FINCA - Building tomorrow together

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to journalist Elizabeth Matsangou from World Finance, on a topic close to my heart – female empowerment. An excellent outcome of this conversation was an insightful article from Elizabeth, detailing the benefits and challenges facing the microfinance community, and the role women can play in driving it forward.

Microfinance products can be truly life changing. When targeted at women, it can empower them by providing them with personal income. The ripple effect of this empowerment can also benefit communities from the bottom up, by promoting increased employment and productivity.  Microfinance now stands as an ideal way to grow the economies of developing states.

No one said it was going to be easy. Elizabeth’s article raises important questions about the obstacles to this development, most notably that a lack of education can impede the effectiveness of microfinance.  Financial literacy lies at the heart of effective microfinance, and at FINCA, we are taking great strides to ensure that education and investment is at the core of our future strategy.

Microfinance is one piece of a much larger puzzle. But it has proven itself, time and time again, to be an effective method to foster equality and growth in the world’s most impoverished communities.

Read the full article from Elizabeth here

FinTech – shorthand for Financial technology –  is disrupting traditional banking services across the globe. It began with payments but is now knocking on the doors of every other service a traditional bank provides, including credit and savings.  Silicon Valley is pouring money into Fintech, even as investors recognize only a handful of the thousands of new companies springing up will be around three years from now.  The financial institutions targeted for disruption by FinTechs are, of course, wary of the huge risks inherent in exposing their clients’ personal and business assets and information to the dark side of the internet where cyber criminals always seem to be one step ahead of the security systems.

Despite this reality, the digital revolution is here to stay and cannot be ignored if a financial institution is to retain its existing customers and attract new ones.  Properly deployed, digital technology can allow for the processing of loans that used to take weeks or even months in a matter of hours.   It can make possible the creation of more flexible products and services that make customers lives easier and more productive.   At FINCA, we are mobilizing all the resources at our disposal to take advantage the exciting new possibilities FinTech represents.

One of the big challenges any “legacy” financial institution faces in entering this space is to identify which investments will offer a longer term payoff and which will be obsolete before the paint dries.  In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, FINCA was an early adopter of Point of Sale (POS) devices to empower a network of over 800 agents to disburse loans and collect repayments and savings deposits, obviating the need for our clients to travel to our branches.  The uptake of this innovation was faster than we had ever imagined, and today 70% of our transactions are on this network.  In addition to saving our clients time and money, it also means they don’t have to walk home at the end of each work day with large amounts of cash in their pockets, exposing them to assaults and muggings.   In Pakistan, we are about to roll out a mobile wallet which we hope will make transactions faster and easier for our existing customers as well as attract new ones.   In the Congo, the IFC and Mastercard Foundation were valuable partners in enabling the agent innovation.  In Pakistan, a FinTech called – appropriately – Finja, is partnering with us to launch the wallet.   But even as we put these new technologies to work, we keep looking over our shoulders to see what new disruptors are on the horizon.

To help FINCA navigate through ever-changing landscape, FINCA UK and the Rainmaker Foundation, a collection of UK philanthropists, hosted the FinTech for Good Summit, convening some of the brightest FinTech minds in London to explore how the products they’re building today can benefit the world tomorrow.  To “lay the table”, I opened my remarks by noting the myriad challenges the younger generation faces today, as custodians of the future:  climate change, regional conflicts, shortages of food and water, scary epidemics, and a rapidly growing population for whom job prospects are melting away in the face of new technology.  To my surprise, several of the participants contested this view, saying that they felt there was much to be positive about, things like the halving of world poverty between 1990 and 2015, and, of course, advances in technology which made products and services at once more efficient and affordable.  Served me right for not realizing that entrepreneurs are by nature the most optimistic people on earth.

The discussion ranged from venture capital, blockchain, the latest developments in the mobile banking system and lots more.  One big problem identified was the difficulty entrepreneurs from regions like Africa have in attracting capital.  Conversely, funders constantly complain about the difficulty of finding good investments for their surfeit of liquidity.  I learned that there are new models of venture capital emerging, including what is effectively an outsourcing of management for groups of investees to high-powered teams of experienced CEOs, CFOs and COOs.  I think it’s fair to say every participant came away from the gathering with at least one new idea and several valuable new contacts.  Let’s do it again soon!

We prepared this video below to showcase our discussion.   Thank you to all who attended!

Cosmina Popa, Executive Director, The Rainmaker Foundation

Richard Brass, Head of Private Banking, Berenberg UK

Marcus Exhall, serial tech entrepreneur

Martin Bjergegaard, serial tech entrepreneur; co-founder of Rainmaking, Rainmaking Innovation, Startupbootcamp, Better Now

Patricia Hamzahee, Founder of Integri Capital

John Goodall, Founder and CEO of Landbay

Marc Warner, Founder and CEO of asi

Tim Groot , Founder and CEO of Intros

Federico Pirzio-Biroli, Founder of Playfair Capital

Will Reynolds, The FinTech Times

Georgia Hanias, Head of Global Communications and Diversity Lead at Innovate Finance

Victoria van Lennep, COO at Lendable

The Summit will provide a forum to discuss how financial technology can be leveraged to improve the lives of people across the developing world.

Dec
7

When you’re sitting in the audience and someone steps up to the lectern to deliver their remarks, how often do you find yourself thinking “God, I hope this guy isn’t going to bore the hell out of us and waste our time.”  When I’m speaking to any group, be it inside FINCA or the outside world, I put myself in my audience’s place and do my best not to speak, but to entertain.  (Admittedly, I have been known to take this to the extreme, especially if there is a microphone handy, breaking into song to shock my audience into a state of full wakefulness.)  My favorite teachers in High School were the ones whom we could count on to keep us entertained, like my Chemistry teacher, Mr. Reggio, who regaled us with tales from “the old neighborhood” in the Bronx where he grew up.

There is nothing like a good story to bring the work FINCA does to life.  The challenging part is that you’ll probably tell the best stories again and again, like the actor who has to get up and play The Dane five times a week. How do you “make it new” and make the audience feel this is the first time you’ve ever told this story? One trick I use is I tailor or “customize” the stories, adding new details that I think would hold special appeal or interest for my audience.  But I am also fortunate in that, with over 1.6 million clients to choose from, FINCA affords me with an inexhaustible source of new stories, which can be “refreshed” each time I go to the field and speak to our clients. Would that I had the time and means to hear them all!   Our clients’ journeys, in their own words, are the fuel that keeps me inspired and determined to do everything I can to help them succeed.

Some of my more quantitative colleagues dislike our use of stories, arguing that they don’t provide statistical evidence of impact, or that they represent the outliers and not the norm for the client experience. While FINCA conducts its own social impact research, based on a methodology validated by the World Bank, we remain convinced that our success in attracting and retaining customers owes to our culture of listening and ensuring that the clients have a strong and clear voice in shaping our products and services.  In short, nothing speaks to the impact of FINCA’s work better than the voices of the clients themselves. So take a minute to hear about Cissy.

I visited London last week and was proud to host two breakfast meetings with women entrepreneurs to discuss ways of promoting women-owned businesses across the globe.

One of the most interesting issues we discussed revolved around what special obstacles women entrepreneurs face in trying to start and build a business. The consensus was that securing finance is at top of the list. Obtaining financing for their enterprises has always been, and continues to be, more difficult for women than men. The Venture Capital world is still, unfortunately, a boys’ club in many respects, something that must change if we are to unlock the potential of women-owned small and medium enterprises.

I was struck by how many of the participants had similar stories. Many agreed that the reason they’d become entrepreneurs in the first place was because they felt blocked in their careers – overlooked for promotions in favor of men.  There was mobility up to a certain level, including a mentorship scheme for new employees in one of the companies mentioned, but nothing at the manager or partnership level. Clearly, most companies are still not doing enough to support their talented women employees.

We also discussed the importance of knowing that there’s a career path; knowing that if you work  hard you can get to where you want to be, and the importance of other women serving as role models. Several of our guests noted a dearth of success stories in this regard.

FINCA works with female entrepreneurs around the globe in some of the world’s poorest countries. Early on in our journey, it became clear to us that women and mothers held the key to the success of their children finding pathways out of poverty.  They were often more credit worthy than the men, and did a better job of managing the family budget and remaining current with loan repayments. Finally, any excess income that didn’t get re-invested in the business went towards the children’s needs:  better nutrition, clothing, and school fees.

One of the most exciting outcomes of these events was a commitment on the part of the participants, most of whom were meeting for the first time, to stay in contact with each other and explore ways to promote the advancement of women-owned businesses worldwide.   I was happy to play a catalytic role in this, and would like to thank all those inspirational women for attending. I hope to meet you all again soon.

Today is #GivingTuesday, and to continue to support the work FINCA does, please donate!

Earlier this year, I visited Nigeria to see our new FINCA bank for the first time since we opened our doors 2015. I had been to Nigeria once before, when I met with then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja to discuss the possibility of FINCA coming to Nigeria. At the time, we were unable to find the resources to start up a financial institution there.  Since we created our holding company, however, we secured the resources so I was excited to see the progress we had made.

One high point of the trip was inaugurating a new FINCA branch, located in one of the largest markets in Owerri.  Another was seeing the progress we are making in mobilizing savings.  This is a good sign as it shows that people trust us.  If they’re giving us their savings it means they see us as a permanent institution in their country.  The branch staff were very motivated, well trained, and obviously enjoying giving great service to the customers. The customers I spoke to were happy with the services and equally vocal about what they would like us to change! As usual, they asked us if we could lower our interest rates. We explained that we are still in the startup phase and have not yet achieved breakeven, it would be difficult to cut our revenues, but that, as a double-bottom line institution, we always strive to leave as much of the fruits of their labors with the clients.

I was very impressed with some of the other clients I met, including a restaurant owner who had greatly expanded his business through a series of FINCA loans. He’s also banking his savings with us.  We’re giving him the additional service of actually coming out to his restaurant at the close of each business day to collect his bankable revenues, make it more convenient and safer for him.   That’s the new FINCA Customer Experience at work!

Another client has a water purification business. He borrowed several thousand dollars from us to buy and install the equipment, and now his business is expanding rapidly. He provides purified bottled water to both businesses and homes throughout Owerri, employing people both at the plant and in making the deliveries.  It’s great to see FINCA creating quality, value-added jobs in the larger community.

Finally, I was surprised to discover that there is a trade association in the marketplace, something which I’ve not seen before. They manage the renting of the market stalls and so forth, and they are helping us to find new clients, because they know all the businesses and the ones that are looking to expand and need capital. An interesting new marketing channel, and one we might deploy in other countries.

While there I also had a very productive meeting with the central bank branch in Owerri, where we discussed our plans for future expansion.   Lastly, we had a dinner with the staff and some of our largest clients on the savings side, to promote future business.   All in all, it was a great trip, and I’m looking forward to my next one!

band of brothers photo

I got together with 20 of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers this past weekend, down near the Mexican border on South Padre Island, a 10-mile long sand bar off the Gulf Coast of the Sovereign Republic of Texas. It had been 43 years since many of us had last seen each other, when we disbanded down in Guatemala and departed for our various points of the compass, most returning to the U.S., some remaining in Guatemala.

 
We first assembled in San Jose, California in 1971, a rag tag band of mostly draft dodgers, looking for a way to avoid becoming, as John Kerry put it so eloquently “The Last Man to Die for a Mistake in Vietnam.” From there we journeyed down to Colima, Mexico, and then on to Liberia, Costa Rica, where we learned enough Spanish and Agriculture to function in our roles as Extension Agents for the Guatemalan Cooperative Movement. Inevitably, some of us were taken to be Agents of another kind. But our little pueblos were forgiving and soon we became accepted members of the community, and endless fonts of amusement as we tried to adapt our gringo ways to those of a strange but fascinating culture.

 
We had been separated geographically during our tour, spread over the country in small, isolated towns and hamlets at the terminus of dirt roads or sometimes cow paths where, during the rainy season, no truck or automobile deigned to enter. So it was we learned things about each other we hadn’t known during our tours, like the fate of Rico, who abruptly disappeared in the middle of our second year, having fallen afoul of the Guatemalan First Lady when he discovered she had been purloining money donated by Norteamericanos intended to buy bicycles for poor Guatemalan children. I shared the story of the time I was busted and nearly cashiered by the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps for riding my 125 cc Suzuki motorcycle on Pan American highway (prohibido), drunk and helmetless in the pouring rain, having chivalrously lent my helmet to my female companion riding on the back. Jacobo recounted his high-speed collision with a toro that had broken free of its bonds en route to the slaughter house, horning Jacobo off his motorbike with the skill of a jousting Knight in Days of Olde.

 
There were solemn moments as well, as when we gathered on the beach to pay homage to the three empty saddles, comrades who had passed away, two from AIDS and one from cancer. There had been marriages, children, divorces, remarriages, career changes, spiritual awakenings, terrible accidents, and, common to all, the trauma of readjusting to American society after two years in a tropical paradise where we lived on the level of the poorest people on earth, coming to respect what it takes to survive when the hand you’re dealt is all Clubs and no Face Cards. We never felt so alive.

 
There were also reminders of the cruelty and injustice of Guatemalan society, where a cultural divide between the mixed blood descendants of the Conquistadores, called Ladinos, and the indigenous Mayan people, with whom most of us worked, spawned incandescent hatreds such as only the twin bellows of racism and ignorance can engender. All this tension and antipathy exploded in the 80s, when Guatemala, like the rest of Central America, was consumed by a vicious civil war. In the aftermath, when I visited my town of San Martin, Jilotepeque, I found a place where everyone had forgotten how to smile. I heard horrific stories of entire villages being annihilated by gunships emptying their twin fifties into anything that moved.

 
The last night we gathered in Sapo’s flat and watched three disks of slides, pictures of our former selves, barely recognizable in some cases, wearing the youthful grins of those who have their whole lives ahead of them, with no inkling of what the future would hold, fearless and suffused with optimism.

A great American writer, Thomas Wolf, once said “You can’t go home again.” But for one glorious weekend, we did.

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