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Insights from a global seed-stage investor in fintech for the underserved

> Posted by Amee Parbhoo, Director of Investments, Accion Venture Lab

The following post was originally published on the Accion blog.

We’re in the middle of a fintech boom that could change the world. As a seed-stage investor in fintech for the underserved, Accion Venture Lab continues to see innovative startups increasing access to, reducing the cost of, or improving the quality of financial services for underserved individuals and small businesses around the world.

As we kick off a new year, we’re particularly excited about seven areas of startup-led innovation.

Digital neobanks

SmartMEI is a digital neobank serving small businesses in Brazil

In the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of a number of digital neobanks. Neobanks offer a user-friendly digital interface and a platform for financial services without maintaining their own banking licenses. With a focus on user experience and digital applications, neobanks stand to offer faster and better service to the underserved. Moving forward, neobanks will need to provide both a compelling product for a targeted customer segment and a suite of offerings that go beyond basic accounts or credit cards to retain customers and improve unit economics. Innovators in this space include NOW Money, which offers migrant workers in the UAE a platform to more efficiently transfer remittances and access to other products and services over time, and SmartMEI, which offers small businesses in Brazil a free tax tool and access to a broader set of financial services.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

Consolidation and investment in coffee brands is reaching a fever pitch, according to Andrew Daday, Director of Coffee for Stumptown Roasters. Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world, and the modal coffee farmer is a smallholder living near or below the poverty line, resulting in unique value chains in Latin America, East Africa, and Southeast Asia. These value chains are characterized by factors like the commodity coffee markets, agronomics, organization/associations of growers, government coffee marketing institutions, and the state of rural financial services. Specialty coffee is characterized by meeting particular quality standards. Specialty coffee production allows some farmers to escape the vicissitudes of the commodity coffee market and to capture value commensurate with their product’s quality and input costs. In the United States, 55 percent of the 48 billion dollars of coffee retail value consumed falls into the specialty category – representing immense growth in recent decades. If bullishness ratifies the growth prospects for high-end coffee in the U.S. and abroad, it is worth looking into how scaling will manifest at the agricultural end of the value chain, because the relationships coffee farmers have with downstream firms impact their well-being in a number of ways, including via their access to financing.

Agriculture finance for smallholders can be an operationally-intensive, high-risk enterprise. However, financial institutions like the Netherlands’ Rabobank and Mexico’s Banorte express that agricultural credit is especially viable and profitable if “producers are well-integrated into a viable value chain.” Linking into a larger firm’s supply chain is a boon to small business growth in many contexts. Besides serving as a “springboard for growth” for small businesses from increased market access, buyer-supplier linkages yield exposure to key industry information and data points along the value chain that contribute to better capital allocation and financial accessibility for qualified entrepreneurs. Linking with a value chain may also enable a transition from informal lending, which can rely overwhelmingly on local knowledge for underwriting, to the formal financial services sector.

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> Posted by Eric Noggle, Research Director, Microfinance Opportunities

In 2014, Financial Sector Deepening Zambia and Microfinance Opportunities (MFO) began the Zambia Financial Diaries—a 52-week study of the financial lives of 352 low-income Zambians. The study included 92 smallholder farmers—individuals who own small plots of land on which they grew crops or tended livestock for sale and/or subsistence.

The Zambian smallholder farmers represent only a tiny fraction of the estimated 500 million smallholder households worldwide. Smallholder farmers are a large livelihood group and addressing their diverse needs—from crop diversification to market integration—is a strategic priority for the World Bank Group, country-level governments, and non-government organizations.

Understanding smallholder farmers’ income patterns is critical for designing financial services that meet their financial needs. The common perception of farmers’ income patterns is that they are lumpy and linked to agricultural cycles, but the income patterns identified in MFO’s Zambia Financial Diaries challenge this perception.

Income Patterns

The farmers in MFO’s study had lower and more variable incomes than respondents who earned the majority of their income from informal, off-farm sources (“informal workers”). The farmers had 4.3 income sources on average, often relying on casual labor or running informal shops to supplement their agricultural activities, while informal workers had 3.3 sources. Farmers’ average weekly earnings were low—only about $19 per week on average compared to $50 for informal workers (based on June 2015 exchange rates). The farmers also experienced more week-to-week income variation, as measured by the coefficient of variation (COV), than other respondents who work in the informal economy.

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> Posted by Center Staff

This edition of top picks features posts highlighting initiatives to optimize smallholder finance data collection and usage, efforts to improve youth financial capability, and insights on how mobile money services can effectively reach women.

To better provide financing for the 450 million smallholder farmers around the world, there’s a big opportunity in developing shared knowledge bases and coordinated learning agendas for this topic area. A new post on the CGAP blog shares the work of Dalberg Global Development Advisors and the Initiative for Smallholder Finance to ascertain the state of the smallholder financing knowledge base and put in place a number of complementary tools so that those addressing this financing gap can work together, repurpose what others have already learned, and build off of the field’s scarce resources to drive it forward. The post highlights a smallholder impact literature wiki, an interactive map of smallholder finance tools, a framework for data collection that includes a shared learning agenda, and new briefings offering supply and demand side insights as well as indications of where data is lacking.

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, Freedom from Hunger 

In part one of this review, we considered several themes that Roger Thurow raised in the book The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change that might influence how we conduct research and design evaluations to measure changes in poverty. The book follows four Kenyan smallholder families for a year, chronicling how their lives were changing as a result of participating in One Acre Fund’s agriculture training and loan program.

Understanding the decisions these families made about how and where to allocate their very limited resources helps us as financial service practitioners and researchers to understand and appreciate certain realities.

Financial service providers can feel both disappointed and encouraged by this book. We find ourselves uncomfortable reading about Leonida, the Kenyan mother and smallholder farmer who makes a credit payment instead of feeding her family. But we also see opportunity. It’s a difficult trade-off for Leonida, but she sees her credit payment as her ticket to new investment in crops, which have already shown promise after a year of participating in One Acre Fund’s program.

In our earlier discussion, we looked at how we might think differently about evaluating programs. Let’s switch gears to what Thurow encourages us to think about in terms of program design. He highlights two key opportunities that stem from a more client-centered approach to program design.
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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, Freedom from Hunger 

In 2009, Portfolios of the Poor illustrated a rich array of formal and informal financial services and money management practices used by the poor. For this reason, it has become a foundational text for development professionals seeking to address poverty through financial inclusion.

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, by journalist and author Roger Thurow, chronicles the lives of four smallholder farmers in Kenya over a year’s time. His conclusions further enrich our understanding of household financial decision-making processes and tradeoffs made by the poor on a daily basis.

Along the way Thurow describes the critical role that the Kenya-based One Acre Fund plays in improving agricultural knowledge and practices by providing training and credit for agricultural inputs such as seed and fertilizer to families that have one acre of land or less. All four families followed in the book are One Acre Fund program participants.

The Last Hunger Season provides some important lessons for us as financial service practitioners. It helps us re-frame how we view client impact and design impact assessments. Let’s look at a few themes.

Think of “impact” or “change” in poverty in a more comprehensive way. Thurow shares the story of Leonida, a 42-year-old Kenyan mother of seven children. Several times each year, she must choose between feeding her children and paying school fees to keep her oldest son in a boarding school. Hunger is the tradeoff that Leonida accepts because she sees education as the ticket to a better future for her children and her family.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

The 450 million smallholder farmers around the world, who comprise the majority of those living in absolute poverty, have an enormous unmet financing need. Such financing requirements include small loans for inputs like seeds and fertilizer. A few weeks ago, seven leading social lenders, who collectively disbursed $360 million in 2013 toward agriculture financing, joined forces to spur sustainable growth and instill responsible practices in this vital lending area: they formed the Council on Smallholder Agricultural Finance.

Launched at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, the Council is made up of Alterfin, Oikocredit, Rabobank’s Rabo Rural Fund, responsAbility Investments AG, Root Capital, the Shared Interest Society, and Triodos Investment Management. The Council will meet regularly, share experiences and insights, and develop best practices and industry standards across three areas: market growth; responsible lending principles; social and environmental impact.

The Council particularly targets loans to “missing middle” agricultural businesses in low- and middle-income countries. The “missing middle” refers to businesses that require financing in the $25,000 to $2 million range, which are amounts often deemed too large for microfinance and too low for commercial banks. These businesses include producer organizations, companies that source from smallholder farmers, and companies that provide productive assets to smallholder farmers, often on credit. These companies can serve hundreds to thousands of farmers, offering an array of services including market access support, training, financial services, and accessible assets. Though millions of smallholder farmers are connected to these missing middle businesses, the vast majority are not.

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> Posted by Laurence Dare and Stephanie Hanson, East Africa Policy Manager and Director of Policy and Outreach, One Acre Fund

Expanding access to finance isn’t enough. Clients need access to financial products that they will actually adopt. That’s why addressing customer needs, one of the pillars of the Financial Inclusion 2020 Roadmap to Inclusion, is so critical for making finance more inclusive. For smallholder farmers in rural Africa, where inclusion rates are 19 percent compared to the urban rate of 34 percent, the financial services provided don’t come close to meeting the demand. Asset-based financing and loan products with flexible repayment schedules can help close this gap.

Among other financial services, smallholders desperately need access to financing for basic inputs—improved seed and fertilizer—that could dramatically increase their agriculture productivity. Properly designed, this financing could make an important contribution to growth and poverty reduction in Africa.

Unfortunately, microfinance products created for Africa’s poor do not necessarily meet such needs. Most microfinance institutions are concentrated in urban and peri-urban areas and primarily offer cash loan products on strict repayment schedules. These products meet the needs of the urban and suburban poor, most of whom receive small but frequent income from businesses or jobs. Smallholder farmers have different challenges.

Unlike urban clients, smallholder farmers receive the majority of their income all at once after harvesting. As small jobs come in, such as day labor on a neighbor’s farm or a local construction project, farmers can earn some extra income, but this is incremental and unpredictable. A cash loan product on a strict repayment schedule does not meet these financing needs.

How should a loan product be structured to meet the needs of smallholder farmers? At One Acre Fund, we designed a product pairing asset-based financing and a flexible repayment schedule that is working for 180,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

On Thursday NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a new weather and climate satellite that generates a near-global view of precipitation, closing previous large observation gaps. This development has the potential to inform an array of important weather-related activities, including weather index insurance.

The satellite, known as the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellite, uses a radiometer and dual-frequency radar to measure the presence and even the intensity of rain, snow, and ice, to a time window of three hours, across a geographic range of 65 degrees north to 65 degrees south latitude. Data generated by the satellite will be publicly available to anyone around the world.

A Japanese H-IIA rocket launching the GPM satellite from the Tanegashima Space Center in Tanegashima, Japan.

NASA’s predecessor satellite was only able to detect rain, and not to varying intensities. It also covered a more limited geographic area of 35 degrees north to 35 degrees south. The new NASA satellite could prove an invaluable resource for weather-related initiatives like disaster response and relief.

Weather index insurance is well-positioned to benefit from the newly detailed precipitation data. Weather index insurance offers a payout to farmers in the event of extreme weather, such as drought or a hurricane. The financial support helps farmers sustain their families while their source of livelihood, their land, recovers. This safeguard also makes it less risky to take out loans to invest in the productivity of land. The payout is triggered by weather index readings that register as extreme weather. This mechanism yields low transaction costs – a necessity as it rarely is practical for insurance agents to travel to smallholder farmers and verify the weather and land conditions.

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> Posted by Michiel Sallaets, Communications Manager, Incofin Investment Management

Approximately 2.6 billion of the world’s 7.1 billion people live on less than $2 per day, and smallholder farmers are the single largest group of these, with over 600 million people. Despite some progress, the provision of financial services to rural communities, and in particular to individuals whose livelihoods depend on agricultural activities, remains a challenge. Specific risks, such as weather conditions, disease, and variations in market prices create barriers for providing financial services to this group.

Impact investors, local governments, and even local private lenders are working to overcome these challenges, and some successful models have emerged. Yet difficulties remain. The Dalberg study “Catalyzing Smallholder Agricultural Finance” showed that the smallholder demand for financing could be as large as $450 billion (estimate for 2011). In addition, of the financing that is currently provided (estimation of $9.4 billion in 2011), 90 percent is for short-term finance. Thus, only 0.2 percent of smallholders seeking financing for investments in the infrastructure and equipment that can help them achieve higher yields and productivity have their needs for financing met.

Understanding and addressing smallholder financing needs is critical in reducing poverty. Through more than 12 years of supporting rural microfinance institutions in developing countries, Incofin Investment Management has seen this repeatedly. Fairtrade International, a global non-profit working to provide a better deal for farmers and workers, had seen the same problem among its network of more than 1.2 million farmers and workers. In a survey conducted in 2012, Fairtrade farmers in Latin America alone expressed a need for $500 million to invest in infrastructure, working capital to cover purchases like seeds and fertilizer, and bridge financing to cover the period between harvest and receipt of payment from a buyer (trade finance). The survey highlighted the high demand and lack of supply for long-term loans that provide farmers with the opportunity to invest in new technologies and equipment that can lead to improved efficiency and higher yields over a sustained period.

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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.