The incredible potential of digitalisation
My name is Jessica Schicks and I'm a Senior Investment Officer at BIO.
Long queues in the banking hall, client complaints about limited opening hours, and constant worries about how they couldn’t access funds on a Sunday if their child was sick – these were only some of my daily challenges when – prior to joining BIO – I was the COO of a microfinance bank in Zambia.
On top of that, there were real security risks when handling cash, the hard work to bring costs down to serve our poor clients at a lower cost, and the (almost) impossibility of serving Zambia’s vast rural areas. The potential of digitalisation as a possible solution to all of them quickly became obvious.
Unfortunately, financial institutions, and particularly micro-finance institutions (MFIs), face huge barriers in the process of going digital, which entails operational, strategic, technological, cultural, and literacy challenges. So since I joined BIO, I am trying my best to contribute to helping financial institutions around the world take the digital leap.
Since 2019, BIO has been analysing the digital progress of the financial institutions in its portfolio and supporting those clients with the biggest need. After all, digitalisation can bring important progress to the end clients and their small businesses, while failing to digitalise would put our investees at a competitive disadvantage and could even be a threat to their continued existence.
This also impacts us at BIO:
- When considering new investment projects, we need to take into account the investees’ progress on the road to digitalisation.
- We need to assess the level of digitalisation of our current clients and identify potential risks in our own portfolio.
- When we know which (potential) clients are ready to launch new digital initiatives, or are struggling with particular digital issues, we can support those clients with technical assistance programmes (TA).
- Finally, a lack of information is not just an impediment for us, but also for our clients. That is why we made some of the results of our survey public and share our findings with our clients and partners, to collectively learn from it.
In doing so, BIO has become one of the leading Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) in the field of digitalisation. We may not have the largest FinTech programme or digital portfolio, but we have taken a lead on the knowledge front and through our proactive approach to technical assistance. Other investors consult us on how to adapt their processes in digital times, and investment funds want guidance on how to structure their TA-programmes. We talk with NGOs on digitising the financial inclusion industry and discuss some of the latest research with CGAP, an independent think tank that works to empower poor people. Clients, partners and competitors are contacting us to exchange thoughts and learn from our results.
You may find some of our reports on BIO’s website, in FinDev Gateway or MicroCapital Monitor newsletters, or you can hear me or one of my colleagues speak on conferences (European Microfinance Week, Global Microfinance Forum, Afsic, ...). Our article on the impact of covid-19 on the digitalisation of MFIs and the potential role of funders even made the top 10 of most-read blog posts in 2020!
It appears that almost all financial institutions realise that they must digitalise and do so urgently. But many are not able to do so because of outdated IT-systems, a lack of knowledge, insufficient funds to invest, or a lack of strategy and vision.
Admittedly, digitalisation can be expensive. While large banks may have the required resources, many MFIs don’t. So, instead of doing what they do best and reach out to the poor, digitally, MFI’s are lagging behind. That is why adapted, digi-ready technical assistance is urgently needed.
There is a role for specific TA in trainings and studies as well, to ensure the new digital channels and products are correctly introduced and do not exacerbate the over-indebtedness of the most impoverished.
What we are witnessing is a revolution. Mobile banking and mobile wallets are taking over from traditional access points like branches or even credit and debit cards. And this trend is reflected in the offerings of BIO’s clients. A fair part of our investees is simply no longer interested in cards – golden, platinum or otherwise.
But digitalisation is about more than just products or channels. It’s also about changing processes and transforming the way we and our clients work. We need new business models.
Depending on how MFIs fare, and how much investors and donors will support them, ambitious microfinance practitioners may start thinking about realising their dream: giant, impact-oriented, digitalised MFI’s that are financially sustainable and can reach out to every person in all corners of the earth with customer-friendly, cheap and convenient services. Or, we may witness the end of financial inclusion as we know it. Most MFIs may be replaced by large banks, multinationals like Apple, Amazon, Facebook or even FinTechs we have not yet heard about. In their wake, the few MFIs left standing would have nothing left but those clients that the big ones fail to serve – and as a result would probably not be able to operate sustainably.
Both scenarios – and many in between – are possible, with none of them necessarily being “bad”, as long as there would be sufficient guarantees of customer protection and attention to impact. Otherwise, there’d be a very real risk of closing the door – again – to those global citizens that need financing the most.
Some MFI portfolios have been hit hard by covid-19 which might lead to consolidation in the sector, causing it to shift faster than we can imagine.
Regardless, covid-19 has given digitalisation a huge boost. We are witnessing how covid-19 is tearing down barriers to digitalisation and making the business case for investments into the digital stronger. We hope that this will make our clients more courageous and that they will jump now, and jump far.
We’ll try our hardest to make their landing stick.
Dr Jessica Schicks is a Senior Investment Officer at BIO, in charge of Financial Institutions. She has a specific focus on digitalisation.
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