings from each institution are also available – here, here, and here.

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> Posted by Center Staff

This week the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and MasterCard forged a new partnership to develop inclusive financial systems to support small-scale farmers and lower-income families. The team’s first effort focuses on the Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya, a settlement home to roughly 170,000 refugees who have fled wars and violence in neighboring countries.

The partnership seeks to harness the duo’s respective strengths: FAO in fighting hunger and malnutrition among the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach, and MasterCard in expanding financial inclusion through digital services. Their initiatives will center on, among other elements, providing credit and cash to households in economically-marginalized communities for the purchase of basic needs and farming inputs.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Vice President, Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

“Over a sixth of the world’s population has directly experienced armed conflict, torture, terrorism, sexual and gender-based violence, ethnic cleansing or genocide,” states the website of the Peter C. Alderman Foundation (PCAF). I recently attended the 8th Annual PCAF Pan-African Psychotrauma Conference in Nairobi, a multidisciplinary event that focuses on psychological trauma in Africa’s war-affected societies. PCAF operates mental health clinics in Cambodia, Kenya, Liberia, and Uganda and conducts trainings for mental health professionals. At the conference, I was surrounded by global leaders from health care, academia, and a litany of organizations working in the mental health space.

At first blush, my participation at such an event might seem odd as my work focuses on disability inclusion for microfinance. But, I’d argue that’s more of a reflection of how society, and our industry, views mental disabilities – with reductive biases – rather than how they fit within microfinance.

I had the privilege of presenting a keynote to the attendees. I discussed whether it’s possible for trauma patients who have gone through a successful course of treatment that includes counseling, medication, and livelihood trainings to become clients of microfinance institutions (MFIs) and build small-sized enterprises. Immediately below is an abridged version of my speech, with the complete text linked at the end.

Can MFIs help victims of trauma find hope and dignity through self-employment?

As a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) survivor myself from the U.S., who received treatment, I believe with all my heart that in a just society poor people with mental health challenges should get the help they need so they can flourish as human beings. Unfortunately, in the international development world I come from, this great cause is barely on the radar—in spite of the fact that reaching the most destitute is at the urgent core of all international development work. Indeed, I share your outrage at the paucity of funding and support for community mental health from governments and foundations.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Communications Associate, CFI

The Helix Institute of Digital Finance recently launched the Kenya Country Report 2014 as part of their Agent Network Accelerator (ANA) project. The ANA project is aimed at increasing global understanding of how to build and manage sustainable digital financial services (DFS) networks by conducting large-scale research among DFS agents and issuing training to providers and other stakeholders. In this two-part interview, Dorieke Kuijpers, Research Project Manager at the Helix Institute and co-author of the report, provides insight into the ANA project and the Kenya Country Report. The following is part two. Part one can be found here.

One of the big findings of the survey is that banks’ agents now account for 15 percent of the agent banking market in Kenya – a threefold increase over last year. What are some of the other key developments in the market?

We have identified a number of market developments by comparing the Kenya 2014 survey findings with those of the Kenya 2013 survey. Mobile network operators (MNOs) have led the success in the digital financial services industry in Kenya and historically have been considered better in marketing and distribution than banks, which is not surprising given that many MNOs in East Africa have more clients than banks do. Nearly a decade of development later, we see this changing: banks are now making large investments in the DFS business and they are approaching it in a very different way.

An interesting finding is that although we observe a significant increase in the market presence of bank agents, the products and services they offer are in many ways additive as opposed to competing with those of MNO agents. While MNO agents are still conducting a higher number of transactions (almost twice as many as bank agents), bank agents are offering a greater and more sophisticated array of services, including bill payments, savings, and credits. Also, the median amount transacted among bank agents is roughly 50 percent higher, which means their revenue is now similar to that of MNO agents. This is reflected in the fact that out of the 32 percent of agents that report wanting to open a new till for another provider, the overwhelming majority of agents would like to join a bank’s network, with Equity Bank being the most popular option.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Communications Associate, CFI

The Helix Institute of Digital Finance recently launched the Kenya Country Report 2014 as part of their Agent Network Accelerator (ANA) project. The ANA project is aimed at increasing global understanding of how to build and manage sustainable digital financial services (DFS) networks by conducting large-scale research among DFS agents and issuing training to providers and other stakeholders. In this two-part interview, Dorieke Kuijpers, Research Project Manager at the Helix Institute and co-author of the report, provides insight into the ANA project and the Kenya Country Report. Part two will be published next week.

The new Kenya report focuses on the operational determinants of success in agent network management. By way of background, can you give an overview of these components and tell us about the scope of this survey?

The country report is based on 2,128 mobile money agent interviews carried out in 2014 across Kenya. For the survey, we partnered with Research Solutions Africa (RSA), a research firm that has vast experience working in several African countries. After undergoing an intensive training by MicroSave’s lead researchers, the team of enumerators recruited by RSA conducted the several-thousand interviews with mobile money agents spread throughout the country. The findings of the survey resulted in the Kenya 2014 Country Report as well as five (confidential) reports that present providers with an overview of provider-specific findings.

The questionnaire that we used focuses on five operational determinants of success in agent network management, or pillars, as we call them. Both our country reports and our provider reports are based on these pillars. The first pillar, agent and agency demographics, helps us develop an agent profile at the country level and covers indicators such as the age of an agency and the proportion of dedicated and exclusive agents. Core agency operations is the crux of the research as this pillar looks at the health of an agency—e.g. the products and services offered, the number of daily transactions, the types of transactions conducted, and the average value of transactions. Liquidity management looks at an agent’s liquidity practices and needs and how these affect their daily transaction levels. The pillar quality of provider support analyzes the extent to which service providers support their agents in terms of trainings and refresher trainings, monitoring visits, and availability of call centers. Lastly, business model viability assesses the financial strength of an agent.

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