There were two topics that dominated debate at the recent European Microfinance Week (EMW) conference: the threats and opportunities brought about by the fintech revolution in inclusive finance, and the issue of financial inclusion for refugees and internally displaced persons. The event, organized by the European Microfinance Platform (e-MFP), provided the venue for a discussion of these issues that ranged from hopeful to surprisingly cautionary. EMW 2018 focused heavily on the spectre – or, depending on your perspective, the promise – of technology. The theme was approached from many angles, as panelists explored the opportunities and risks of digital financial services, Big Data and new fintech entrants into the sector. It was even the focus of the 2018 European Microfinance Award, Financial Inclusion through Technology. The opening plenary captured both sides of the issue, with a keynote speech from Graham Wright of MicroSave – who played the Cassandra role that suits him so well to implore the inclusive finance sector to pay attention to the risks that technology can pose to clients and institutions.
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.
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.
European Microfinance Week evolves each year, with new thematic streams, new Action Groups, and, of course, a new major area of debate based on the year’s European Microfinance Award topic. One constant are the plenaries that bring together all participants regardless of their professional background or interest. These plenaries always tackle the big issues and bring the top people in their fields to the podium – and at EMW 2017 there were three.
The opening one was on the European Microfinance Award – this year on Housing – which gave representatives from the three finalists’ organisations the chance to present their programs. This kicked off with a keynote address from Sandra Prieto from Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter during which she laid out the key challenges in increasing access to affordable housing: lack of collateral, lack of guarantees, a relative lack of funding for housing finance, the need for Technical Assistance to help clients either build homes from scratch or expand or otherwise improve their homes, and the problem of land tenure. Despite these challenges, housing microfinance has massive potential for social impact and diversification of MFIs’ portfolios. The three Award finalists, Sandra said, have common elements: first, they all address not only access to housing, but also other housing-related social needs such as water, sanitation, health and energy; and they each put client needs at the centre of their interventions.