This is the first in a publication series of three interview pieces with the three finalists for the European Microfinance Award on "Financial Inclusion through Technology". Advans Côte d'Ivoire (Advans CI) is a NBFI in the Ivory Coast which offers payment, saving and credit services enabled by an Advans account linked to a MTN mobile money account. Advans CI has responded to traceability and safety issues faced by cooperatives paying cocoa farmers, as well as low school enrolment due to lack of regular cashflow among farmers, by offering its digital savings and payment solution, with wallet-to-bank and bank-to-wallet transfer services, enabling producers’ cooperatives to make digital payments to farmers for their crop revenue. Since 2017, Advans CI has been also providing small digital school loans, based on an algorithm reflecting farmers’ cashflows. Advans CI also successfully negotiated free MTN transfers between mobile wallets and Advans accounts for their farmer clients.
MicroCapital: How long have you been concerned about possible overheating in the Cambodian microfinance market? Kea Borann: Concerns of the market overheating started at least as early as 2015. Since then, the total outstanding portfolio of the industry has been growing at an average of 25 percent per year, even as the number of loans has remained unchanged at 2.3 million. This seems to mean that the same clients are taking on more debt when their loans are renewed. The average loan size grew from USD 1,691 to USD 3,003. Dina Pons: This phenomenon is coupled with another: While most loans had a tenor of 12 to 24 months in the past, we now see loan maturity as high as four or even five years.
Since the dawn of the commercialization of microfinance nearly two decades ago, investment in microfinance has been made on a widely-accepted premise: investors will receive a ‘market rate’ financial return, while pursuing a socially-motivated strategy. This premise is so widespread that it has taken on the allure of all groupthink – becoming an accepted truism, without necessarily being true. The double-bottom line – the equal focus on financial and social return – can be deceptive. The dilemma is that while financial return has a clear target, social return is more nebulous. What social return is really being promised? Is serving a certain segment of clients enough? Do additional products need to be offered? What about financial education?
The central contribution of the microfinance revolution has been the creation of long-term client relationships. More so than tangible collateral, these relationships are the foundation of the incentives structures that govern the interactions between microfinance institutions (MFIs) and their clients – and that contribute to the fulfillment of contract obligations. From this perspective, genuine microfinance has been a kind of ‘relational banking’ for the poor. This interpretation is consistent with the growing emphasis on ‘client centricity’ in financial inclusion and it focuses on the value of the relationship, as measured by its cost and quality. The quality of inclusion, on the one hand, brings together what is valued in the transaction, such as proximity, timeliness, transparency, adequacy with respect to actual client requirements, variety, sufficient amount, reliability, sustainability, respect and dignified treatment - and others. Cost, on the other hand, refers not only to financial charges (interest and fees), but also to all the opportunity costs incurred by the clients.
Back in May, and only a few weeks after the release of the 2017 Global Findex, the World Bank launched the 2018 SDG Atlas. Perhaps less well known than the Findex, the Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals is an even more massive endeavour, drawing on the Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDIs), a database of over 1,400 indicators for more than 220 economies, many going back over 50 years. The ‘SDG’s in the title are of course the Sustainable Development Goals - the post-2015 follow up to the Millennium Development Goals that served as the target-based development architecture for the past decade or so. The SDGs provide a variety of targets across different areas of human development to be achieved by 2030. This is the UN General Assembly-adopted “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, which extends the MDGs but also makes key adjustments, incentivising collective action by all countries.
MicroCapital: How is it different evaluating lenders to SMEs versus microlenders?
Lucia Spaggiari: One difference is the language used. For instance, SME lenders speak of “sustainable performance” more than “social performance.” Beyond language, a key difference is scale. By definition, SME lending requires a larger balance sheet, and this means complying with prudential regulation and attracting investors expecting to earn (at least) market returns.
Laura Foose: Based on investor demand expressed at the European Microfinance Platform (e-MFP) Investor Action Group meeting at European Microfinance Week 2016 and the March 2017 Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) Social Investors Working Group, we have been exploring how best to evaluate the environmental and social performance of SME finance institutions. We began by mapping the ESG frameworks of four development finance institutions (DFIs) and then surveyed our member microfinance investment vehicles to learn what indicators were most important to them. The high quality of the DFIs’ tools was very helpful in designing an evaluation framework that is feasible for our member funds’ smaller investments.
The publication of the 2017 Global Findex has generated much reflection on the state of financial inclusion – and plenty of analysis of the data, looking for the buried treasure of some new trend or pattern. This yields important insights. "The Financial Inclusion Hype vs. Reality report" by the Center for Financial Inclusion (CFI) is particularly worth reading for its in-depth and honest reflection of what Findex tells us. But when using Findex, there are important things to keep in mind. First, while the overall figures and trends are important, the numbers for any one country should be treated with caution. This is not because we mistrust the Findex team or their work. It’s simply the result of what Findex is – a set of surveys based on randomly selected (hopefully representative) population samples of more than 150,000 adults in over 140 economies. And surveys can – and often do – go wrong, particularly when they deal with difficult or personal subjects (like finance) or are conducted in countries undergoing political and economic turmoil. This reality forms the backdrop of our work at the Microfinance Index of Market Outreach and Saturation (MIMOSA) project, which since last year has been supported by a strategic partnership with e-MFP. A huge part of MIMOSA is collecting and comparing data – from credit bureaus, microfinance and banking associations, central banks, third-party surveys like Findex, and our own field surveys.
For most, socially responsible investing means just that - investing in a manner that not only generates financial returns, but also produces positive social value. But what does it mean for an investor to be “responsible” when selling their holdings? How does one stay responsible at the very moment when one ceases to be an investor? This is a basic challenge facing investors seeking to “exit,” i.e. sell their equity stakes to a new buyer. The issue isn’t entirely new. It first emerged in the mid-2010s, when several microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) were starting to reach the end of their ten-year terms, and were seeking to divest their assets. This issue was first addressed in the financial inclusion sector by a 2014 paper commissioned by CGAP and CFI, which first defined many of the key questions that socially responsible investors need to address when selling their equity stakes. With another four years of multiple exits under the sector’s belt, NpM, Netherlands Platform for Inclusive Finance, along with the Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) and the European Microfinance Platform (e-MFP) asked us to take a closer look at one particularly tricky part of the exit process - selecting a buyer that is suitable for the microfinance institution (MFI), its staff and ultimately its clients.
There’s a saying in technology circles: “If you’re not paying, then you’re the product.” Nothing could be more axiomatic in the current zeitgeist, as shown by Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony in front of Congress to explain the ongoing furore about the sale of Facebook users’ personal data to nefarious entities. Facebook, of course, is free to use. Its users – and the data we produce – are the product. The advertisers and other beneficiaries of that data are its customers. Surprisingly, this little axiom long pre-dates social media. In fact, it goes back at least as far as 1973, when artists Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman broadcast a short video entitled “Television Delivers People.” But whatever people have until now understood of their relationship with technology platforms such as Facebook and Google, there can be no doubt that the mood has turned. For all the Pollyanna-ish talk of liberation, efficiency and modernization, technology is increasingly seen as the proverbial double-edged sword – something not just from which to benefit, but also, as CFI’s Elisabeth Rhyne has argued just this week, from which to be protected. The protection of clients is central to financial inclusion (or, at least, it is when done well). Technology, too, becomes more and more embedded in how financial services can be offered to low-income and excluded client segments. Coming with it are the well-known opportunities to reduce costs, increase outreach, drive financial education and in particular help remote populations access information and tools to increase their income and protect themselves from shocks.
As outlined in a workshop session at European Microfinance Week 2017, Financial Education (FE) is one of the pillars of financial inclusion. Without it, microfinance clients are not able to make informed and appropriate choices; they cannot compare the costs of financial products, understand the risks of failing to repay their own loans or of taking on someone else’s risk in cases of guarantees, or accurately assess how much credit, and what type, they actually need – if any. FE may be important, but there are key challenges to its provision. First, the link between offering FE and achieving positive impacts are not always direct and clear. Evaluation of the outcomes of FE shows impact to be inconsistent – a function of that impact’s sensitivity to the content and delivery of the education. Second, it is also unclear how, even if the content and delivery to achieve impact were standardised, financial education can be provided sustainably at scale. Provision of any type of training is costly.