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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 Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Coinciding with this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, GSMA’s Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU) program released its fourth annual ‘State of the Industry Report on Mobile Financial Services.’ I talked with Jennifer Frydrych, Insights Coordinator for the MMU program and one of the authors on the report, about the project’s findings. The conversation touched on new markets, shifts in the mobile payments mix, successes with products beyond payments, the main hurdles facing mobile money ecosystems, and more.

1. The mobile money industry has grown rapidly in recent years. Can you bring us up to date with some of the growth figures and dynamics?

In the past five years, mobile money services have spread across much of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. At the end of 2014, there were 255 live mobile money services across 89 markets, 36 more than in 2013. Mobile money is now available in 61 percent of developing markets globally. In terms of adoption and usage growth, 75 million additional mobile money accounts were opened globally in 2014, bringing the total number of registered accounts to 299 million. Importantly, account activity increased faster than account registration in 2014, and the total number of active mobile money accounts is now 103 million (up from 73 million in 2013). An increasing number of services are reaching scale: 21 services now have more than one million active accounts.

2. As of the last State of the Industry report, half of all live mobile money deployments were in sub-Saharan Africa. How has this distribution changed? What were some new or emerging markets of the past year?

There were 22 new services launches in 2014, of which half occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. The mobile money industry in sub-Saharan Africa continues to grow, and the region still accounts for just over half of all live services globally, and 60 percent of all active accounts. Much of this success can be attributed to East Africa; however we are now seeing exciting growth in mobile money uptake and active usage in West Africa.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

On Monday, Myanmar launched its first domestic online payment network. The payment platform centers on a partnership between 2C2P, a Southeast Asian payment services company with a history of digital finance work in the country, and Myanmar Payment Union (MPU), the national payment network set-up by the country’s central bank. The new platform allows MPU cardholders, currently 900,000 individuals and counting, to make online purchases in-country. The e-pay advancement is a promising step for financial inclusion in the country, which continues its recovery from economic isolation and military rule.

The Myanmar Payment Union, the country’s only domestic card-based payment system, launched in 2011, encompasses 20 banking partners, including three state-owned banks. In the time since MPU introduced banking cards and ATMs, card adoption has increased, with enormous growth in 2014, from roughly 200,000 cardholders early in the year to the current level of 900,000. With the new online payment system, businesses now need to sign onto the service via one of MPU’s partner banks, which will provide technical support and consultation throughout the process. On both the business and consumer end, achieving the necessary platform traction will require significant awareness building – quelling fundamental questions like: will my payment actually reach the merchant?

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> Posted by Hema Bansal, India Director, the Smart Campaign

As a child growing up in India, I was always intrigued by stories from Myanmar, but disturbed by conflicts that it had witnessed. Not knowing much about the country, as an adult I still had an innate desire to visit. On May 7th and 8th, I attended the Responsible Finance Seminar, organized by Entrepreneurs du Monde (EDM), held in Myanmar’s city of Yangon. I was completely awed by the mystical peace of the city, I was also impressed by the demonstrations of support at the seminar for instilling client protection in Myanmar’s microfinance industry. It’s a great opportunity for a young market to secure responsible practices from its outset.

Myanmar, the second-largest country in Southeast Asia, remains one of its poorest. Decades of isolation have severely affected its development. In terms of financial inclusion, a large proportion of the population in Myanmar relies on informal lenders. The formal sector only serves about 20 percent of the population, largely because of the existing financial institutions’ limited capability.

In May 2011, President Thein Sein publicly recognized microfinance as a means of development by enabling local and foreign investors to establish fully privately-owned MFIs. Since the rationalization of licensing in Myanmar, around 110 MFIs have been registered. Deposit-taking institutions have been allowed to set-up shop rather easily due to low minimum capital requirements and the absence of separate prudential regulations from non-deposit-taking institutions, such as rules pertaining to reporting standards and portfolio quality management.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Assistant, CFI

The World Economic Forum on East Asia was held last week in Myanmar. Following the country’s recent political and economic changes, the forum was Myanmar’s first international meeting that spanned leaders from industry, government, academia, and civil society. The three themes of this year’s gathering were Inspiring Inclusion Transformation, Realizing Regional Integration, and Scaling Regional Solutions for Global Resilience. A few of the forum’s sessions focused directly on financial inclusion. These included Moving from a Cash to a Banked Economy, and From Social Protection to Financial Inclusion. Video recordings of these, as well as all of the forum’s sessions, can be found here.

Myanmar today may be the nearest country in the world to a cash-only economy. Only 10 percent of the population has access to formal financial services, though if this year is any indication, changes to the country’s financial services and economic landscapes are coming, and rapidly.

This past September MasterCard became the first international payments network to issue a license to a Myanmar bank, enabling Co-Operative Bank Ltd. (one of the country’s largest banks) to offer MasterCard-branded cards to its customers. Since September, similar licenses have been issued to four more banks, and the ensuing five bank network of ATMs, currently totaling 140 facilities, now accept MasterCard payment cards. Beyond this new service opportunity for many of Myanmar’s banked, the development allows tourists and business travelers in the country to withdraw local currency using international MasterCard cards. 2012 was a record-breaking tourism year for Myanmar, as over one million visited the country. New point-of-sale merchant terminals for cashless payments are also in the works. With its first MasterCard terminal opening this past September, the payments company is working with in-country banks to roll out upwards of 500 terminals at restaurants, hotels, and other retail outlets by the end of the year.

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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.