Veronica Herrera co-founded MiCrédito in 2004 with the support of the Canada-based development association MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates). “Empowering youth is vital to see the change in Nicaragua that we seek” Mrs Herrera says. “I believe education, in addition to microfinance, is a powerful tool to […] empower youth” she adds. MiCrédito is one of few MFIs today in the country to provide student loans at very low interest rates, enabled through Kiva – the San Francisco-based not for profit. While the Sandinista government managed to reduce the illiteracy rate in the country dramatically in 1980 (from 50.3% to 12.9% within only five months), which earned it the UNESCO Literacy Award, today’s education level in the country is relatively low compared to the rest of Latin America, with around 45% of the population attending secondary education, versus an average net enrolment rate of 74% in 2011 across Latin America. In what could be her motto, Mrs Herrera adds: “How does one get out of poverty? It is through education”.
In 2010, Omtrix, a microfinance fund manager based in Costa Rica, saw that the greatest barriers to higher education for low-income youths was lack of access to financing. Omtrix wondered if this need could be met by microfinance institutions. Serving this sector would certainly meet their mandates, and MFIs already knew how to reach and serve low-income people. Omtrix hypothesized that under the right conditions, and with the right approach, student loans could be a viable product for MFIs. They decided to create a new fund to promote higher education. The new fund, called The Higher Education Finance Fund (HEFF), would lend to MFIs so that they could in turn on-lend to bright young people whose aspirations lay beyond their financial reach. HEFF’s funding would be accompanied by a technical assistance program to train MFI staff in how to appraise, monitor, and collect on student loans, as well as offer other tools to launch a new product. Additionally, HEFF would serve as a pilot program to be replicated by other MFIs or funds in the future and across the globe. Over the past six years, HEFF’s original assumptions have been tested, and the innovative program has experienced some growing pains. Omtrix has begun the process of capturing lessons learned and best practices to disseminate those lessons to anyone who may want to replicate or build on HEFF’s model.
The second e-MFP ‘Offsite Session’ of the year took place in London on Monday 10th April, in partnership with the UK’s Financial Inclusion Forum – the leading British financial inclusion network. The session was entitled "The Role of MFIs in improving access to and quality of education: Perspectives on the 7th European Microfinance Award and the European Dialogue" and was timed to coincide both with the launch of "Investing in Tomorrow" (e-MFP’s latest Dialogue) and last week’s launch of the call for applications for the upcoming Award on Housing. The event brought together a panel including Arc Finance’s Sam Mendelson (who was the lead author of the paper, as well as a member of the Award Selection Committee), Kaspar Wansleben from Luxembourg Microfinance and Development Fund (a supporter of two of the 2016 Award finalists and key investor in education finance) and Nathan Byrd from Opportunity International’s Education Finance team, along with e-MFP’s Daniel Rozas. Katy Jones from Big Issue Invest and the Financial Inclusion Forum chaired the packed out event, generously hosted by Allen & Overy. Daniel opened the session by outlining the importance of education – its primary importance to households at all income levels and in all places, and the obstacles to universal access in low-income countries. The failure or inability of governments to provide free or affordable quality education to its people is a key reason for the emergence of low-cost private schools in many countries (and the channel for several of the Award semi-finalists’ initiatives).
The European Microfinance Award 2016 addressed how the microfinance sector can increase access to education among children and young adults in low-income communities. Won by Kashf Foundation of Pakistan and presented at a ceremony in November during European Microfinance Week, the Award received applications from 19 countries, showing a broad range of interventions by MFIs to help increase access to education. As in previous years, all the semi-finalists’ outstanding interventions have been profiled in a European Dialogue publication, entitled "Investing in Tomorrow", written by Sam Mendelson, with support from Micol Guarneri, Francesca Agnello – the consultants who oversaw the Award application and analysis – and Gabriela Erice and Daniel Rozas from e-MFP. The European Microfinance Award is one of e-MFP’s most prominent activities. A prestigious annual €100,000 Award which attracts applications from financial institutions around the world, it serves two parallel goals: rewarding excellence, and collecting and disseminating the most relevant practices for replication by others. This second goal is where "Investing in Tomorrow" comes in – describing the challenges facing MFIs, the types of interventions that can increase access to education, practical case study examples of the finalists and semi-finalists – organisations which put these models into practice – and what these excellent initiatives have in common.
For its annual meeting in Luxembourg this year, CGAP asked e-MFP to organize a session for its members. This was our first opportunity to present some of the lessons being highlighted by the 7th European Microfinance Award “Microfinance and Access to Education”, especially the role that donors and investors can play to support the efforts of MFIs to promote access to quality education at the bottom of the pyramid.
Each year, e-MFP launches the European Microfinance Award, in conjunction with the Luxembourg Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs and the Inclusive Finance Network Luxembourg (InFiNe.lu). The Award invites applications from financial institutions that are innovating, exploring and testing new ideas, that go beyond their core financial services, and exemplify the evolution of the microfinance sector beyond boilerplate microenterprise credit.