The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has stumped up $38 million in grants to help micro lenders turn their attention to providing the poor with safe, affordable savings accounts, using tactics ranging from mobile phones to motorbikes.
The foundation has allocated six grants to help 18 microfinance institutions (MFIs), which currently focus on microcredit, expand their portfolios and make savings accounts available to an initial 11 million poor people across 12 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over five years.
The foundation says that, although MFIs have helped millions in recent years, few offer savings accounts and more than 90% of the world's poor still lack access to financial services and resort to risky, expensive, and inefficient ways to save.
A National Bureau of Economic Research report suggests that poor households with access to savings accounts are more likely to invest in education, increase productivity and income, and reduce vulnerability to illness and other unexpected events.
A major obstacle to the provision of savings accounts has been cost, with banks unable to afford physical buildings, with dedicated tellers, especially in remote areas or where there is a limited number of clients with small deposits. Poor clients often live far from banks so the cost to reach a branch may exceed the amount of their deposits.
The Gates Foundation has awarded grants to Accion, Finca, Grameen, ShoreBank International, Women's World Banking and World Vision to help them provide innovative answers to these problems.
Accion will concentrate on using mobile phone technology to bring savings to people in Bolivia and Columbia. World Vision intends to deploy savings officers on motorbikes with PDAs throughout Ethiopia while ShoreBank is taking a similar approach in India.
Women's World Banking is placing online banking kiosks in Kashf Foundation branches in Pakistan so the foundation's clients, all women, can gain access to savings accounts for the first time.
WWB is also planning a a TV serial drama in the Dominican Republic to bring attention to the benefits of savings.
Jonathan Morduch, co-author, Portfolios of the Poor, says: "The poor have surprisingly sophisticated financial lives and present a rapidly emerging business opportunity for banking in the developing world. Savings initiatives like these help strengthen and expand financial institutions, enabling them to overcome significant barriers and provide affordable savings accounts to the poor in a sustainable manner."