Dec 18, 2018

The following interview was originally posted by our media partner FinDev Gateway.

Advans Côte d’Ivoire has won this year’s European Microfinance Award, focused on “Financial Inclusion through Technology,” for its innovative digital savings and credit solution for cocoa farmers. In partnership with a leading mobile network operator, Advans Côte d’Ivoire offers payment, savings and credit services enabled by an Advans account linked to a mobile money account. They also provide small digital school loans for farmers’ children, based on an algorithm reflecting farmers' cashflows. Albert Sie Dah, Farm Operations Manager, sat down with FinDev to share more about their work.

FinDev: Could you tell us about your institution, its mission and the clients you serve?

Albert: Advans Côte d’Ivoire is a microfinance institution which opened in Abidjan in 2012. Our mission is to respond to the financial services needs of small businesses and other populations who have limited or ill-adapted access to traditional banking services. In the long term, through the delivery of financial services, we hope to contribute to the growth of local businesses and the reinforcement of the private sector, and therefore promote social and economic development in the country. Our small business clients have varied profiles; for example we target small cocoa farmers who need a $225 loan to buy input credits, but also SMEs in the transport sector who borrow $225,000 to develop their vehicle fleet. We have a large range of financial services including loans, accounts, savings, insurance and transactions, so that we can respond to our clients’ professional and personal needs, with several different channels to offer them a convenient service.

Your MFI has just won the European Microfinance Award for the technological solutions you offer for cocoa producers and their children’s education. Can you describe these products? How did they meet the needs of the population you serve?

Albert: Yes, we are very proud to have won the prize! The solution we developed gives cooperatives and farmers access to a branchless banking service on a basic mobile phone, using USSD technology. With this service, cooperatives can pay their farmers through an instant digital transfer. And on the farmers’ side, they have access to a savings account, can withdraw or deposit cash through an MTN Mobile Money agent, and can also borrow to finance their children’s education through an instant digital loan.

This solution responds to several client needs. For the cooperatives, being able to pay farmers through digital transfers rather than cash improves security, because there is a high risk of robbery in these zones. It also enables cooperatives to trace their transactions. For farmers, who are very vulnerable to unforeseen life events, the service encourages them to save during the harvest season so they have reserves during the low season. It also gives them access to a loan so they can send their children to school on time in September as opposed to waiting for the October harvest, which was a common practice for low-income farming families.

What do you consider to be the key success factors for these two products? What types of partnerships have you put in place?

Albert: The most important success factor for these products is that they take our clients’ needs and daily reality into account. And to respond to these needs and accelerate the cocoa farmers’ financial inclusion, we worked with some key partners.

First, we partnered with the cooperatives. We had already built a relationship with them through our input and truck loans, and this enabled us to promote the mobile service via the cooperatives. Since half of the farmers had already had a bad experience with a financial institution, they were reluctant to trust MFIs, but working through the cooperatives allowed us to gain farmers’ trust.

Our second partner was the mobile communications company MTN; thanks to them we were able to offer free transfers between accounts and mobile wallets, with annual account fees at less than $5. Farmers have very low incomes so we wanted to keep fees to a minimum.

Finally, this project would not have been possible without the resources and the expertise that we received from CGAP, Incofin, Mondelez, IDH, the Cocoa and Coffee Advisory Board and WSBI.

Although digital financial services can significantly reduce costs and improve the quality of services offered, these technologies are still in their infancy. What are the main challenges that Advans Côte d'Ivoire has faced in adopting digital technologies?  

Albert: ​One of the challenges was the cocoa producers' low education levels: 47 percent of the farmers we work with are illiterate. We realized quite quickly that having a “100 percent digital” approach wasn’t the best solution to create a strong and lasting relationship with these clients, especially since they had very little previous exposure to financial services. This is why we promoted the service through the cooperatives.

We also put in place a team of financial inclusion agents in the field in 2017 to build awareness, guide and train the farmers in their first steps in digital finance. The agents go to meet farmers in their villages every day; 98 percent of our clients know their agent’s phone number. We are also currently working on improving the training tools for farmers. We believe that a high-tech approach should be combined with a human or “high touch” component. There is an element of social responsibility which must be considered in order to ensure the long-term financial inclusion of the target clients.

How does Advans Côte d'Ivoire expect to use the funds allocated by the European Microfinance Award?

Albert: We would like to use the funds to continue to promote financial inclusion for remote populations who have little or no access to financial services in Côte d’Ivoire or in the other countries of our network. We have three main ideas for the use of the prize, which motivated our application:

  1. Conduct an impact study on the effects of our program on cocoa farmers’ living conditions to analyze the impact of our savings and school loan services on their financial stability.
  2. Support other affiliates in the Advans Group who would like to reproduce the Advans CI project in their country, via exchange missions or technical assistance.
  3. Organize a training seminar for all affiliates in the group to share our experience and give them the resources they need to successfully launch and implement similar projects.

All our actions will remain centered on our clients and on the search for innovative solutions to continue advancing financial inclusion.