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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

When most microfinance clients start out they’re first-timers at a formal financial institution. Like anything unfamiliar, a first foray with banks can be intimidating. You don’t want to be duped or make a mistake and lose precious savings. Peace of mind was granted to clients of two microfinance institutions, one in Paraguay and the other in the Dominican Republic recently as the first Smart Certifications in those countries were awarded. Fundacion Paraguaya and Banco ADOPEM were certified as meeting all the standards needed to treat their clients with adequate care. This certification demonstrates to prospective clients as well as investors and other industry stakeholders that their institutions are operating responsibly.

Fundacion Paraguaya and Banco ADOPEM are both market leaders in their own right. Banco ADOPEM is one of the largest microfinance institutions in the Dominican Republic. According to the MIX, 351,000 depositors in the Dominican Republic bank with Banco ADOPEM. When Banco ADOPEM pursues and achieves Smart Certification, that sends a message to MFIs and other stakeholders in the country that client protection is a key priority. In 2014 ADOPEM was named “Most Innovative Microfinance Institution of the Year” by Citi, in part because of ATA-Movil, a portable electronic application that allows credit advisers to assess customers in their businesses or in their homes. The mobile information system also allows for convenient and direct communication with clients.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director, CFI

What are the biggest unanswered questions in financial inclusion? This isn’t rhetorical—we want your opinion.

In preparation for selecting three CFI Fellows for 2016-2017, we are developing a short list of questions whose answers would drive financial inclusion forward.

Our Research Fellows Program is an initiative intended to tackle the biggest questions in financial inclusion—in order for the industry to take action in new areas and in new ways. The current cohort of fellows is finalizing research ranging from big data to small enterprises to technology infrastructure to G2P payments.

The questions we put forward for this next cohort will only be relevant if they are essential to the financial inclusion community. So we’re coming to you (yes, you!) for your input.

To get the conversation started, here are some of the questions on our working list. Let us know below in the comments which you think are compelling, and please take the liberty of adding your own.
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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Lead, Africa Partnerships and Programs, the Smart Campaign

Organizational change doesn’t always start from the top, but if it originates elsewhere, and the change is to last, it’s essential that leadership and management eventually get on board. For years, most of us in financial inclusion have advocated client centricity. If previously unserved client segments are to take up and use products and services for the first time, it’s essential that these products and services meet their needs. But how do institution leaders look at client centricity? I attended the recent Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) seminars in Cape Town, South Africa and joined discussions among financial inclusion CEOs and board members on this topic.

The CEOs and board members participating in the ABF program are from financial service providers offering a range of products and services in countries ranging from Kenya to Burundi to Tunisia and Uganda. On our first day, we discussed client centricity, a trending topic and one of interest to me as a manager of the Smart Campaign. The fellows’ varied experiences and ideas led us to some takeaways:

  • Board members and CEOs see a clear business case for client centricity. Participating leaders viewed actively listening to their clients and mapping customer preferences and journeys as imperative for designing better products, building customer loyalty, fostering referrals, and developing competitive advantages.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Specialist, CFI

Access to credit is essential. But when lenders operate through a business model that overwhelmingly turns small loans (think $500) into insurmountable cycles of debt, they are not providing an essential service and are instead profiteering. Such is the case with the payday loan and related short-term credit markets in the United States. Today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) unveiled new proposed rules designed to improve the practices of these lenders that draw customers into cycles of debt. The aim of the rules isn’t to kill essential access to credit, but to rein-in the payday loan industry’s reliance on having a high percentage of borrowers who are unable to repay their loans and are drawn-in to repeat borrowing at higher rates and with additional fees.

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

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is preparing to issue a Guide to Charges for Banks and Other Financial Institutions for providers in Nigeria, which sets out rules for commissions, charges, and rates on various products and services. It has shared the draft Guide on its website for a period of public review and commentary.

As a campaign that seeks to keep the client at the center, the Smart Campaign is always happy to see provisions in such financial sector guidelines or regulations related to thoughtful transparency and disclosure requirements. We are, however, more cautious when it comes to mandated pricing limits, given the unexpected implications we have seen them bring for clients’ lives. We notice that the CBN file introduces monthly interest rate caps.

This is at odds with the suggested policies in the Model Legal Framework for Financial Consumer Protection, which is based on the Campaign’s seven client protection principles. The Framework’s section on pricing procedures advises supervisory authorities to not set price or interest rate ceilings or floors, but rather to seek long-term solutions related to improving disclosures and facilitating market competition.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

The Smart Campaign is thrilled to announce that a new milestone for client protection in microfinance has been reached: there are now 50 financial institutions that have been awarded Smart Certification, recognizing their commitment to fair client treatment and responsible practices. In total, these institutions serve roughly 25 million clients.

The threshold was crossed with a handful of recent certifications – Fortis Microfinance Bank and Grooming Centre in Nigeria; Banco ADOPEM in the Dominican Republic; Fundacion Paraguaya in Paraguay; Pro Mujer in Nicaragua; and AgroInvest in Serbia. Each of these institutions worked over a several month process to assess and upgrade their operations to meet every one of the indicators signifying strong consumer protection practices.

Grooming Centre and Fortis Microfinance Bank collectively reach over a half million clients. Founded in 2006, Grooming Centre operates in 22 states in Nigeria with a network of 376 branches. Grooming Centre offers a range of financial services, including savings and credit, small business loans, agricultural loans, and clean energy financing. Fortis Microfinance Bank, along with offering financial services, provides clients with business support in areas including management, marketing, and administration.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

thumb_1AD39CA9BC7E44C4A28241B598E34908The following post was originally published on The Guardian.

With 700m new accounts opened between 2011 and 2014, more people than ever have a bank or mobile money account. But many of the new consumers are in poor countries, and people with low incomes are often more vulnerable to abuses when they borrow, save or send money.

The Smart Campaign, a consumer movement, surveyed 4,000 microcredit borrowers in four countries. Their responses were documented in a report, It’s My Turn to Speak.

The study looked at Peru and Georgia, where there is relatively good protection for consumers, and Pakistan and Benin, where protection is less robust.

Some good news emerged: most people are satisfied. Borrowers rated their microlenders as good as, and sometimes better than, schools, hospitals, and governments. Grievous abuses were few – about 3 percent of those surveyed.

But there were cautionary tales. Too many borrowers don’t understand what they are getting into. “I borrowed blind,” one Peruvian woman was quoted as saying in the survey.

In Benin, Pakistan and Peru, only about half the respondents said they fully understood the terms and conditions of their loans. In all four countries, only a quarter knew the interest rate of their latest loan. This can lead to nasty surprises.

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> Posted by Caitlin Sanford, Bankable Frontier Associates, and Alexandra Rizzi, the Smart Campaign

“Sandra” from Lima described her experience talking to a loan officer:

“You don’t understand anything [the microfinance staff members] says, because of how fast he talks.  It is almost as if his tongue is twisted. You end up not understanding in the end. [He says] ‘But ma’am I’ve explained it to you, why can’t you understand? I’ve been very clear.’”

New Client Voices research from the Smart Campaign and Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) finds that although microfinance providers may be complying with disclosure regulations, clients are not adequately absorbing information about their financial products.  A regulatory compliance-based approach to consumer protection in which providers focus on meeting minimum disclosure requirements risks losing sight of the main objective of transparency— that clients understand what they are signing up for. With clients inadequately informed about many aspects of microfinance, even in countries with strong transparency regulations like Peru and Georgia, the Client Voices findings demand a radical rethinking of transparency.  Namely, emphasis should widen from what information is provided to how much clients understand.

In the Client Voices project we solicited input from clients about what they consider good and bad treatment in their interactions with microfinance service providers, and assessed the prevalence of consumer protection problems in Benin, Pakistan, Peru, and Georgia.  We found that clients in all four countries have an inadequate understanding of the basic attributes of their microfinance products.  Although most clients do receive some information about their loan products, overall they report low levels of understanding of their loan terms and conditions, regardless of education level.  In Benin, Pakistan, and Peru, 50 percent, 49 percent, and 43 percent of respondents respectively report that they understood loan terms only somewhat or not at all at the time of taking out the loan. Self-reported understanding of loan terms and conditions is highest in Georgia, where 79 percent reported understanding the terms and conditions. Read the rest of this entry »

> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What do microfinance clients in Peru think about their experiences with financial services? A few weeks ago the Smart Campaign released its Client Voices reports, a four-country research investigation that directly asked microfinance clients about their experiences. After previously spotlighting Benin, Georgia, and Pakistan on this blog, today we’ll take a look at findings from the fourth country in the project, Peru.

The research was carried out by Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) and IPM Research. A qualitative research phase was first conducted, which included focus group discussions, individual interviews, and a photography exercise to allow clients to visually describe how they view good and bad treatment. The quantitative survey that followed included a sample of 1,000 current and former microfinance clients.

What did the clients say? In Peru, a well-regulated market, a different set of problems emerged from those we found in less-protected Benin and Pakistan. While severe abuses have been curtailed, emerging problems in Peru tended to arise from aggressive competition for customers.

Overall, clients in Peru are satisfied with their providers, suggesting that they’re benefitting from the industry’s well-regulated, competitive market and effective credit reporting system. Less than 10 percent of respondents rated their experiences with microfinance providers as either “bad” or “very bad”. In an exercise where respondents ranked various formal institutions in terms of how they treat clients, microfinance providers scored above commercial banks.

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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.
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