Investing in inclusion
Modern financial markets exclude billions of the world’s poor. That’s a failure of those markets—and a failure of imagination. A more financially inclusive world would give billions of people living in poverty access to a full range of important financial services, yielding a high rate of return by economic, social, and societal measures. The challenge is how to achieve this in a responsible, sustainable way that provides the greatest number of people with the financial tools they need to improve their lives in the shortest amount of time.
That is precisely the mission of Accion, a global nonprofit dedicated to creating a financially inclusive world. We operate in poor communities throughout Latin America, Africa, India, and China and see firsthand how these services help transform lives, create opportunities, and build stronger, more resilient communities.
As nonprofits, Accion and our peers can take chances that the private sector cannot. Over our 50-year history, we have helped build 64 microfinance institutions in 32 countries that today serve millions. In the last few years alone, we have supported institutions in rural communities such as the Amazon and Inner Mongolia and expanded the array of financial services for the poor beyond credit to savings, insurance, and payments.
One point is clear: philanthropy, though critically important, is insufficient to achieve full financial inclusion. We need to harness the capital markets and create institutions that deliver both social and financial returns. Though we are a nonprofit, we work to build sustainable, scalable, for-profit companies dedicated to serving the financial needs of society’s most vulnerable members: those living in poverty.
Today, traditional lending institutions largely ignore the poor. And some nonprofit organizations discount the for-profit motives of the private sector, seeing them as exploitative and off-mission. Neither view is accurate. In fact, for-profit microfinance is sustainable, scalable, and socially progressive—complementing nonprofit services and creating an entire industry of institutions that can compete for clients, expand access, and accelerate innovation.
Twenty years ago, Accion helped create Bolivia’s BancoSol, which today is one of the world’s best-known microfinance institutions. Its creation as a commercial institution dedicated solely to serving the poor was controversial, unprecedented—and a rousing triumph. As the world’s first for-profit bank dedicated to serving the poor, BancoSol tapped the debt and equity markets, attracting both foreign investment and expertise. It focused on strong management and operations, better governance, innovation, and improved responsiveness to clients. To date, BancoSol has loaned more than $2 billion to more than 1.5 million clients. It has a 90 percent client-retention rate and a 99 percent repayment rate. Its success has spurred competition and innovation in what is now one of the most robust microfinance markets in the world.
Accion also helped build Peru’s Mibanco, which launched in 1998. Today Mibanco has more than 400,000 active borrowers and more than 100 locations throughout the country. Mexico’s Compartamos Banco, in which Accion was a major founding investor, is equally impressive. Its operations grew so quickly and efficiently that, in 2007, it launched an initial public offering with a monumental response. Thousands of other microfinance institutions were inspired by Compartamos’ success, which in turn creates more competition and better services for the poor.
Accion is proud to have helped launch and grow these pioneering institutions, which are models for the world and whose collective outreach has brought financial services to millions who would otherwise be left out.
For-profit microfinance is also promising for investors. Take Accion Investments in Microfinance (AIM), a for-profit equity fund created in 2003 to provide capital to microfinance institutions (MFIs) working in challenging markets where such funding was typically unavailable. AIM was designed as a “double bottom line” equity fund, one that measured success in both profitability and social impact.
Over the past decade, AIM has produced annual returns of nearly 16 percent, making it one of the most successful microfinance equity funds ever. In the process, it helped build some of the strongest MFIs in the world, including BancoSol, Mibanco, and the Accion Microfinance Bank—the leading microfinance bank in Nigeria. Before AIM’s investments, those institutions collectively served a total of 386,000 borrowers and 245,000 depositors. Today, they reach almost 1 million borrowers and 1.2 million depositors who might otherwise have no access to financial services.
The future of financial inclusion goes beyond traditional microfinance. We also embrace venture capital and technical assistance for start-ups, with bold, disruptive business models aimed at helping those living in poverty. For example, Accion is investing in companies such as DemystData, which leverages big data—huge sources of information that can be analyzed to help financial institutions broaden their outreach to poorer clients. Others, like Tiaxa, use mobile technology to make small “nano” loans over the phone, which can help reach people living in remote communities. Still others are pushing the boundaries of inclusion, offering financial products such as life insurance to South Africans living with HIV/AIDS—an idea that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
Although it is still too early to determine the impact of these brand-new companies, they have the potential to have a significant impact on the lives of our clients. We need to invest in more fast-moving, innovative ideas like these. Although the financial-inclusion movement is rapidly evolving, it remains young and has much to learn. Growing pains are normal, but they must be addressed head on to strengthen the industry and inspire the next generation of institutions that will create greater opportunities for the poor.
Accion’s Center for Financial Inclusion is a good start. It brings together industry players to tackle common challenges and create the conditions to achieve full financial inclusion on a global scale. For example, the center’s Smart Campaign promotes the protection of clients through greater transparency, prevention from overindebtedness, and the provision of means to address concerns. In just three years, its client-protection principles have been endorsed by more than 1,000 microfinance institutions in 130 countries representing more than 60 million clients.
By building competitive, commercially viable financial institutions that provide a healthy return on capital and by taking bold risks and investing in innovative ways to expand financial services to the poor, Accion and our partners are spurring new opportunities and sustainable progress throughout the developing world, and helping to bring billions more into the global economy. That is how change happens!