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Microfinance at a crossroads

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimates that microfinance has reached some 130 million people worldwide in the last 15 years. This is impressive growth, certainly, and has no doubt contributed to the improvement of indivudal and community economic circumstances in the many areas where microfinance providers operate effectively. 

And this growth is expected to continue. For example, the value of loans extended by microfinance institutions in India is expected to increase by 40% next fiscal year.

But the World Bank estimates that some 2.5 billion adults still lack access to financial services. So there is room for more to be done for the world's unbanked.

And it seems there are no shortage of organisations looking to help fill that void.

New entrants and large cash injections are coming from sectors that range from regional development funds, to telcos, insurance firms, media companies and established banks.

Some recent interesting examples include Arab Gulf Program for Development (AGFUND), Deutsche Bank and Ghanaian radio and TV operator Despite Group 

But this rapid growth can not continue unrestrained if the ultimate positive goals of microfinance are to be achieved.

National regulators are attempting to beef up regulatory oversight of the burgeoning sector, requiring more stringent controls in fraud prevention and credit bureau usage, and in some instances greater capital requirements. This is motivated by a desire to weed out opportunistic profiteers, but also to reduce the number of well meaning institutions that fail and require government bailouts or mass shut-downs, as happened in India's Andhra Pradesh state and Nigeria in 2010. 

To meet these new regulatory requirements, many maturing microfinance organisations will need to improve their ability to interface not only with the customers, but with regulators, and provide them with timely data. 

Particularly if they offer or plan to offer more than just loans, mobile channel development is a priority for reaching rural populations with financial services for the first time. In conjunction with local agents for cash handling, the mobile channel can be used for applying for and managing these loans, but also fostering a wider mobile payment ecosystem.

Kenya's M-Pesa mobile payment system is always held out as the poster child for financial inclusion powered by mobile phones. But the conditions that led to success for Safaricom in Kenya, don't exist yet in many countries, as this recent article about mobile money in Afghanistan attests.

The announcement from Myanmar last week about the creation of a mobile money service that ties together that country's telco operators, a network of agents and a bank illustrates a potentially more successful model. 

Greater collaboration on the technical infrastructure required to grow a successful microfinance business will also become more common as the sector matures. At the scale of one individual microfinance organisation it can be difficult to invest in and implement the hardware and software required to operate most effectively, let alone deal with increasing regulatory demands.

The emergence of cloud-based offerings for microfinance takes away much of this pain. But industry associations and partnership groups, such as the SEEP Network and MicroWorld will also play a role to help microfinance institions around the world tap expertise in best business practice, compliance and operations.


Comments: (1)

Eugene Danilkis
Eugene Danilkis - Mambu - Berlin 10 February, 2014, 14:29Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Couldn't agree more. Global associations such as SEEP (who we joined as a member last month) as well as in-country local microfinance associations will play a critical role in helping microfinance organizations adopt new technology and maximize on the benefits that it can bring. Many microfinance institutions have historically shied away from really leveraging technology, perhaps partly due to lack of confidence and know-how, and certainly due to a lack of trust in service providers. Microfinance associations are uniquely positioned to provide leadership in this domain and may be the only ones who can drive the necessary change forward.

Taking that one step further, there is also an opportunity for microfinance associations to consider taking an even more active role in leading this evolution, by doing what many banks have done for years, by moving towards centralized BPO/technology centres. This would enable the association to not only provide knowledge leadership, but also be positioned to support organizations on an operating level and leverage the power of their network to lower barriers to technology adoption and integration.

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