Microfinance is a source of financial services for entrepreneurs and small businesses lacking access to banking and related services. The two main mechanisms for the delivery of financial services to such clients are: (1) relationship-based banking for individual entrepreneurs and small businesses; and (2) group-based models, where several entrepreneurs come together to apply for loans and other services as a group. In some regions, for example Southern Africa, microfinance is used to describe the supply of financial services to low-income employees, which is closer to the retail finance model prevalent in mainstream banking.
For some, microfinance is a movement whose object is “a world in which as many poor and near-poor households as possible have permanent access to an appropriate range of high quality financial services, including not just credit but also savings, insurance, and fund transfers.” Many of those who promote microfinance generally believe that such access will help poor people out of poverty, including participants in the Microcredit Summit Campaign. For others, microfinance is a way to promote economic development, employment and growth through the support of micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Microfinance is a broad category of services, which includes microcredit. Microcredit is provision of credit services to poor clients. Microcredit is one of the aspects of microfinance and the two are often confused. Critics may attack microcredit while referring to it indiscriminately as either ‘microcredit’ or ‘microfinance’. Due to the broad range of microfinance services, it is difficult to assess impact, and very few studies have tried to assess its full impact. Proponents often claim that microfinance lifts people out of poverty, but the evidence is mixed. What it does do, however, is to enhance financial inclusion.
Microfinance and poverty
In developing economies and particularly in rural areas, many activities that would be classified in the developed world as financial are not monetized: that is, money is not used to carry them out. This is often the case when people need the services money can provide but do not have dispensable funds required for those services, forcing them to revert to other means of acquiring them. In their book The Poor and Their Money, Stuart Rutherford and Sukhwinder Arora cite several types of needs: Lifecycle Needs: such as weddings, funerals, childbirth, education, home building, widowhood and old age.
Personal Emergencies: such as sickness, injury, unemployment, theft, harassment or death.
Disasters: such as fires, floods, cyclones and man-made events like war or bulldozing of dwellings.
Investment Opportunities: expanding a business, buying land or equipment, improving housing, securing a job (which often requires paying a large bribe), etc.
People find creative and often collaborative ways to meet these needs, primarily through creating and exchanging different forms of non-cash value. Common substitutes for cash vary from country to country but typically include livestock, grains, jewelry and precious metals. As Marguerite Robinson describes in The Micro finance Revolution, the 1980s demonstrated that “micro finance could provide large-scale outreach profitably,” and in the 1990s, “micro finance began to develop as an industry” (2001, p. 54). In the 2000s, the micro finance industry’s objective is to satisfy the unmet demand on a much larger scale, and to play a role in reducing poverty. While much progress has been made in developing a viable, commercial micro finance sector in the last few decades, several issues remain that need to be addressed before the industry will be able to satisfy massive worldwide demand. The obstacles or challenges to building a sound commercial micro finance industry include:
Inappropriate donor subsidies
Poor regulation and supervision of deposit-taking micro finance institutions (MFIs)
Few MFIs that meet the needs for savings, remittances or insurance
Limited management capacity in MFIs
Need for more dissemination and adoption of rural, agricultural micro finance methodologies
Microfinance is the proper tool to reduce income inequality, allowing citizens from lower socio-economical classes to participate in the economy. Moreover, its involvement has shown to lead to a downward trend in income inequality (Hermes, 2014)
Ways In Which Poor People Manage Their Money
Rutherford argues that the basic problem that poor people face as money managers is to gather a ‘usefully large’ amount of money. Building a new home may involve saving and protecting diverse building materials for years until enough are available to proceed with construction. Children’s schooling may be funded by buying chickens and raising them for sale as needed for expenses, uniforms, bribes, etc. Because all the value is accumulated before it is needed, this money management strategy is referred to as ‘saving up’.
Often, people don’t have enough money when they face a need, so they borrow. A poor family might borrow from relatives to buy land, from a moneylender to buy rice, or from a microfinance institution to buy a sewing machine. Since these loans must be repaid by saving after the cost is incurred, Rutherford calls this ‘saving down’. Rutherford’s point is that microcredit is addressing only half the problem, and arguably the less important half: poor people borrow to help them save and accumulate assets. Microcredit institutions should fund their loans through savings accounts that help poor people manage their myriad risks.
Most needs are met through a mix of saving and credit. A benchmark impact assessment of Grameen Bank and two other large microfinance institutions in Bangladesh found that for every $1 they were lending to clients to finance rural non-farm micro-enterprise, about $2.50 came from other sources, mostly their clients’ savings. This parallels the experience in the West, in which family businesses are funded mostly from savings, especially during start-up.
Recent studies have also shown that informal methods of saving are unsafe. For example, a study by Wright and Mutesasira in Uganda concluded that “those with no option but to save in the informal sector are almost bound to lose some money—probably around one quarter of what they save there.”
The work of Rutherford, Wright and others has caused practitioners to reconsider a key aspect of the microcredit paradigm: that poor people get out of poverty by borrowing, building microenterprises and increasing their income. The new paradigm places more attention on the efforts of poor people to reduce their many vulnerabilities by keeping more of what they earn and building up their assets. While they need loans, they may find it as useful to borrow for consumption as for microenterprise. A safe, flexible place to save money and withdraw it when needed is also essential for managing household and family risk.
One of the principal challenges of microfinance is providing small loans at an affordable cost. The global average interest and fee rate is estimated at 37%, with rates reaching as high as 70% in some markets. The reason for the high interest rates is not primarily cost of capital. Indeed, the local microfinance organizations that receive zero-interest loan capital from the online microlending platform Kiva charge average interest and fee rates of 35.21%. Rather, the main reason for the high cost of microfinance loans is the high transaction cost of traditional microfinance operations relative to loan size.
Microfinance practitioners have long argued that such high interest rates are simply unavoidable, because the cost of making each loan cannot be reduced below a certain level while still allowing the lender to cover costs such as offices and staff salaries. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa credit risk for microfinance institutes is very high, because customers need years to improve their livelihood and face many challenges during this time. Financial institutes often do not even have a system to check the person’s identity. Additionally they are unable to design new products and enlarge their business to reduce the risk. The result is that the traditional approach to microfinance has made only limited progress in resolving the problem it purports to address: that the world’s poorest people pay the world’s highest cost for small business growth capital. The high costs of traditional microfinance loans limit their effectiveness as a poverty-fighting tool. Offering loans at interest and fee rates of 37% mean that borrowers who do not manage to earn at least a 37% rate of return may actually end up poorer as a result of accepting the loans.
Example of a loan contract, using flat rate calculation, from rural Cambodia. Loan is for 400,000 riels at 4% flat (16,000 riels) interest per month.
According to a recent survey of microfinance borrowers in Ghana published by the Center for Financial Inclusion, more than one-third of borrowers surveyed reported struggling to repay their loans. Some resorted to measures such as reducing their food intake or taking children out of school in order to repay microfinance debts that had not proven sufficiently profitable.
In recent years, the microfinance industry has shifted its focus from the objective of increasing the volume of lending capital available, to address the challenge of providing microfinance loans more affordably. Microfinance analyst David Roodman contends that, in mature markets, the average interest and fee rates charged by microfinance institutions tend to fall over time. However, global average interest rates for microfinance loans are still well above 30%.
The answer to providing microfinance services at an affordable cost may lie in rethinking one of the fundamental assumptions underlying microfinance: that microfinance borrowers need extensive monitoring and interaction with loan officers in order to benefit from and repay their loans. The P2P microlending service Zidisha is based on this premise, facilitating direct interaction between individual lenders and borrowers via an internet community rather than physical offices. Zidisha has managed to bring the cost of microloans to below 10% for borrowers, including interest which is paid out to lenders. However, it remains to be seen whether such radical alternative models can reach the scale necessary to compete with traditional microfinance programs.
Benefits and Limitations
Microfinancing produces many benefits for poverty stricken, or low- income households. One of the benefits is that it is very accessible. Banks today simply won’t extend loans to those with little to no assets, and generally don’t engage in small size loans typically associated with microfinancing. Through microfinancing small loans are produced and accessible. Microfinancing is based on the philosophy that even small amounts of credit can help end the cycle of poverty. Another benefit produced from the microfinancing initiative is that it presents opportunities, such as extending education and jobs. Families receiving microfinancing are less likely to pull their children out of school for economic reasons. As well, in relation to employment, people are more likely to open small businesses that will aid the creation of new jobs. Overall, the benefits outline that the microfinancing initiative is set out to improve the standard of living amongst impoverished communities (Rutherford, 2009).
There are also many challenges within microfinance initiatives which may be social or financial. Here, more articulate and better-off community members may cheat poorer or less-educated neighbours. This may occur intentionally or inadvertently through loosely run organizations. As a result, many microfinance initiatives require a large amount of social capital or trust in order to work effectively. The ability of poorer people to save may also fluctuate over time as unexpected costs may take priority which could result in them being able to save little or nothing some weeks. Rates of inflation may cause funds to lose their value, thus financially harming the saver and not benefiting colector.