Banking on African women

Loan guarantees and private partners improve access
From Africa Renewal: 
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A fabric seller in AngolaA fabric seller in Angola: Women own nearly half of all enterprises in Africa,but have the hardest time securing credit.
Photograph: Panos / Thomas Havisham

“We are not waiting. We are moving,” says Pilda Modjadji, a founding member of the Pankop Women Farmers Forum in Mpumalanga, South Africa. “We mean business.”

The Pankop group, which now has 300 members, started with the humble goal of growing fruit collectively and using the proceeds to supplement family diets, raise incomes and pay school tuition fees. But the women quickly realized that the village offered few job prospects for graduates — their children were going off to the cities. Determined to create an alternative source of employment in the village, the women, with the agreement and support of traditional chiefs and municipal authorities, set up a fruit and vegetable dehydration plant.

The women’s plans were ambitious, and they felt that old-style microcredit loans — which usually range between $20 and $300 — were not enough. The Pankop group needed the equivalent of $100,000. They got the funds from local commercial banks because Thembani International Guarantee Fund, a South African organization created in 1996 by the US non-profit Shared Interest and the Swiss-based Recherches et Applications de Financements Alternatifs au Développement (RAFAD), put up $70,000 in loan guarantees. Such guarantees provide banks with an assurance that the guarantor will assume part of the losses if a default occurs.

With that first loan, the women in Mpumalanga converted an old school dormitory into a functioning plant. The project initially hired 65 young people. Then, with a second loan of $120,000, also guaranteed by Thembani, they increased the number of employees to 200, working in shifts. Their latest loan is worth about $1 mn, with $800,000 of it guaranteed by Thembani. With those funds, the women plan to meet European Union health and safety standards and start exporting their produce.

A different approach

The Pankop Women Farmers Forum reflects the new face of microfinance in Africa. Traditionally, microfinance institutions have often been non-profit groups relying heavily on donor money, targeting basic needs and generally giving out only small loans. But increasingly, private equity funds and philanthropic groups and individuals are making it possible to leverage significantly larger loans. They do so by giving loan guarantees to local commercial banks, which reduces the perceived risks of lending and leads the banks to release more money.

A local lender in Mpumalanga, South AfricaA local lender in Mpumalanga, South Africa: Loan guarantees are encouraging banks to give more credit to women’s groups.
Photograph: Africanpictures.net / Graeme Williams

Since its inception in 1994, Shared Interest has given guarantees worth over $13 mn, encouraging South African banks, municipal unions and private companies to disburse some $100 mn. Such loans have benefited more than 1 million low-income South Africans. Three-quarters of the beneficiaries have been women.

Donna Katzin, president of Thembani’s parent organization, Shared Interest, told Africa Renewal that her group does more than just create access to financing. “Thembani identifies projects and partners, helps them develop business proposals and plans for bankable projects and hooks them up with banks that are able to provide the credit.”

Thembani also gives technical assistance to the commercial banks issuing the loans. Most such banks, Ms. Katzin notes, previously had little inclination to lend to informal groups. “Most lack experience or training or have difficulty with this kind of lending. We are helping to change the way the banks operate. We are introducing them to a new set of people who need their capital.”

Scaling up

According to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), women own about 48 per cent of all enterprises in Africa. But they have the hardest time gaining access to finance.

Non-governmental organizations like Shared Interest are not the only ones using guarantees to improve women’s access to credit. The International Labour Organization and the African Development Bank (ADB) have jointly created a $10 mn guarantee scheme called Growth-Oriented Women Entrepreneurs (GOWE), with the ADB and IFC managing the operation. GOWE is intended to help about 400 women entrepreneurs across Africa to secure access to financing by 2011. For prospective borrowers to qualify, their businesses must be at least two years old and show potential for growth. Those who are approved can borrow between $20,000 and $400,000, but are expected to raise 20 per cent of the expansion costs on their own.

According to IFC Operations Officer Mary Njoroge, “by focusing on established small and medium enterprises that are looking to expand,” the organizations hope to “increase the share of women’s enterprises that actually make it to middle and large scale.”

‘Make successful’ loans

In Kenya, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has partnered with Equity Bank — a former microfinance institution that has turned itself into a commercial bank — to set up a fund to provide $81 mn in loans exclusively to women. “We call the loans fanikisha [“make successful”] and it has been one of our most successful products yet,” Equity Bank Chief Executive Officer James Mwangi told Africa Renewal. “Fifty-four per cent of the customers at our bank are women, and they have the best loan-repayment reputation.”

Equity’s fanikisha loans are based on an evaluation of a business’s cash flow, rather than on collateral. Clients can borrow as little as $25 and as much as $160,000 or more, depending on their previous repayment record.

In Nigeria, until recently, enterprising and capable women with solid businesses could not get loans because they lacked collateral requirements or credit histories. Most commercial banks, which had little familiarity with women’s businesses or the market niches they occupy, believed that it was too risky to give them loans.

But one such bank, Access Bank, thought that it could finance women’s businesses profitably. It approached the IFC, which provided it with a $15 mn line of credit for lending specifically to businesses owned by women. The loans were accompanied by business development advice and training to help the women improve their business skills and operations.

Lower cost of credit

In Kenya, 61 per cent of household entrepreneurs are women, but two decades ago getting the necessary financing to expand businesses was difficult for them. In 1981, a group of women came together and formed the Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT), a microfinance lender dedicated to women. At inception, KWFT relied on limited donor funds and loans from commercial banks. The latter often came with high interest rates, a cost KWFT had to pass on to its clients. According to KWFT’s chief executive, Jennifer Riria, the trust faced many defaults and became heavily indebted.

But as commercial banks have realized that lending to women can be profitable, loans to organizations like KWFT have become cheaper, enabling it to lend at lower rates and expand its reach. Today it is the largest microfinance institution for women in East and Central Africa. In 2006 alone, KWFT disbursed $52 mn in loans to its clients, managed $16 mn in member savings and had more than 200,000 accounts in seven of Kenya’s eight provinces.

Insurance coverage

Some microfinance organizations are going a step beyond simple lending. KWFT realized that emergency health costs often forced women to raid their business capital to pay for health care. In response, the trust launched a medical insurance programme for its clients and their families.

For a yearly payment of about $60, KWFT clients get policies to cover inpatient, personal accident and funeral expenses. They can also draw weekly allowances during hospital admissions and thus meet their ongoing business obligations. If they become disabled, they receive a lump-sum payout. It is an innovative service in a country where insurance services are still largely unavailable to those not formally employed.

Equity Bank is offering a similar service to its clientele, most of whom are women. For about $6 a month in premiums, the bank provides crop insurance, basic life insurance or funeral insurance, in partnership with British American Insurance and other insurance companies. Mr. Mwangi, Equity’s chief executive, explains that poor people often keep their savings in traditional forms such as crop granaries or livestock. But that puts them at risk of losing everything if weather or other circumstances change. “Individually, they do not qualify for insurance. But when they fall ill or lose their crop, they are basically disabled.”

Regular insurance companies cannot service clients who have small premiums, since the costs of administration often exceed what the individual pays. But once Equity Bank took on that administrative cost and collected the tiny amounts, the sums totalled over $20 mn annually. By acting as the collecting agent, Equity Bank not only saved the insurance companies the risks and costs of collecting small premiums and earned a commission in the process, but also ensured that its clients got the insurance they needed.