>> Authored by Josefine Lindänge, CEO of Hand in Hand International
Decades of microcredit have shown us that while it is a powerful tool in the arsenal of international development it is not, as the World Bank Forum on microcredit in February made clear, a magic bullet to tackle poverty. Over the years there have been many studies into the effects of microcredit, most recently by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) which concluded that small, short-term loans generally do not lead to increased income (American Economics Association). But, is this a reason for the sector to discard microloans all together?
On the contrary. At Hand in Hand, our experience in the field has taught us that access to finance is vital in the fight against poverty. But on its own, it will not transform a microenterprise from loss to profit nor will it transform a small scale farmer eking out a living on a small plot of land into a micro-entrepreneur. In order to achieve our ambitious objectives we need to understand our clients, as the World Bank Forum in February highlighted.
Microcredit is more effective when supported by non-financial services like financial and business training.
We have been providing a package of business training and credit to more than one million people in some of the world’s most deprived countries since 2003. As a result, they have created 1.4 million micro-enterprises which provide jobs and incomes for 2 million people.
Of course millions of microentrepreneurs already exist in the informal economy where, the World Bank (World Development report 2013, page 48) estimates, more than 3 billion people are working, nearly half of whom work in farming, small household businesses, or in casual/seasonal day labor, earning a poorly paid and often vulnerable living. Rather than seeing this as a problem, we should ask ourselves what these people need to establish or transform their small, unprofitable enterprises into thriving businesses.
The power of microcredit +
Of course, combining group savings and skills training with microcredit is not unique. But most NGOs focus just on one or two of these elements. At Hand in Hand we combine all three and even add a fourth by connecting entrepreneurs to larger markets.
Firstly, we create community groups who support each other, save together, and learn together. Then we train the group members to discover and develop small businesses that make use of their skills and potential; the training includes bookkeeping, profit and loss, creating a basic business plan and marketing. Members have to complete these first two steps before we provide access to microcredit. Finally, we help scale up their businesses by facilitating access to larger markets and advising on the production of higher value products rather than commodities.
We work with our members for up to three years, and it is only after they have completed all the training modules, can demonstrate high attendance rates at meetings, good repayment on internal lending, a required level of savings, and submission of a solid and approved business plan that they qualify for credit — either from our own microfinance facilities or from partners.
Saving: the key to financial success
There are two dimensions within our program to facilitate financial inclusion: access to savings and then access to credit.
Saving is an important component of financial education and one many in the developed world take for granted. But, the question is, do the poor have any “spare” money to save? Surely that is exactly why they need microcredit?
Among the many entrepreneurs I have met and talked to over the years, saving is always mentioned as the most important skill they have learned. The change to spending what they need and saving the rest for “a rainy day” is transformative and, I think, best explained by one of our successful entrepreneurs in Rwanda, Rahabu: “You know what it is like. You go to the market because you need salt. But when you are there, you see some nice tomatoes so you buy those as well. I don’t do that anymore. I have learnt to buy what I need and save what is left.”
Our members start out in saving groups before receiving microloans. The savings enables them to buy the first stock, equipment, animals, or crops they need to get their microenterprise off the ground. Once they have met all the requirements I mentioned earlier, then they are able to apply for microcredit. The credit history they have built up as members and within the internal saving-loan-repayment system of our savings groups is crucial to securing that first microloan.
Group members wishing to borrow from the group savings fund are required to present a basic business plan to the group. It is then up to the group to decide whether or not to invest, how much to invest, and what the rate of return should be, which demonstrates a clear understanding of some fairly complicated financial transactions, auguring well for future debt repayments.
Members are selected for credit or linked to microfinance institutions (MFIs) when they meet the criteria I have described and we are confident they are fully prepared to take on the risk of a loan because our training focuses on the meaning of debt, importance of repayment, as well as the opportunities presented by a loan. Although we do not recommend particular MFIs to our members, we do make them aware of the various financial institutions or banks that exist, their different requirements, and what to look for or avoid. Since 2003, we have overseen the dispersal of more than US $240 million in microloans.
These partnerships with microfinance institutions are essential for our microentrepreneurs to take the next step on their journey. An independent review of our work in India in 2012 found that over 95 percent of loans were used for productive purposes and the repayment rate is 99.8 percent.
In short then, a symbiotic approach between access to finance and non-financial services like Hand in Hand’s support is needed to tackle the root cause of poverty.
About the author
Josefine began her career at the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs, Finance for Development section. After working a number of years in the private sector, she joined Hand in Hand in 2008. Josefine played a decisive role in establishing Hand in Hand Eastern Africa, and was promoted to Chief Operating Officer of Hand in Hand International in 2011. She holds a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Development Economics and International Economics from Lund University in Sweden and studied strategic leadership for microfinance at Harvard Business School.