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> Posted by Ram Narayanan, Market Research Analyst, Symbiotics

Microfinance, a lead sector within the larger impact investing spectrum, has gained prominence from development-minded investors over the past decades. Initially, international funding in microfinance was generated largely from donor organizations, including public development agencies and private foundations. As the market gained traction, the role of private capital grew in importance as not only a means for microfinance institutions (MFIs) to reach scale, but also to increase their social outreach beyond what was possible with donor money.

Private investors and donor agencies thus joined efforts in creating microfinance investment vehicles, better known in the industry jargon as “MIVs” or more simply “microfinance funds.” MIVs act as the main link between MFIs and the capital markets and usually provide debt financing, equity financing or a combination of both to MFIs located in emerging and frontier markets.

The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) began to take interest in MIVs in 2003, a time where several of these vehicles saw the light, and before the investment boom which was witnessed by the sector with the announcement of the United Nations “2005 International Year of Microcredit.” However, the industry was still lacking common definitions, terminology and performance standards. In order to bring forward improved transparency on MIVs’ financial and social performances, a first market report on microfinance funds was produced in 2007 by CGAP, in collaboration with Symbiotics. The inaugural MIV benchmarking tool was thus born – based on a market survey containing a common set of definitions and reporting standards – a landmark that set the stage for regular, annual surveys carried out every year since then.

Fast forward 10 years, Symbiotics and CGAP have yet again partnered to develop a new extensive report (white paper) reflecting back on a decade of MIV operations, shedding light on their progress during the period 2006-2015. The recently released white paper co-authored by both organizations and entitled “Microfinance Funds: 10 Years of Research & Practice” carefully details major market trends.

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> Posted by Alex Counts

During my final years as President of Grameen Foundation and Co-Chair of the Microfinance CEO Working Group (MCWG), I advocated that two papers be written that I had neither the time nor the expertise to do justice to myself.

The first paper was a distillation of lessons for practice from recent studies on the impact of microcredit and microfinance. Many papers that set out to determine whether microfinance worked stumbled on important insights about how it could work better. Unfortunately, those discoveries were buried in papers that people barely read beyond summaries and extracts. A paper that presented these “lessons for practice” in a form that was accessible to busy practitioners could make a big impact, by removing friction from the maddeningly difficult process of using research to positively influence policy and practice.

The second paper I advocated for was one that made the case for how philanthropy and social/impact investing, and more broadly, subsidy, could play a positive role in the microfinance industry today. Such a paper would need to start with making the case that such social investments had any role to play, as the conventional wisdom was settling on the idea that it did not have any.

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> Posted by Anna Kanze, Chief Operating Officer, Grassroots Capital Management, and Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

2016 has been dubbed “the year of IPOs” in India: as of September, there had been 21 initial public offerings (IPOs) worth nearly $3 billion, according to Indian news source Livemint. Among these are two high-profile IPOs for microfinance institutions (MFIs): Equitas Financial Holdings and Ujjivan Financial Services. IPOs are seen as the hallmark of commercial success, but in those industries like financial inclusion that are driven by social missions, inevitable questions arise over whether organizations can preserve their double bottom line priorities when they go public. The cases of these two Indian MFIs offer some answers to this increasingly pertinent question.

But before we get to that, let’s look at why these institutions went public in the first place.

Never waste a good crisis, right? In 2010, when the Andhra Pradesh crisis froze microlending in India, regulators and MFIs rose to the occasion and implemented measures that restored confidence in the microfinance industry and helped cement the social mission of microfinance in India. Most notably:

  • Social Standards – In an effort to promote responsible lending, a group of the largest for-profit MFIs in the Indian microfinance sector formed the Microfinance Institutions Network (MFIN). MFIN developed a Code of Conduct by which members commit to client protection, ethics, and transparency, and the group began to “self-police” adherence to responsible lending principles.
  • Credit Bureaus – The members of MFIN also collaborated with High Mark Credit Information Services to form the first credit bureau to track microfinance borrowing in India. All MFIN members contribute data to the microfinance credit bureau.

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> Posted by Isabel Whisson, Deputy Manager, Microfinance Programme and Ultra Poor Graduation Initiative, and Onindita Islam, Management Professional Staff, Microfinance Programme

This year BRAC in Bangladesh became the largest microfinance institution, in terms of number of clients, to be Smart Certified, signifying to our country market and to the industry writ large that we treat our clients with adequate care.

As a non-profit dedicated to poverty reduction, client welfare has been central to BRAC’s mission since its inception in 1972. In Bangladesh in general, almost all microfinance institutions are non-profits, and so microfinance has always been seen as a tool for alleviating poverty in the country.

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

The following post was originally published on the Accion blog. 

Accion client Ma San Htwe selling fish in Myanmar, one of the key areas discussed at European Microfinance Week 2016.

European Microfinance Platform is celebrating 10 years of supporting inclusive finance innovation, and hosted European Microfinance Week 2016 (EMW) in Luxembourg a few weeks ago. At the conference, I joined discussions about key organizations and challenges in the industry. Here are five of the main takeaways from the week:

1. The Underserved Refugee Population

The Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) is helping to provide financial services to the refugee population, which is now approximately 20 million people. In reality we don’t know very much about the socioeconomic needs of refugees, and much of the research is focused on humanitarian efforts. SPTF is working to research and provide guidelines to financial service providers to better serve the financial needs of this population. The guidelines will be published on SPTF’s website in the coming months. Learn more about leading organizations supporting refugees from CFI’s blog series on refugees.

2. Opportunity in Myanmar

Representatives from VisionFund, Advans, UNCDF, and M-CRIL provided a look at the economic landscape of Myanmar and the future of financial inclusion there. In Myanmar, 70 percent of the population was excluded from formal financial services until 2011, when microfinance rapidly expanded. After 2011, 267 licensed Monetary Financial Institutions (MFIs) opened. This opportunity comes with many barriers to inclusion, such as a lack of government regulation and funds and capacity-building issues. However, there is widespread optimism with an adoption of regulations proposed by the Smart Campaign, as well as further demand for microfinance in Myanmar. Investors should consider moving into the region for long term impact.

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> Posted by Hatem Mahbouli, Investment Officer, FMO

If you’re an impact investor, you probably want to do more in “green”. For instance, impact investing in microfinance, which constitutes a large portion of impact investing writ large, rarely incorporates environmental sustainability. You might think, my second bottom line is to help lower-income households get better access to financial services, why don’t I combine this with access to clean energy? Adding the third bottom line for investors targeting the base of the economic pyramid (BoP), unsurprisingly, has its share of issues and challenges. But, as we’re increasingly seeing, the business case for financing clean energy is strengthening.

What is in it for the microfinance institutions (MFIs)? Over the years, many MFIs have started green pilots and haven’t followed through. Why? Because they didn’t see an attractive enough business case. Because the clean energy infrastructure was not there. Because it was not the right time, internally or in the local market. And the list could go on. There are many reasons not to offer clean energy products and instead stick to traditional mainstream loans.

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> Posted by Ellen Metzger, CFI

Community savings groups are at the heart of successful rural banking

Before joining the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, I spent four years in rural East Africa managing an ultra-poor graduation program. At Village Enterprise, we focused on savings group creation and distributed conditional cash transfers rather than livestock (as is customary with graduation programs) in order to empower choice and facilitate ownership among our participants. Over years of traveling the bumpy back roads of Uganda and Western Kenya meeting with hundreds of savings group members, I met very few participants who went beyond their local savings groups to take loans from financial institutions such as MFIs. Those few who did created great success stories. In light of the recent article “Your Inflexible Friend” in The Economist, which offers a review of microlending’s history, I reflect on why we don’t see microlending in the rural areas of Uganda and Western Kenya and how that can change.

A good reputation is critical. In these areas, tragic stories of delinquencies and defaults travel faster and are remembered longer than stories of success. In Kenya especially, where there is more competition in rural areas among financial institutions than in Uganda, reputation precedes the products and services. These reputations can vary dramatically every 5 kilometers you travel. When groups are asked about being linked to a particular financial institution, one community will trust the organization, the next community a few kilometers away will cringe at the name. Microfinance institutions are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in trust, so it’s imperative for them to design trustworthy products and ensure adequate follow-through on their services every time.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Specialist, CFI

In the Delhi area, nearly 2,000 schools experienced multiple-day closures; construction and demolition was halted; almost 10 percent of workers called in sick; the government advised individuals to stay indoors as much as possible; and shops ran out of masks. India’s capital is reportedly experiencing its worst smog pollution in 17 years. This isn’t a mere inconvenience in terms of visibility or quality of life. This is an enormous threat to the health of the nearly 22 million people who live in the Delhi metropolitan area.

Air pollution levels are currently at 30-times the acceptable level set by the World Health Organization (WHO). And in India, air pollution is the leading cause of premature death, with about 620,000 people perishing each year from pollution-related diseases. Globally, among children under five years of age, nearly one million die from pneumonia each year and roughly half of these deaths are directly linked with air pollution.

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> Posted by Center Staff

It has been two weeks since Financial Inclusion Week 2016 came to a close and we are excited to share a new Financial Inclusion Week Recap webpage which captures events, blogs, and insights from this year’s global conversation.

By the numbers, Financial Inclusion Week 2016 was a success. We had over 40 partner organizations in 19 countries hold events focused on the theme of keeping clients first in a digital world. Over 1,200 participants were engaged in these events worldwide. Beyond the in-person and online events, there were vibrant conversations on social media. Twenty-three #FinclusionWeek blog posts were shared by a variety of leaders in the industry and hundreds of tweets were exchanged with the week’s hashtag. We were thrilled by the breadth of the participants this year. Regulators such as the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority, fintech startups such as Artoo, research organizations such as Innovations for Poverty Action, development agencies such as ADA – Appui au Developpement Autonome, MFIs such as BRAC, and many more got involved.

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> Posted by Christy Stickney, Independent Consultant and CFI Fellow

After decades of directing financial services to micro-enterprise owners, many microfinance institutions are finding that some of these enterprises have grown and that they’re now serving an expanding number of small business owners. With increasing global attention being directed to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), it is fitting to look more deeply at what can be learned from entrepreneurs whose businesses started as microenterprises, grew, and can now be classified as SMEs – with a substantial number of employees. More specifically: Who are these entrepreneurs? What kinds of businesses do they operate? What have been their growth patterns and hurdles? And how have they utilized financial services to further their growth aspirations?

These are the questions that guided my research fellowship for the Center for Financial Inclusion. As part of my study I gathered institutional data and conducted in-depth interviews with clients of three leading microfinance institutions in Latin America: MiBanco, Banco ADOPEM, and Banco Solidario. The clients I focused on had all experienced significant loan size growth over several years.

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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.