“Why do some people stop growing at age 30, just going from work to the couch and television, when others stay vibrant, curious, almost childlike into their nineties?” J. Novogratz
Come June 2012 my life was at yet another crossroads. Out of the blue, I had been offered a role as a microfinance analyst in a UK fund (all three criteria checked!). Did I give up my job in impact investment after only a few months? Part of me felt I was letting people down by leaving so soon, but I also knew this new role was exactly what I wanted to do. Furthermore, I’d be covering the microfinance markets of South Asia and Africa whilst still being based in the London office. It seemed like a dream come true.
A month later I was in my new job at the development fund. It locks completely into my belief that the most sustainable route out of poverty is through economic growth – empowering people through training, employment, and the creation of local infrastructure.
The microfinance team invests both directly and indirectly in microfinance institutions in these target geographies. My role entails monitoring and managing our current portfolio of investments as well as financial analysis and evaluation of new opportunities, due diligence, through to transaction execution support. What does this mean? Day to day I could be screening new proposals, mapping out the regulatory environment, meeting with other key players in the sector, or attending Board meetings. Overall I’m learning a huge amount about the sector as well as getting some amazing first hand experience out in the field – from issues faced by MFIs to new product innovations. This should ensure the right capital is deployed to the right places. The team aims to be market making, value adding and catalytic in our target regions.
The team itself is dynamic and international, all with a breadth of rigorous financial experience coupled with experience in the development sector. It’s a stimulating and open environment to work in. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet a number of interesting people working in microfinance – in DFIs to MFIs to ratings agencies and NGOs, and even Muhammad Yunus himself at the last conference I was at. Absolutely inspiring!
I recently returned from a trip to India, where I met with a number of fund managers and some underlying investment organisations. After the Andhra Pradesh crisis in 2010, it seems optimism has returned. Those MFIs that survived appear to have emerged stronger and, with the new regulations being proposed, we are likely to see consolidation in the sector as weaker or smaller MFIs struggle and fall out. At least the restrictive suggestion of a cap on interest rates has been removed, to be replaced with a margin cap (10% for large MFIs with portfolios over 100 Cr, and 12% for small MFIs). I expect operating costs will consequently need to be managed more efficiently and new, innovative methods of achieving this will emerge.
Another theme I saw in India was a movement towards broader financial inclusion from traditional microcredit. A number of microfinance funds are now opening up to having a percentage of their portfolios in this area (typically 10-25%). Partly this was due to survival. With the crisis stagnating the microfinance market, funders turned instead to adjacent sectors such as housing finance, education finance, and microinsurance. At the same time, many of the traditional base-of-the-pyramid clients have matured over various loan cycles and starting to move up the value chain – buying a low cost house, sending their children to college, requiring a pension etc. It will be interesting to see how ‘microfinance’ redefines itself further in the next few years.