Archive for the ‘microsavings’ Category

Making Progress Through Savings

June 14, 2012

Kimberly Davies is a program officer on Grameen Foundation’s Financial Services team.

Traveling to the field and talking with clients is the favorite part of my job.  I’ve worked in microfinance for five years and think daily about the poor women and families whom we support. Working with partner organizations and meeting clients face-to-face not only reminds me of why I’m in this field – it also helps me better understand the poor’s demand for financial services and the many challenges involved in providing those services.

It has been really exciting to see the progress of our microsavings project in India.  The first time I visited our partner organization Cashpor Micro Credit – a poverty-focused microfinance institution (MFI) in Varanasi, India – it was not yet offering savings products to its clients. This was partly due to complex Indian regulations requiring MFIs to work with banks to provide savings. Since then, Cashpor partnered with ICICI Bank and Eko Technologies (a tech provider that enables savings via the mobile phone) to launch a new savings product in the summer of 2011.

Microsavings accounts provide poor parents with a safe place to save for their children's future.

Microsavings accounts provide poor parents with a safe place to save for their children’s future.

Since the launch, Cashpor has added about 250 new savers every day, and currently has more than 60,000 savings accounts. Cashpor’s clients have spoken loud and clear about their desire to save. Clients told us during my last visit that they wanted their own safe savings accounts, but I wasn’t sure what the real demand truly was. It’s also challenging to offer convenient services to clients, because some do not have cell phones, most can’t read and many are even numerically illiterate. These challenges, on top of others, were things that I knew would take time to navigate.

However, the huge demand does make sense. A safe place to save is critical for families, because it helps them smooth consumption during times of sporadic income, or prepare for an emergency or a planned lifetime event. Of course, people want convenient tools to help them better manage their lives. In the United States, we have access to so many financial tools in our everyday life – various savings accounts we can access at any time, insurance, loans, locked CDs that yield a safe and consistent interest rate, etc. You name it, we have it. The poor want these same tools.

Truly moving out of poverty is a huge task. Though tools like the Progress Out of Poverty Index® can measure the likelihood that an MFI’s client base is poor and track its movement out of poverty over time, this is a complex thing to measure, because forces such as natural disasters and family illnesses can prevent people from moving out of poverty or cause them to slip back into poverty. These uncontrollable forces make the use of easily accessible and affordable financial tools – such as savings accounts – all the more important to the poor.

Again and again, I’ve seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears how access to financial services has improved the lives of poor people and their families. I look forward to seeing Cashpor’s savings program grow even more over the next year, as they help more women and families in need.

Growth for All: Including the Poor in Strategies for Economic Growth

May 31, 2012

Michael Castellano is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying International Affairs and Development. He interned with Bankers without Borders® at Grameen Foundation during the spring of 2012.

In the years following the global financial crisis, politicians and policymakers across the globe have harped on one cardinal goal: economic growth. Without a doubt, plans for growing the economy will dominate discussions in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. It seems as though we as a society have collectively determined that if only the economy would turn around, conditions would certainly improve across the board. If only we could enact legislation to spur economic growth, inevitably we would all be better off.

Fortunately, statistics show that the United States has seen steadily climbing annual growth rates since the nadir of the “Great Recession.” Developing countries and emerging economies have, on the whole, experienced average growth rates of more than 5 percent thus far in 2012 and will continue to propel the world’s progress, according to financial forecasts. So – this is good news for everyone, right?

Not necessarily.

Although a country’s national economy may grow, the poorest of the poor often remain completely disconnected from the financial, political and social systems in place. Without active bank accounts, the poor cannot easily save or access other financial services. In rural villages, people may not have easy access to healthcare and can quickly fall victim to external shocks such as disease or natural disaster. Without these services, poor people around the world cannot reap the benefits of overall economic growth.

During my time at Grameen Foundation and through my studies in International Development during this past year, one fundamental lesson has stood out: Though economic growth is certainly important, growth does little to reduce poverty if the poor lack access to essential services. This illustrates a key principle that development practitioners dub “pro-poor growth.”

Michael Castellano served as an intern at Grameen Foundation this spring.

Michael Castellano, shown here during a trip to Australia, served as an intern at Grameen Foundation this spring.

Pro-poor growth involves forming development policies and strategies that target the poorest of the poor and offer new ways of connecting them to financial markets. Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, stated, “The direct elimination of poverty should be the objective of all development aid. Development should be viewed as a human rights issue, not as a question of simply increasing the gross national product.”

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Panel Explores the Power of the Mobile Phone in Fighting Poverty

May 14, 2012

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

I first met Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations, through one of our greatest Grameen Foundation Board members, Lucy Billingsley.  When Isobel and I were introduced to each other, she was running a small program at the Council focused on women’s issues.  She has since grown it into a flagship initiative of this prestigious institution, and her reputation as a researcher and thought-leader has naturally grown along the way.

I was therefore very pleased when she invited me to speak as part of her Women and Technology series last week, alongside Ann Mei Chang, senior adviser for women and technology, Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State (and formerly with Google), and Scott Ratzen, Vice President for Global Health at Johnson & Johnson.  The title of the session was “mDevelopment: Harnessing Mobile Technology for Global Economic Growth.”  We had a planning call with Isobel, Scott and Ann Mei the week before and I realized I was joining some extremely knowledgeable and articulate people.  To prepare, I read up on all of Grameen Foundation’s many programs that work to alleviate poverty by leveraging the mobile phone revolution, as well as some related research on inclusive business models.

Alex Counts makes a point while (from left) Isobel Coleman of the Council for Foreign Relations, Ann Mei Chang of the U.S. State Department and Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson listen.

Alex Counts makes a point while (from left) Isobel Coleman of the Council for Foreign Relations, Ann Mei Chang of the U.S. State Department and Scott Ratzan of Johnson & Johnson listen.

The event was kicked off with remarks by Suzanne McCarren of ExxonMobil, which sponsors this speaker series.  Suzanne, whom I sat next to during lunch, explained why women’s economic development is a high priority for their company’s foundation, which has made more than $50 million in grants so far, according to my notes.  Then Cherie Blair, the former first lady of the United Kingdom and the founder of a foundation that bears her name, spoke.  She announced the release of an important new report titled, “Mobile Value-Added Services: A Business Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs.”  I had met Cherie several times through Meera Gandhi, whose book Giving Back features the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, as well as Grameen Foundation.

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A Real Education

April 26, 2012

Julia Arnold is a program associate for Grameen Foundation’s microsavings initiative, and will graduate from American University in May with a master’s degree in international development.

As a graduate student at American University and a Grameen Foundation employee, I have studied international development in the classroom and have seen it in practice through my work with Grameen Foundation’s microsavings initiative in India, Ethiopia and the Philippines, and our livelihoods work in India. This unique vantage point has given me many opportunities to reflect on the relationship between what is taught in school and what is done in the “real world” of international development. On a recent trip to one of the project sites of our microsavings project, I began to truly appreciate the difference between classroom theories and realities of the lives of the poorest.

Clients of Indian microfinance institution Cashpor take a break during a group meeting, where poor women like these meet to make payments on microloans and to make deposits in their savings accounts.

During our visit to the holy Indian city of Varanasi, my colleagues and I visited the homes of some of the urban and rural clients of Cashpor, a microfinance institution (MFI) we’re working with to deliver microsavings services to their ultra-poor clients. It was a privilege to be welcomed into the homes of the families for whom Cashpor provides access to vital financial services. The women I met were beautiful in their bright saris – and serious about their membership in the self-help groups (SHGs).

Though I was inspired by their resilience and determination, the women also bore the marks of very difficult lives. They were extremely small – a result of malnourishment – and extremely poor. Those in urban areas lived in one- or two-room homes in concrete apartment structures with little more than a bed and a curtain for a door, while those in rural areas shared their small homes with their precious livestock. One urban family lived in a very small room in an apartment that didn’t hold much more than a bed – shared among seven family members. The youngest of the five children was badly scarred from surgery for a broken leg and would never walk properly again.  Though most of the children wore school uniforms and were enrolled, I struggled to imagine where they studied or how long it would be before they would be pulled from school to help earn income for the family.

Several truths jumped out at me as a result of meeting these clients. These truths had been spoken during my classes, but I was not able to fully appreciate them until traveling to India to meet these women.

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Falling in Love … with Microfinance

April 17, 2012

Tânia Sousa works in the Microcredit unit within the Portuguese banking firm Millennium BCP, where she is responsible for marketing. A Portuguese native with more than 10 years of experience in the financial-services industry, Tânia studied economics, and has an advanced degree in marketing. She joined Bankers without Borders®, Grameen Foundation’s skills-based volunteer initiative, in February 2012 and recently completed her first field project in Varanasi, India, with Grameen Foundation’s Microsavings team. Tânia, who currently lives and works in Lisbon, hopes to continue volunteering with Bankers without Borders.

Tânia volunteering in Varanasi, India.

When I was a little girl and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said that I would like to be a medical doctor. I didn’t imagine myself in a traditional hospital or office. I always imagined myself in a distant country, helping the kids that I saw on TV who were living in extremely poor conditions, with no food, no healthcare and no opportunity to just be … well, kids.

Life carried me away from medicine — my soul wasn’t really there — and I eventually studied economics, later graduating with a master’s degree in marketing. After graduation, I started working in a small investment bank called Activobank, which is owned by the largest private Portuguese bank, Millennium BCP. I remained at ActivoBank for 11 years, until March 2011.

Then something amazing happened: I was invited to lead the Marketing department at Microcredit Millennium BCP. I didn’t know much about microfinance, so the challenge was huge. I immediately started to do a lot of research and, to my surprise, I fell hopelessly in love with microfinance.

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Turning Insights into Products: Gambling on Applab Money

March 19, 2012

Our Applab Money initative focuses on researching, prototyping and testing innovative financial products to reach poor people who don’t typically have access to these resources. Project Manager Olga Morawczynski and Operations and Strategy Manager Lisa Kienzle recently wrote on the CGAP blog about the need to develop creative products that focus on existing customer desires, use patterns, and needs. One example: using the idea of gaming and gambling to create a helpful product for poor people.

Arthur plays a popular board game called Ludo.

What follows is one example of an interesting insight that emerged on a recent field visit that could be translated into a product that poor customers could find exciting: on our trip, we noticed that everyone loves gambling.

While visiting a village in East Africa, we met a farmer named Arthur who enjoyed gambling in his spare time. We watched him spend $2 as an entrance fee to join three other players in a popular board game called Ludo (see photo). Arthur lost this round, and the entire pot of $8 was handed over to his neighbor. When asked why he played if there was a risk of loss, Arthur explained that the potential returns were very high – in fact, it would take him one week of intensive labor (such as digging on his neighbor’s farm) to earn what he could win from one round of Ludo. If he won the pot, he would set aside half as an “emergency fund” for his family to protect against shocks – such as an unexpected illness – and reinvest the rest into the game.

Imagine, they said, what would happen if Arthur had access to a formal financial product that provided a safeguard against emergencies, but the sensation of a game.

Read the full post on the CGAP blog.

David Roodman Does His “Due Diligence,” and Gets it Mostly Right

February 16, 2012

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

David Roodman, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, the country’s leading think tank on overseas aid and international development, has written Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance, a remarkable book about microfinance.  It is, quite simply, the best book I have ever read about microfinance among the many I have gone through.  He analyzes the history, track record, recent developments and future of microfinance, and though I do not agree with all of his judgments, I agree with the vast majority of them and admire how he went about deconstructing such a diverse arena of human endeavor.

Most impressive is how he carries the reader through his rigorous thought process.  He repeatedly poses important questions, weighs the evidence, assesses whether there is enough information to make a definitive judgment, presents alternative answers and their implications, admits to a degree of uncertainty, and then does his best to provide an answer – all in plain language.  The hallmarks of his writing are nuance, detail-based distillations of publicly available information, fairness and dispassionate analysis.  If I had to keep one book on my desk for easy access to guide my writings, conversations, analysis and decisions, it would be his.  (Due Diligence is the culmination of research and writing process that played out on his blog, which has evolved to become a leading online source for microfinance information and analysis over the past couple of years.)

Cover of David Roodman's "Due Diligence"

Alex Counts, Grameen Foundation's president and CEO, calls David Roodman's new publication "the best book I have ever read about microfinance."

After some introductory remarks, Roodman sets the modern microfinance movement in a historical context, and does this better than I have ever seen before.  His survey also provides some important lessons for those working to expand and improve microfinance today.

The bulk of the book addresses the question “Does microfinance work?” in distinct ways. Does microfinance reduce poverty, does it improve the control the poor have over their lives regardless of whether it leads them to a poverty-free life and, thirdly, has it become a vibrant new industry that strengthens societies by enhancing ecosystems (in the broadest sense) consistent with long-term socio-economic development?  I admire how he has given equal weight to the three dimensions of “working” – I strongly agree with him that all are important and the latter two (especially the third) have been comparatively neglected by microfinance advocates and critics alike.

Due Diligence deserves to be read by anyone involved in microfinance, including those who volunteer their time or contribute and/or invest their money.  Let me summarize how he answers the main questions he asks, as well as his recommendations, and then distill how I believe someone involved with Grameen Foundation – or any microfinance network or institution – should feel about their past and future involvements, given his judgments and recommendations.

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CEOs Release “Road Map for the Microfinance Industry”

January 18, 2012

The founding members of the Microfinance CEO Working Group — which includes the CEOs of pioneering microfinance organizations ACCION, FINCA, Freedom from Hunger, Grameen Foundation USA, Opportunity International, Pro Mujer, VisionFund International and Women’s World Banking — have just released the “Road Map for the Microfinance Industry: Focusing on Responsible and Client-Centered Microfinance.”

This document outlines the Working Group members’ vision for the positive evolution of the microfinance field and underscores their commitment to raising industry standards, starting with their own.  Central to this vision is the Working Group’s support for three ambitious initiatives that are helping to lay the groundwork for a more responsible, client-focused and transformative industry: the Smart Campaign, MicroFinance Transparency and the Social Performance Task Force’s universal standards for social performance management.  Alex Counts first talked about the group and its goals in this blog post.

The CEOs of microfinance-focused organizations have agreed on a common approach to pursue going forward, to ensure that they are serving the poor in the best way.

The Microfinance CEO Working Group members call for their valued peers in the microfinance industry to take action by endorsing these three initiatives, transforming their principles into action, and striving for better ways to provide financial services for the poor.

The full text of the letter can be read here.

The Working Group welcomes your comments and feedback. For more information, please contact Meghan Greene, manager of the Microfinance CEO Working Group, at mgreene@accion.org.

Giving India’s Poor a New Way to Save

January 5, 2012

Santosh Daniel is the project manager for Grameen Foundation’s Microsavings Initiative in India.

Anju Jaiswal lives in a remote village of Dheena in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, where she and her husband, Ghanshyam, own a small kirana, or grocery.  Using a loan from Cashpor, a local microfinance institution (MFI), Anju is able to stock her family’s store with vegetables, provisions and other essential household items.  Her store serves the surrounding agricultural community, which can make earning a regular income challenging as most of her clients have seasonal farm jobs.  She uses most of the income she earns from the store to feed her family, often leaving very little for savings.  When the family is able to save, they keep their savings at home, like many other poor households.

For poor, rural households like Anju’s, opening a savings account poses several challenges.  The nearest Cashpor branch, for example, is 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) from Anju’s home, which means she would have to spend valuable time away from her business to go there.  In addition, the prospect of opening a savings account can be overwhelming for households that tend to have little schooling and low literacy skills.

On the other side of Uttar Pradesh, another Cashpor client, Sangeeta, lives with her husband and in-laws.  Sangeeta and her husband work in the family business in the remote village of Chaubeypur, making cardboard boxes used for packing sweets.  Though her husband has a bank account with one of the national banks, it’s often difficult for him to go to the nearest branch to deposit his savings because of distance and time constraints.  In fact, his account has been dormant for the past year and a half.

Thanks to Grameen Foundation's Microsavings Initiative and the work of its partners Cashpor (a local microfinance institution) and ICICI Bank, Sangeeta is now able to save a little each week to provide security for her future.

Thanks to Grameen Foundation's Microsavings Initiative and the work of its partners Cashpor (a local microfinance institution) and ICICI Bank, Sangeeta is now able to save a little each week to provide security for her future.

Poor, rural households face three common challenges when it comes to banking with a formal institution:

  1. Many of them don’t use existing bank services because they’re too far away and don’t offer the services they need
  2. They typically have very small sums to deposit, making the long trip to the bank not worth the time they lose
  3. They are intimidated by documentation required for opening accounts because of low literacy and lack of self-confidence

To meet these challenges, Cashpor – in collaboration with ICICI Bank and Grameen Foundation – began in June 2011 offering the Apna Savings Account to more than 379,000 female clients, as well as non-clients, living in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.  To date, Cashpor has enrolled more than 15,000 new savings customers – including Anju and Sangeeta – in more than 140 branches in five districts.  The demand for Apna (which means “ours” in Hindi) has been extremely high, with 300 to 500 new savers being added daily.

The savings product is designed to help the client overcome the challenges above.  Staff members conduct new-client enrollment via mobile phones, using the phone number as the account number.  Cashpor savings officers travel to clients to take their savings deposits (which clients can also make using their mobile phone), much as they do with traditional micro-credit clients. Deposits are then automatically updated, so clients can immediately check their balance using their phones.  Clients also can deposit, withdraw and send remittances through their phone using their mobile savings accounts.

As the project has grown, the partners have faced a few challenges in implementing the mobile savings account.  The biggest obstacle has been overcoming the cultural barriers in India to women owning a mobile phone, which is seen as a tool of the young and not respectable for Cashpor’s clientele, who are largely in the 31-45 age group.  However, when one group member decides to use the phone, we’ve seen that it is a powerful example to the others in the group.  In fact, 80 percent of Cashpor’s customers do have access to a phone (either their own phone or one they share with the rest of the household), so the potential for them using this savings account is large.  Current Cashpor clients and also non-clients are also expressing a strong willingness to buy a phone so that they can have access to formal-sector financial services.

For many women, having a savings account provides security. The savings provide a safety net for emergencies or household purchases, which is critical for poor women, who sometimes find it difficult to own property or assets.  At first, Cashpor’s clients feared their husbands would be able to check their balances on their phones, but now they’re realizing that saving with Cashpor provides more, not less, security for their savings.

The lives of Anju, Sangeeta and others who’ve taken up the new savings service have changed for the better. Grameen Foundation and its partners are working to bring safe, reliable savings accounts to poor women in rural India, provide quality customer service and use innovative approaches that will create a sustainable change in the lives of millions of poor women and their families.

Tackling the Challenges of Offering Voluntary Savings to the Poor

December 23, 2011

Leo Tobias is Grameen Foundation’s Technology Program Manager of the Solutions for the Poorest Microsavings Initiative.

Offering savings programs for the poor can be challenging. First, the microfinance institutions (MFIs) that want to offer these services are competing with a variety of alternatives, such as home-based savings (under mattresses, in strongboxes, etc.), or keeping money with relatives or neighbors. Second, offering savings products fundamentally changes the relationship between the MFI and its customers.  When clients only want loans, making that the primary purpose for their interactions with the MFI, there is a standard process. Taking voluntary customer deposits radically changes that relationship, to one that is initiated by the customer and that involves varying amounts of deposits or withdrawals. In other words, the customer interaction is less predictable.  At any time of the day or night, the customer can ask for her balance and withdraw from it.

A loan officer from CASHPOR in India processes loan payments on her mobile phone.

A loan officer from CASHPOR in India processes loan payments on her mobile phone.

Grameen Foundation’s Microsavings team has found that poor customers all want to have easy and convenient access to their funds.  The MFIs we work with face common technology challenges involved with providing such access.

In this post on the CGAP Technology Blog, Leo Tobias, our technology program manager for the Grameen Foundation Microsavings Initiative, discusses two of the major technology challenges facing MFIs.