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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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> Posted by Center Staff

The 2017 Harvard Business School – Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance is now accepting applications for what will be another exceptional week of learning and exchange among world leaders in financial inclusion. The program will take place April 17 – 21, 2017 at the HBS campus in Boston, Massachusetts.

The 2017 HBS-Accion Program builds on 11 successful years and over 700 alumni – CEOs, presidents, executive directors, and other high-level professionals – from roughly 100 countries.

Today’s landscape of financial services for the base of the pyramid is increasingly complex, with a diversity of products, providers, and support organizations extending services to previously excluded populations. Disruptive technologies and new ways of doing business are creating new possibilities for reaching more people with more types of services. It’s an exciting time for financial inclusion, though for leaders steering their organizations through this landscape, the pace and magnitude of change may look overwhelming.

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> Posted by Steve Hollingworth and Kathleen Stack

Grameen Foundation and Freedom from Hunger are proud to announce that we have joined forces to form a single unified organization.

Under the banner of Grameen Foundation, our mission is to enable the poor, especially women, to create a world without hunger and poverty.

This is more than mere words. It is an unflagging commitment to focus our resources and combined expertise on charting new paths out of poverty with programs that expand financial inclusion, enhance health, strengthen resilience and improve livelihoods for the world’s poorest people.

Through combining the programs, expertise and talent of Grameen Foundation and Freedom from Hunger we will further broaden and deepen our impact, and build a whole that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Both organizations have roots in the earliest movements for microfinance, and today conduct programs that tackle poverty and hunger from multiple directions.

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> Posted by Masrura Oishi, Tanjilut Tasnuba, and Isabel Whisson, BRAC

The following post was originally published on NextBillion.

It is part of Financial Inclusion Week, a week of global conversation on advancing financial inclusion. This year’s theme is keeping clients first in a digital world. Throughout the week participants will share their thoughts in events and webinars, on social media, and through blog posts. Add your voice to the conversation using #FinclusionWeek.

The integration of mobile money into microfinance operations is one of the most exciting yet challenging prospects facing microfinance providers today. Mobile money presents a fast, cost-efficient and flexible alternative delivery channel through which money can be transferred, loans can be repaid and savings can be deposited. Yet, globally, active usage of mobile money on a 90-day basis remains low, at around 33 percent.

BRAC has been gradually integrating mobile money into its microfinance operations since 2011. Among many of its microfinance clients, who are predominantly poor rural women, the prospect of transacting with money via mobile phone instead of cash at first seems suspicious and daunting. In seeking to promote responsible, confident and active use of its financial services, BRAC has introduced a number of initiatives. These have included investing heavily in client protection, customer service and financial education and developing mobile money use cases that made sense to the average microfinance client, such as using mobile money to pay deposits into monthly savings schemes.

As part of Financial Inclusion Week, which this year puts the spotlight on keeping clients first in a digital world, we spoke to one of BRAC’s clients about her experience using mobile money in microfinance. A client for more than 10 years, Maloti Rani Das has witnessed several key changes that have in turn changed her experience and view of microfinance. In a brief one-on-one interview, she took us through her journey with BRAC, from why she borrowed her first loan, her feelings when she first started using mobile money, and what has helped her become a confident user.

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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Lead, Africa Partnerships and Programs, the Smart Campaign

Almost two years ago, the Smart Campaign surveyed financial service providers in Uganda as part of our study, What Happens to Microfinance Clients Who Default (WHTCWD). In summarizing what they described, we did not mince words, reporting the environment as “Hobbesian” at the time. Providers in Uganda described default as a major issue of concern for them. Borrowers in arrears would skip town or change their name, behaviors enabled by the lack of government IDs and credit bureaus.

MFIs often adjusted for these thin credit envelopes and their high distrust of clients by meting out harsh, inflexible punishments on an immediate basis to those who missed a repayment. For instance, providers, suspecting customers of being at flight risk often seized collateral immediately after missed payments in ways that contrasted sharply with the Client Protection Standards and best practices guidance. Some providers explained that they had to act quickly because borrowers have multiple loans and if they didn’t seize the collateral quickly, another lender would swoop in, leaving them with nothing. Unfortunately, all of this was occurring in an environment of weak due process and slow legal enforcement, and we heard about instances where lenders were paying off local law enforcement, turning to local councils to pressure defaulters, and even getting clients thrown in jail.

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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.