Showcasing the winner of the 2015 European Microfinance Award
The world seems increasingly riven by crisis and chaos, and providing financial and social services to vulnerable people in the aftermath of natural or man-made disaster is exceptionally challenging. But the benefits when done well can be particularly valuable, for individual clients and households, as well as for affected communities. In the parlance, increasing ‘resilience’ is key: financial institutions that manage this increase both their own resilience (for example in operations, staffing, policy, or control) and that of their clients (offering appropriate financial and non-financial - such as health and humanitarian relief services).
The European Microfinance Award,held annually during the European Microfinance Platform’s European Microfinance Week, focused this year on microfinance in post-disaster, post-conflict areas & fragile states. This year’s Award went to Crédit Rural de Guinée (CRG), and was chosen by nearly 30 experts over a 5-month assessment process, out of a record initial field of 47 applications from 28 countries. There were two other finalists - The First Microfinance Institution-Syria and Taytay Sa Kauswagan Inc., from the Philippines. The winner and finalists all demonstrated a unique approach to ensuring continuity of services to clients, in the face of, respectively, an Ebola outbreak, civil war, and a once-in-a-century typhoon.
CRG received the Award for its response to the Ebola virus outbreak beginning in early 2014. CRG is a Guinean microfinance bank with 120 mostly-rural branches, established in 1989 as an NGO and as a bank in 2011. It has about 250,000 clients, and loan portfolio of approximately €11 million, and 75% of its clients are below the US$2/day national poverty line.
CRG continued to operate as the virus - along with panic, fear, and chaos - spread throughout Guinea and neighboring countries, while taking special measures to prevent infection and protect both clients and staff. Among its adaptation measures were contacting clients and processing payments and conducting transactions via a mobile phone platform, rescheduling loans for affected borrowers (including cancelling debt in cases of death), continuing disbursement of new loans, and insuring clients were able to withdraw their savings to help cope with the disaster.
CRG provided grants to the families of staff who were victims of Ebola to maintain institutional human resources, and launched a national awareness campaign to inform clients and the general population of measures to prevent the transmission of the virus. In total, over 4,000 people participated in these sessions. With support from the World Food Programme, CRG is currently distributing compensation to over 1,000 Ebola survivors who continue to be stigmatized by their communities, as well as to 55,000 affected families.
The Challenges of Crisis Contexts
CRG’s experience is not unique. After major crises populations experience critical levels of insecurity and instability that can push them into destitution. Microfinance institutions, as well as local government structures, infrastructure, markets, households’ human and physical capital, social relations and trust are severely affected, and the re-establishment of normal socio-economic conditions is undermined. A negative feedback loop of poverty traps can emerge: incomes fall and become more volatile; productivity decreases; markets worsen; infrastructure decays; movement of goods deteriorates; and social cohesion can suffer.
CRG’s Director General, Sadio Diallo Lamarana, accepted the Award during the ceremony and showcased a short video about the institution’s response. He described the enormous difficulties for the institution such as clients having to rely on their savings, as economic activity had ground to a crawl. Customer care was crucial, and extremely complex.
“Our branches were increasingly visited during the epidemic. The situation was critical, and of course there was also a risk of infection for our employees.” The safety measures were strengthened in the branches, and telephone services expanded, but considerable risks were still taken by staff in continuing to service clients. Some branches in the most affected areas had to be closed for more than two months, a problem compounded by poor communications and infrastructure in rural areas, made yet worse during the outbreak.
The collapse in economic activity, especially trade, among non-infected clients, and incapacitation - and even death - among infected clients, had significant effects on CRG’s portfolio quality and balance sheet. Diallo says that the challenges would have been much greater still, but for CRG’s long-term strategy of savings mobilization, which created a buffer against a credit collapse.
How does an institution triage the needs of clients in such dire straits? Diallo describes a three-pronged strategy of needs for its vulnerable customers; short, medium and long term. The short-term is protection against the virus – achieved through contact minimization, provision of detection kits at branches, and information and awareness sessions across the country, alongside international NGOs and local doctors.
The medium-term is meeting basic needs such as food – through providing loan rescheduling or cancellation, and ensuring the continued flow of credit to clients through innovative means. The overall effort was collaborative: CRG was chosen by the National Coordination for the Fight against Ebola to secure the payment of bonuses and allowances to over 4,000 health workers involved in the fight against the disease and worked with the World Food Programme to feed affected families.
The long-term, as Diallo sees it, is less concrete, but just as important: addressing the social integration of Ebola survivors and family members of victims who remain stigmatized. This means building awareness, in a region with tribal superstition and low education about health and epidemiology, regarding the non-discriminatory nature of the virus, its causes and potential treatment.
The toll of this epidemic on CRG as well as its home country has been considerable. But there is opportunity, too. While losses have to be absorbed and loans written off, CRG has helped prevent the virus’ spread, built trust, hope, and renewed enterprise among clients, and maintained employment for its staff. The main lesson to take, Diallo says, is to ensure diversification of microfinance products, including savings and insurance, to mitigate the vulnerability of clients in crisis contexts.
Each crisis has different challenges. Commendation must go to the two finalists - TSKI’s outstanding relief efforts after Typhoon Haiyan, and FMFI-S in Syria for providing support to small businesses in a country wracked with a now four-year civil war. Each approach was different, reflecting the needs and circumstances of the situation, but all of them share a common focus on the wellbeing of clients and staff. Perhaps most importantly, they remind us that microfinance must be more than just financial services for new profitable new markets, but a focal point for community, cohesion and – eventually – hope.
The Microfinance Gateway and Le Portail Microfinance were pleased to be Media Partners at this year's European Microfinance Week. Over 450 practitioners, investors, academics and support providers attended this year’s event which had the focus of Financial Inclusion for Sustainable Development.