Why Careful Microfinance Works
by Mark Coffey, chief investment & operating officer, Global Partnerships
Within the impact investing industry, microfinance has historically been viewed as a fine example of an investable, market-sustained solution to poverty. Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed to microfinance institutions (MFIs) and microfinance investment vehicles—across asset classes—generating social impact alongside consistent and stable financial returns.
Yet despite the popularity of microfinance as an investment sector, recent press has questioned its social impact in the lives of the people being served. For example, a recent article in The Guardian argues that most microfinance loans are used for consumption—not income generation—and therefore "end up making poverty worse."
While Global Partnerships invests into many types of channels, such as agricultural organizations and solar businesses, our roots are in microfinance institutions (MFIs), and we continue to selectively invest through this channel. Over our 20+ year history, we have learned many lessons, and one guiding principle has been "it takes more than a loan to lift someone out of poverty." We observed, for example, that extending credit to someone living in poverty that led to over-indebtedness clearly had a negative social impact, and providing a loan for consumption or non-productive purposes at unnecessarily high costs did not lift people out of poverty, and might make their situation worse.
On the other hand, certain models can be highly effective. For example, the combination of women-centered credit and tailored education—especially when delivered through the group lending platform at a reasonable cost—can have a meaningful impact at the household level. Clients become empowered and informed decision makers and are able to smooth their incomes and consumption, build assets and increase their capacity to anticipate and deal with major expenses.
So, the question should not be whether microfinance as a whole results in positive or negative outcomes, but rather "what MFI models are most effective at the household level?" As with any product or service, we believe that the most positive impact occurs when the provider has the best interests of the household in mind. We work with a relatively select portfolio of MFIs, but have examined hundreds with which we have chosen not to work. We begin our process by understanding whether the institution is more focused on the household or on their own growth and financial returns, and to what extent their model delivers value in a sustainable and scalable way. We are wary of institutions that cannot provide meaningful metrics of how they evaluate impact, or that serve the interests of the owners and managers more than their clients.
Noting that many MFIs exclusively provide financial services and have moved up-market to better-off clients to enhance growth and returns, GP primarily seeks out small and mid-size MFIs that have a combination of solid financial performance and positive impact at the household level. We look for business models that have carefully been built to leverage and integrate various services that a person in poverty needs. Alternativa Peru, a GP partner since early 2014 and the featured partner in our most recent Investors Report, represents this type of model where we seek to invest, for highest impact and a well-managed fund investment.
Are there microfinance lenders interested primarily in maximizing profit? As in most industries, yes. However, there are also many dynamic social enterprises that recognize that microcredit is just one small piece of what people living in poverty need in order to improve their lives. These organizations are client-centered and understand their needs far better than anyone looking on from abroad. At GP, we work to identify and partner with the best of these organizations and learn from them what combination of goods and services has true impact at the household level. We then seek positive social returns at the household level by carefully directing our capital to these types of organizations.
Challenges in Financing the Future
by Kusi Hornberger, director of investment research, Global Partnerships
After joining Global Partnerships in June, participating in the 2015 Biennial of the Americas Financing the Future: New Frontiers in Impact Investing clínica as a respondent last month was an interesting way to review the field's current themes and challenges from the perspective of a new role. The discussion was lively, with broad representation from across the impact investing space, including wealth advisors, accelerators and nonprofits. The clínica touched on a number of themes across the industry, but I wanted to share my thoughts on four of the challenges discussed that are most relevant for GP, as well as the impact investing industry as a whole:
- Impact investing has emerged—now we need to improve its execution. The growth and amount of capital deployed in the impact investing space is astounding. A report from Bain & Company last year1 found that capital committed to impact investing had increased from $160 million in 2008 to $2 billion in 2013 in Latin America alone. A recent GIIN report, The Landscape for Impact Investing in East Africa, suggests that non-development finance institution (DFI) impact investors have deployed more than $1.4 billion to date in the region through more than 550 deals. Every day more organizations are being formed that seek to raise or deploy capital to invest in ventures aimed at addressing social issues. The challenge now is execution: Over the next five years, industry actors will need to show that impact investing can achieve and maintain scale. Meeting this challenge is at the heart of GP's rigorous due diligence process for new partners, and is how our five funds have achieved 40 consecutive quarters of positive social and financial returns.
- Despite industry growth, early-stage social ventures still face gaps in funding. There is a funding gap for earlier-stage ventures. Mature investors are less willing to invest at this stage because of a lack of understanding of the business models involved or a lack of confidence in the maturity of the business plans of many earlier-stage social ventures. Organizations like the Eleos Foundation, Endeavor Catalyst and Vox Labs have begun to set up innovative approaches to address this gap, but more resources are needed.
- Balancing impact evaluation with still-developing metrics. As the industry matures, foundations and DFIs are placing increasing importance on impact measurement and evaluation. At the same time, impact measurement tools such as GIIRs, IRIS and B Analytics are recognizing that the metrics and tools available to impact investors remain inherently imperfect, as they continue to evolve rapidly. To date, metrics have generally been output-driven, when what many impact evaluators strive for is outcomes, which are much more difficult to measure and take time to prove. Overcoming this tension will be a critical challenge for the industry as we move forward. GP reports impact evaluation metrics to IRIS (individuals receiving technical assistance, for example), recognizing that not all of the metrics we track are a perfect fit and trying to control for the possible evolution of metrics over time.
- Maintaining focus as the industry landscape continues to evolve. Many impact investors have had difficulty focusing their resources, but reaching clarity on what they do and do not do is essential to focusing their investments in the areas where their efforts can have the greatest impact. This can be challenging, but is critical to success as competition increases and the industry continues to evolve. GP's core value, "aim well and follow through," helps us focus carefully on the initiatives and social enterprise partners where our capital can achieve the greatest impact.
My first two months at Global Partnerships have been exhilarating, as I am now able to focus full-time on an approach to helping reduce poverty I am truly passionate about. Participating in the clínica was a great way to gain perspective on GP's role in the broader impact investing industry and on my role within the team.
After ten years of investment and strategy consulting experience across the public and private sectors, it is gratifying to put what I have learned to work on some of the most important challenges of our day. Namely, how to identify and invest in the most impactful and financially sustainable approaches to economic development in Latin America and East Africa, as well as to support GP's development as a successful impact investor as we—and the industry—continue to grow. I look forward to sharing more of my insights and research moving forward.
1Full disclosure: Kusi Hornberger is one of the report's authors.
Expanding Opportunity for Smallholder Farmers
by Danny Stokley, director of business development, Global Partnerships
By supporting COOPEFACSA with a working capital loan, GP aims to support their plans to add new members and expand their non-financial services offerings.
Global Partnerships (GP) recently disbursed a working-capital loan to a new partner, COOPEFACSA (Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito Fondo Campesino de San Antonio), a savings and credit cooperative offering financial services to rural populations in the Autonomous Region of the South Atlantic (RAAS) in Nicaragua. This region remains underdeveloped compared to the rest of Nicaragua, with limited infrastructure, lower literacy rates and a higher percentage of the population living in poverty1. COOPEFACSA is member-owned and deeply integrated within the region. Committed to professional development for both employees and members, COOPEFACSA is one of the only sources of financial services and adult training and education available to the cooperative's 2,800 members. This cooperative is an excellent example of how people living in a remote region can be empowered to expand their own opportunities—the belief at the heart of GP's work in rural livelihoods.
One way that COOPEFACSA supports members is by combining flexible credit, technical assistance and market access in order to help producers begin cultivating cacao. This particular crop requires significant investment in saplings, labor and inputs, and trees only begin producing after two to three years. However, once farmers begin harvesting cacao, they report significantly higher income than from other agricultural uses of their land.
How COOPEFACSA works with outgrowers to create impact
"Outgrowers" are a type of social enterprise GP has recently added to our portfolio. Typically privately-owned companies (agricultural processors or exporters), outgrowers purchase crops from individual farmers or farmer cooperatives. Many also offer training and purchase guarantees that can significantly reduce the economic risks farmers take to run their businesses.
With a lengthy turnaround between a farmer's initial investment and the first harvest, cacao production comes with a number of risk factors that can be particularly worrisome for smallholder farmers. COOPEFACSA's partnership with an outgrower limits their members' exposure to that risk. COOPEFACSA works with INGEMANN, an outgrower that provides technical assistance to farmers, allowing them to produce higher value crops, and guarantees purchase of what they produce. COOPEFACSA provides the loan that allows members to purchase saplings and inputs, and negotiates minimum prices with INGEMANN on behalf of their members. As part of GP's due diligence process, I had the opportunity to visit COOPEFACSA in January, and learned a bit about how this partnership with an outgrower reduces COOPEFACSA members' risk, making an investment in cacao production attractive.
- The first major hurdle smallholder farmers face with cacao is that it can take up to three years from the time saplings are planted until the first harvest. This is a substantial investment that yields no return for several years. COOPEFACSA assists members by offering credit tailored to cacao production, with a grace period of three years. Frank, the cooperative member pictured with his family above, shared that this loan was crucial, as he wouldn't have been able to put his own money into such a long-term investment.
- The next obstacle is a lack of local knowledge of how to plan, maintain and harvest cacao. To overcome this, INGEMANN offers interested COOPEFACSA members a certification course in growing cacao. INGEMANN technicians also visit each member every week to provide onsite technical assistance while farmers cultivate their first plot of trees.
- Perhaps the most worrisome risk for farmers is uncertainty about the ability to sell a new crop after such a significant investment of time and resources. INGEMANN also addresses this concern by guaranteeing to buy 100% of farmer production at a contractual minimum price based on predefined quality standards. While the minimum is set, the final price may be higher, depending on world cacao prices when the farmer is ready to sell.
This partnership allows smallholder farmers to transition to growing a higher value crop with minimal risk, and connects smallholder farmers in an underserved area of Nicaragua with an exporter that supplies gourmet chocolate producers abroad. While the evidence is anecdotal at this stage, COOPEFACSA members confirmed that they were happy with the services received through INGEMANN after several years, and were earning more income than before. Cacao trees also produce fruit year-round, unlike many crops available to smallholder farmers, resulting in a much more consistent source of income over time. As many of the largest chocolate producers globally are warning of an upcoming chocolate shortage, cacao will likely continue to be a lucrative crop for smallholder farmers in certain parts of Latin America2, and relationships between farmers and outgrowers will be essential in cultivating that opportunity.
Why we invest in local partners
COOPEFACSA's employees and owners are all from the region, their current Credit Manager began her career with the cooperative on the janitorial staff, and most of their board members are smallholder farmers themselves. Nearly every employee, from credit officers on up through management, utilizes the organization's financial services offerings. This integration is one reason COOPEFACSA has such a thorough understanding of the products and services most appropriate to, and those that will be most appreciated by, their members. From offering members small savings accounts and a place to receive remittances, to the technical assistance and market access offered through partnerships with outgrowers, all of their activities are driven by local needs. With strong ties to the surrounding community, local partners like these know what their clients need better than anyone else. GP is proud to partner with them and increase the life-changing impact they bring to their clients.
Reflections on Impact Evaluation
by KJ Zunigha, impact evaluation officer, Global Partnerships
Last month, I joined nearly 100 of my monitoring and evaluation peers in Washington, DC to talk impact, measurement and data at the 2015 Metrics Conference hosted by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE). Held annually since 2010, the conference provides people working in the impact evaluation space the opportunity to dig deep into the exciting, challenging and often nebulous nature of measuring how much and what kind of impact the social enterprises in which we invest are having on the lives of the people they serve.
Three of the top themes that emerged from the conference were:
1. Right-sizing evaluations
Although randomized controlled trials (time- and resource-intensive studies) are considered the gold standard in evaluation, they are not always the right type of evaluation to conduct. As an impact investor working to categorize and evaluate the impact we and our partners have at the household level, Global Partnerships (GP) needs to look at the size of the project, the question(s) we want answered, and the resources we and our partners have available to help guide evaluation design. We must always keep our partners and their clients at the forefront of this process so that any evaluation activities we undertake do not overly burden or interrupt the work of the people we are ultimately working to serve. The right evaluation must be as rigorous as possible within the bounds of the environment in which we and our partners operate.
2. Understanding different audiences and communicating effectively
Impact evaluators collect, analyze, synthesize and report impact data for a wide variety of audiences, each of which has different needs. Some may need only an "elevator pitch" or talking points, some want to dive deep into the details, while others are looking for a specific kind of finished product—a case study, a story, a trend report or projection. There are countless ways we can measure, discuss and share data, so as evaluators it is critical for us to understand the needs of our various audiences so that we are able to communicate our work effectively.
3. Maintaining continuity with investors at all stages
GP provides debt financing to social enterprises that are looking to grow and scale their organizations, and may be one of a number of investors and supporters. Too often in this sector, investors at various stages in a social enterprise's development don't communicate their measurement approaches. This creates the likelihood of a dramatic shift in measurement activities and data requirements—and a potentially significant burden for the social enterprise—as it grows and seeks new types of capital.
While measurement approaches and indicators may change as a social enterprise grows and matures, it is important that all investors at every stage of a social enterprise's development have visibility into each other's measurement activities to create a more streamlined approach and a sense of continuity.
Tara Murphy Forde, GP's Director of Impact & Strategic Initiatives, led a conference session on this topic with Vox Capital's Rebecca Obara, looking at the impact frameworks of their respective organizations. The session focused on Vox's custom, hands-on approach to working with its investees as an early-stage investor, and GP's approach that focuses on impact at the household level across our portfolio and multiple initiatives. One way GP supports visibility into our impact framework is by feeding our data into IRIS (Impact Reporting and Investment Standards), a database of social impact metrics intended to help create a common framework for impact measurement.
Perhaps the greatest overall takeaway from this year's ANDE metrics conference is that, with our broad portfolio of initiatives, Global Partnerships' best opportunity to gain meaningful data and insight is to approach impact measurement with flexibility. With an eye on the big picture, the data we collect from each of our partners can tell us about what their work really means for the people they serve.
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