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FINCA - Building tomorrow together

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.

A couple of days back, UK retail banks got a bit of a shock when the government regulator stepped in to tell them they needed to innovate and use the latest technologies to keep their customers happy. It surprised me too. You’d think that these huge organisations would know a thing or two about customer satisfaction and the use of FinTech. But according to the watchdog, they’re not doing enough.

That made me wonder if there were things that retail banks across the world could learn from microfinance about anticipating your customers’ needs and using FinTech for their benefit.

In Africa, 77 per cent of adults remain excluded from the formal banking system. They have no hope of getting a loan from a retail bank, even if many of them could travel to the nearest one. Back in May this year, FINCA announced a collaboration with FinTech company First Access.

This partnership created the world’s largest and most sophisticated alternative credit-scoring approach by a microfinance institution. For our clients, this means that even if they have never been in the formal banking system, they can access a FINCA loan – and much faster too.

This collaboration is just the next step in our work to democratize banking and give disadvantaged people the financial services they want, and need. For a number of years, we’ve also been working in Tanzania with Vodacom, the largest mobile network operator (MNO) in the country.

Through this partnership, FINCA customers can use Vodacom’s mobile wallet platform, M-PESA, to make transactions to a FINCA account for both loan installments and savings. This arrangement enables FINCA customers to transact directly from their e-Wallet, saving them significant travel and other transactional costs typical of microfinance operations. And this is in one of the world’s poorest countries, where around 90 per cent of the very poorest people live in rural areas.

It’s this kind of big thinking that retail banks need to move towards. As a business, it’s easy to focus on what you do best and be happy with that. But if the retail banks want to grab the attention of the next generation of customers, the Millennials, then they will need to innovate, anticipate and start building products that suit their needs right now. Change and innovation should come from within and never be ordered by a government regulator.

Today, across the world in Guatemala, I had a FINCA client who has a hardware shop in the market of Chichicastenango and makes extra money working as an agent for Tigo, a telco FINCA Guatemala partners with to allow our clients to make loan repayments electronically from where they live without having to travel to our nearest branch in Quiche, 28 km distant. The world is going digital, and every business must adapt or become extinct.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Guernsey to meet with some business-leaders, money managers, and speak with the media about FINCA. I’ve not been to the Channel Islands before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the first things that hit me when I landed were how beautiful the island is, and how welcoming the people are. I made a point of telling BBC Guernsey Radio how jealous I am of the people who live there! I said it reminds me of Bermuda — just less pink!

Sadly, it was a very short visit. It was a particular pleasure to be on BBC Guernsey Radio and the interview was perhaps one of the most satisfying I have ever done. If you want to listen to it then you can do so HERE! (The interview starts at 1 hour 43!)

The interviewer was fantastic – we chatted about everything from corruption to the American election, as well as (of course), FINCA, microfinance and the progress that we’ve made all around the world, alleviating poverty and providing people with the resources they need to create sustainable sources of income for themselves.

The highlight of my trip though has to be a private breakfast I held about impact investment. Guernsey is a well-known financial centre, and I wanted to talk to some experts about what their experience was of impact investing. In particular, I was interested to hear about the growing number of their clients who were starting to think about using their money in socially responsible and positively impactful ways, such as microfinance.

I have to confess, I was at first a little anxious about the appetite for this type of discussion. But I came away feeling very positive. Many of the people who attended sent me very kind emails after, saying that, although they hadn’t thought about impact investing before, it was something that they now would. And some even said it was a topic they wanted to bring up with their clients!

I know this won’t be my last trip to Guernsey. It’s a place I definitely want to visit again. There’s so much more of the island to explore. Thank you Guernsey – I’ll be back!

RS

‘You can’t go home again’, so said American author Thomas Wolfe, but I did. Not back to Levittown, Long Island where I grew up, but to Blantyre, Malawi, which I consider one of my 23 other homes, where I founded FINCA subsidiaries over the past 32 years.

The occasion was the celebration of the day, 22 years ago, when we organized the first village banks in Blantyre, with $100,000 from Rotary Clubs in Colorado, led by an orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Richard Kemme, who had a prosperous practice built on the back of the many skiers that flew down the slopes of the Rockies and collided with trees, rocks and most often with each other, breaking limbs.  Dr. Kemme came to Malawi to work on polio victims, but when he learned of FINCA’s work in Latin America from other Rotarians he decided he needed to persuade us to bring our small loans to help the women of that country. It wasn’t difficult; we had founded FINCA Uganda just a few months before it and was running beautifully, so on one of my trips there I just hopped on a plane from Entebbe to Nairobi and from there down to Blantyre.

In those days, raising money for FINCA was easy, and on my maiden trip I came back with two other big grants, one from the World Bank and one from USAID.   In a week, with Dr. Kemme’s help., I recruited a board, hired a director and a credit officer, and organized four village banks.   On this trip, I carried with me the coveted “Silver Tree” award, to recognize FINCA Malawi for having reached 50,000 clients.

Man, it was so easy back then.  Today, microfinance is complicated, we do it through regulated banks and finance companies instead of NGOs, we have stiff competition from other banks, payments companies, telcos, retailers, even public utilities, in some cases.  Our managers mostly come from the banking sector, not the Peace Corps, like me.

I was only in Blantyre for two days, but we packed in the inauguration of our new branch, which is enabled to take savings, a celebration of our 20th anniversary, and, of course, a visit to a village bank.   The Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi was on hand to open the first savings account, which went off without a hitch, except that our core banking system failed to print his receipt.  The entertainment at our dinner was provided by a dancing troupe of convicts from the nearby prison farm.   (They were close to their release dates; that’s why they didn’t run after the show)  As they danced, you could feel the pent up energy from their years of confinement released into the room.

The village bank was located in a slum on the outskirts of Blantyre, a city which has grown up from the small burg I visited 22 years ago.   The roads through it are dirt and gouged with rivulets from past rains, and gansta rap blares from sound systems in the neighborhood shops.   The women are waiting on a large sheet of plastic so as to not soil their colorful red and maroon dresses emblazoned with the FINCA tree brand.   Considerate of their guest, they face into the sun while I have my back to it.  I ask them to tell their stories.   One woman is a serial entrepreneur; she buys maize at harvest time, stores it and then sells it during the “hungry season” six months later at three times the price.  She also as a general store, and she shows me a blouse that she has hand embroidered constituting her third source of income.   Another woman describes how, with the income from her dried fish business, she has been able to educate her three children, one of whom is now a doctor, another a teacher, and the third a mechanical engineer.   Looking at the humble dwellings with their brick walls and tin roofs, it is obvious what these women’s priorities are:  they invest in their children.

But the one I found most interesting is a younger mother the women of this village bank has adopted.  In a departure from our usual credit policy, this woman had no existing business when she joined the group and got her first loan; the President of the group convinced the others to guarantee her loan and told them not to worry; she would mentor her.   It worked, and now this young mother was on her third loan and had a thriving business selling used clothing.   As our SUV rocks back down the dirt road out of town, I find myself swaying to the music blaring the sound systems, Dr. Dre from the sound track from Straight Outta Compton.

This is FINCA:  Straight Outta Malawi.  Financing women micro entrepreneurs in poor neighborhoods around the world, helping them help themselves and their families.   The model is still dead simple, but it works.

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