The History of Microfinance

The History of Microfinance

This article examines the historical context of microfinance and its evolution.
The concept of microfinance is not new. Savings and credit groups that have operated for centuries include the "susus" of Ghana, "chit funds" in India, "tandas" in Mexico, "arisan" in Indonesia, "cheetu" in Sri Lanka, "tontines" in West Africa, and "pasanaku" in Bolivia, as well as numerous savings clubs and burial societies found all over the world.

Formal credit and savings institutions for the poor have also been around for decades, providing customers who were traditionally neglected by commercial banks a way to obtain financial services through cooperatives and development finance institutions. One of the earlier and longer-lived micro credit organizations providing small loans to rural poor with no collateral was the Irish Loan Fund system, initiated in the early 1700s by the author and nationalist Jonathan Swift. Swift's idea began slowly but by the 1840s had become a widespread institution of about 300 funds all over Ireland. Their principal purpose was making small loans with interest for short periods. At their peak they were making loans to 20% of all Irish households annually.

In the 1800s, various types of larger and more formal savings and credit institutions began to emerge in Europe, organized primarily among the rural and urban poor. These institutions were known as People's Banks, Credit Unions, and Savings and Credit Co-operatives.

Formal credit and savings institutions for the poor have been around for decades, providing customers who were traditionally neglected by commercial banks a way to obtain financial services through cooperatives and development finance institutions.
The concept of the credit union was developed by Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and his supporters. Their altruistic action was motivated by concern to assist the rural population to break out of their dependence on moneylenders and to improve their welfare. From 1870, the unions expanded rapidly over a large sector of the Rhine Province and other regions of the German States. The cooperative movement quickly spread to other countries in Europe and North America, and eventually, supported by the cooperative movement in developed countries and donors, also to developing countries.

In Indonesia, the Indonesian People's Credit Banks (BPR) or The Bank Perkreditan Rakyat opened in 1895. The BPR became the largest microfinance system in Indonesia with close to 9,000 units.

In the early 1900s, various adaptations of these models began to appear in parts of rural Latin America. While the goal of such rural finance interventions was usually defined in terms of modernizing the agricultural sector, they usually had two specific objectives: increased commercialization of the rural sector, by mobilizing "idle" savings and increasing investment through credit, and reducing oppressive feudal relations that were enforced through indebtedness. In most cases, these new banks for the poor were not owned by the poor themselves, as they had been in Europe, but by government agencies or private banks. Over the years, these institutions became inefficient and at times, abusive.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, governments and donors focused on providing agricultural credit to small and marginal farmers, in hopes of raising productivity and incomes. These efforts to expand access to agricultural credit emphasized supply-led government interventions in the form of targeted credit through state-owned development finance institutions, or farmers' cooperatives in some cases, that received concessional loans and on-lent to customers at below-market interest rates. These subsidized schemes were rarely successful. Rural development banks suffered massive erosion of their capital base due to subsidized lending rates and poor repayment discipline and the funds did not always reach the poor, often ending up concentrated in the hands of better-off farmers.

Meanwhile, starting in the 1970s, experimental programs in Bangladesh, Brazil, and a few other countries extended tiny loans to groups of poor women to invest in micro-businesses. This type of microenterprise credit was based on solidarity group lending in which every member of a group guaranteed the repayment of all members. These "microenterprise lending" programs had an almost exclusive focus on credit for income generating activities (in some cases accompanied by forced savings schemes) targeting very poor (often women) borrowers.

ACCION International, an early pioneer, was founded by a law student, Joseph Blatchford, to address poverty in Latin America's cities. Begun as a student-run volunteer effort in the shantytowns of Caracas with $90,000 raised from private companies, ACCION today is one of the premier microfinance organizations in the world, with a network of lending partners that spans Latin America, the United States and Africa.

SEWA Bank. In 1972 the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) was registered as a trade union in Gujarat (India), with the main objective of "strengthening its members' bargaining power to improve income, employment and access to social security." In 1973, to address their lack of access to financial services, the members of SEWA decided to found "a bank of their own". Four thousand women contributed share capital to establish the Mahila SEWA Co-operative Bank. Since then it has been providing banking services to poor, illiterate, self-employed women and has become a viable financial venture with today around 30,000 active clients.

Grameen Bank. In Bangladesh, Professor Muhammad Yunus addressed the banking problem faced by the poor through a programme of action-research. With his graduate students in Chittagong University in 1976, he designed an experimental credit programme to serve them. It spread rapidly to hundreds of villages. Through a special relationship with rural banks, he disbursed and recovered thousands of loans, but the bankers refused to take over the project at the end of the pilot phase. They feared it was too expensive and risky in spite of his success. Eventually, through the support of donors, the Grameen Bank was founded in 1983 and now serves more than 4 million borrowers. The initial success of Grameen Bank also stimulated the establishment of several other giant microfinance institutions like BRAC, ASA, Proshika, etc.

Through the 1980s, the policy of targeted, subsidized rural credit came under a slow but increasing attack as evidence mounted of the disappointing performance of directed credit programs, especially poor loan recovery, high administrative costs, agricultural development bank insolvency, and accrual of a disproportionate share of the benefits of subsidized credit to larger farmers. The basic tenets underlying the traditional directed credit approach were debunked and supplanted by a new school of thought called the "financial systems approach", which viewed credit not as a productive input necessary for agricultural development but as just one type of financial service that should be freely priced to guarantee its permanent supply and eliminate rationing. The financial systems school held that the emphasis on interest rate ceilings and credit subsidies retarded the development of financial intermediaries, discouraged intermediation between savers and investors, and benefited larger scale producers more than small scale, low-income producers.

Meanwhile, microcredit programs throughout the world improved upon the original methodologies and defied conventional wisdom about financing the poor. First, they showed that poor people, especially women, had excellent repayment rates among the better programs, rates that were better than the formal financial sectors of most developing countries. Second, the poor were willing and able to pay interest rates that allowed microfinance institutions (MFIs) to cover their costs.

1990s These two features - high repayment and cost-recovery interest rates - permitted some MFIs to achieve long-term sustainability and reach large numbers of clients.

Another flagship of the microfinance movement is the village banking unit system of the Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI), the largest microfinance institution in developing countries. This state-owned bank serves about 22 million microsavers with autonomously managed microbanks. The microbanks of BRI are the product of a successful transformation by the state of a state-owned agricultural bank during the mid-1980s.

The 1990s saw growing enthusiasm for promoting microfinance as a strategy for poverty alleviation. The microfinance sector blossomed in many countries, leading to multiple financial services firms serving the needs of microentrepreneurs and poor households. These gains, however, tended to concentrate in urban and densely populated rural areas.

The 1990s saw growing enthusiasm for promoting microfinance as a strategy for poverty alleviation. The microfinance sector blossomed in many countries, leading to multiple financial services firms serving the needs of microentrepreneurs and poor households.
It was not until the mid-1990s that the term "microcredit" began to be replaced by a new term that included not only credit, but also savings and other financial services. "Microfinance" emerged as the term of choice to refer to a range of financial services to the poor, that included not only credit, but also savings and other services such as insurance and money transfers.

ACCION helped found BancoSol in 1992, the first commercial bank in the world dedicated solely to microfinance. Today, BancoSol offers its more than 70,000 clients an impressive range of financial services including savings accounts, credit cards and housing loans - products that just five years ago were only accessible to Bolivia's upper classes. BancoSol is no longer unique: more than 15 ACCION-affiliated organizations are now regulated financial institutions.

Today, practitioners and donors are increasingly focusing on expanded financial services to the poor in frontier markets and on the integration of microfinance in financial systems development. The recent introduction by some donors of the financial systems approach in microfinance - which emphasizes favorable policy environment and institution-building - has improved the overall effectiveness of microfinance interventions. But numerous challenges remain, especially in rural and agricultural finance and other frontier markets. Today, the microfinance industry and the greater development community share the view that permanent poverty reduction requires addressing the multiple dimensions of poverty. For the international community, this means reaching specific Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in education, women's empowerment, and health, among others. For microfinance, this means viewing microfinance as an essential element in any country's financial system.

Examples of Recent Innovations in Financial Services for the Poor:

1. CCACN (Central de Cooperativas de Ahorro y Crédito Financieras de Nicaragua) is marketing its "Agriculture Salary" savings product to farmers. The goal of the product is to smooth the flow of income from the proceeds of an annual or semi-annual harvest. Each credit union works with its farmers to identify their individual expenses and determine a monthly "salary" (portion of harvest proceeds on deposit combined with an above-market interest rate) to be withdrawn from the credit union. In its infancy stage, the credit unions have noted an interest from agriculture-based clients in such a savings management program. Source: WOCCU: A Technical Guide to Rural- Finance Exploring Products. WOCCU Technical Guide # 3, December 2003.

2. Caja los Andes in Bolivia offers four loan repayment options that fit the cash flow of various agricultural activities, including an end-of-term payment for both principal and interest that fits single crop activities, and unequal payments at irregular intervals for farmers that have planted several crops with different harvesting periods. Flexibility is also provided in loan disbursements, and farmers can receive the sanctioned loan amount in as many as three installments.

3. Prodem in Bolivia has introduced a combination of biometric fingerprint and Smart Cards to deliver financial services to its clients. Biometric technology measures an individual's unique physical or behavioral characteristics, such as fingerprints, facial characteristics, voice pattern, and gait, to recognize and confirm identity. Although the technology is still new, growing awareness of the importance of data security is increasing adoption steadily. Prodem's fingerprint verification has reduced fraud, error, and repudiation of transactions. Staff had not had to deal with forgotten PIN numbers or unauthorized use of cards and accounts so they have more time to provide personal service and advice to clients.

4. International Remittance Network (IRnet): In late 1999, WOCCU, in partnership with Vigo, a money transfer firm, launched IRnet. As of June 2003, 173 credit unions in Central America offer IRnet, expanding the possibilities for sending remittances through 800 US credit union points of service. The Central American credit unions distribute remittances primarily to rural clients. The distributing credit unions help to integrate remittance recipients into the formal financial sector through trained staff who cross-sell services. When a non-member enters a credit union to pick up a remittance, a staff person encourages this person to become a credit union member and save a portion of the remittance in an interest-bearing voluntary savings account. Source: WOCCU: A Technical Guide to Rural- Finance Exploring Products. WOCCU Technical Guide # 3, December 2003.
Mercy Corps photo. Source: Buchenau, Juan.

5. Unibanka (Latvia): Prior to introducing credit scoring, Unibanka, a commercial bank, viewed microfinance loans as too costly to deliver. With the assistance of Bannock Consulting, Unibanka instituted a credit-scoring system based on qualitative client data because sufficient quantitative data was not available to develop a statistical model. Branch staff now uses scorecards to evaluate microfinance loan applications quickly, which has reduced the cost of review and made microfinance lending profitable for Unibanka. Source: CGAP IT INNOVATION SERIES: Credit Scoring.

6. Managed ASCAs: A number of local organisations in the Nyeri District of Kenya provide management services to group-based loan funds. The groups operate as Accumulating Savings and Credit Associations (ASCAs) and receive management services provided by ASCA Management Agencies (AMAs). The AMA model serves a wider client base than the mainstream donor funded MFIs who tend to focus their attention on micro and small entrepreneurs. The clientele of AMAs are also drawn from other socio-economic strata, including salaried workers such as nurses, teachers and civil servants as well as subsistence and semi-commercial farmers. Hence their reach into the rural areas is much greater than the MFIs. Source: Nthenya Mule, Susan Johnson, Robert Hickson. Wambui Mwangi. The Managed ASCA Model: Innovation in Kenya's Microfinance Industry. Micro-Save Africa. 2001.

7. ICICI Bank (India): Two state banks in India (Corporation and Canara) partnered with an NGO to provide salaried low-income workers with access to savings. The project uses the already established automatic teller machines (ATMs) in the factories to offer a recurring savings product, along with education on personal finance. Source: CGAP.

8. Microenterprise Access to Banking Services (MABS) in the Philippines nurtures the expanded use of the credit bureau by rural banks, which was started in 2001 to minimize client over indebtedness and defaults. MABS has helped to integrate the rural banks' microenterprise loan clients into an existing national credit bureau, by creating an e-mail encryption program that allows rural banks to share information electronically at a low cost. Source: Anita Campion and John Owens, MABS: A Sustainable Approach to Rural Microfinance, Microbanking Bulletin, July 2003.

9. BASIX in India reduced transportation and transaction costs for its clients and decreased staff expenses by establishing tellers in manned phone booths operating in India. The company operating the phone booths receives a service fee and phone booth operators are being trained in basic collection operations and accounting. BASIX is currently redesigning the project after the pilot and preparing it for relaunching. Source: CGAP.

10. Credit, life, and funeral insurance: A WOCCU study on savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs) in Kenya indicates that HIV/AIDS poses high levels of risk to rural finance institution soundness. The Cooperative Insurance Company (CIC), a professional insurance provider, insures over half of Kenya's more than one million credit union members who subscribe to policies through their credit unions. Source: WOCCU: A Technical Guide to Rural- Finance Exploring Products. WOCCU Technical Guide # 3, December 2003.

11. The National Microfinance Bank in Tanzania (NMB) was created to retain the extensive rural branch network of the National Bank of Commerce (NBC) when it was privatized in 1997. The key to making it commercially viable has been rigorous control of costs through drastic simplification of the business model and tight managerial oversight. Key initiatives have been correct pricing of products, particularly payments and remittance services, which had traditionally been cross-subsidized by other product lines, and the development of microfinance products, mainly small (average US $400) individual loans. Source: Rural financial services: Implementing the bank's strategy to reach the rural poor (Work in Progress). Rural Private Sector, Markets, Finance and Infrastructure Thematic Group. Rural Sector Board, The World Bank. Washington, D.C. March 2003.

12. ADOPEM (Dominican Republic) thoroughly evaluated its PDA (Personal Digital Assistants) program and recorded dramatic improvements. Client retention improved significantly, and the number of days between application and disbursement dropped from five days to two days. Expenses for paperwork dropped by 60% and data entry expenses dropped by 50%. Loan officer caseloads and other productivity measures increased by about 35%. Source: Charles Waterfield, with CGAP and echange LLC Staff, "Personal Digital Assistants, (PDAs)," CGAP IT Innovation Series. Washington, D.C.: CGAP, October 2003.

13. The international NGO Technoserve has developed an inventory credit scheme in Ghana that enables farmers' groups to obtain higher value for their crops by providing post-harvest credit through linkage with a rural financial institution. Instead of selling all of their crop at harvest - when prices are lowest - in order to meet cash needs, small-scale farmers in the scheme store their crop in a cooperatively-managed warehouse and receive a loan of about 75-80% of the value of the stored crop, which serves as collateral. This loan permits them to clear their accumulated debts and satisfy immediate cash requirements. Then, when prices have risen in the off-season, the farmers either sell the stored crop or redeem it for home consumption. Source: Rural financial services: Implementing the bank's strategy to reach the rural poor (Work in Progress). Rural Private Sector, Markets, Finance and Infrastructure Thematic Group. Rural Sector Board, The World Bank. Washington, D.C. March 2003.

14. Savings-based, Agriculture-oriented Rural Credit Unions - SICREDI - Brazil specializes in agricultural lending, primarily for the production of rice, wheat, beef, fodder, fish, vegetables and for agricultural equipment. Loan approvals are based upon the members' savings history and credit record, with the size limited to 50 percent of production costs and dependent upon the potential return of crop sale at harvest as well as household income and debt obligations. The borrower makes monthly interest payments and then a balloon payment of the principal at harvest time. In addition, SICREDI participates in the PROAGRO national crop insurance, for which a premium is added on the loan rate. PROAGRO pays 100% of the loan loss if the crop fails. Source: WOCCU: A Technical Guide to Rural- Finance Exploring Products. WOCCU Technical Guide # 3, December 2003.

15. Producer Associations as Clients of a Financial Institution: GAPI and CLUSA in Mozambique: GAPI offers investment and working capital loans to fora (federations of associations) of small farmers and small and micro-enterprises. GAPI collaborates with CLUSA to set-up and register these fora. Loans are secured through a solidarity group-like guarantee between the participating fora. Each forum on-lends to its member associations, who collect the produce from their individual members and other area farmers and deliver it to the forum in return for the loan. About 80% of the profits from the sale of produce are handed back to the associations - the remaining 20% of the profits are kept by the forum as interest payments. Source: Pearce, Douglas. "Buyer and Supplier Credit to Farmers: Do Donors Have a Role to Play?" prepared for Paving the Way Forward for Rural Finance: An International Conference on Best Practices, held June 2-4, 2003.

16. In South Africa, a network of 8,000 armored trucks equipped with thumbprint recognition and smart-card technology deliver pension payments of about $60 each month to 4.5 million South Africans. The potential of this vast infrastructure to offer pensioners other kinds of financial services is tremendous. Source: CGAP Donor Brief No. 17: How Donors Can Help Build Pro-poor Financial Systems, by Brigit Helms and Ruth Goodwin-Groen, with input from CGAP staff, February 2004.

17. Banco Postal in Brazil, a joint venture between the Post Office and the largest private bank (Bradesco) has offered banking (and payment) services through its network of postal branches in remote and poor areas of the country since March 2002. Source: World Bank.

Tanzania Posts Corporation mini-buses offer passenger service along domestic regional routes. Postal outlets have become one-stop service centers that provide photocopying, telephone and money transfer services. They also sell stationery and newspaper and act as agents for others by accepting newspaper advertisements, selling lottery tickets, revenue stamps for radio stations, and tickets for boats between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. Source: International Trade Forum, Issue 4/2002, Page 30.

18. Equity Building Society (EBS) in Kenya has emerged as one of Kenya's leading microfinance institutions, with over 155,000 savings clients and 41,000 borrowers. Once insolvent, EBS transformed itself into a profitable financial-service provider by rigorously focusing on the needs of its clients - in particular, by developing a wide range of market-based financial products and services, including a mobile banking service. Source: CGAP Case Studies In Donor Good Practices No. 8. Donors As Silent Partners in MFI Product Development: MicroSave-Africa and Equity Building Society in Kenya. July 2003.

Contributed by CGAP. Prepared for CGAP UNCDF Donor Training, "The New Vision of Microfinance: Financial Services for the Poor."

For a comprehensive guide to organizations working in microfinance, see Microfinance Resources.

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