In the last post I mentioned that we are working on signing a new partner in South Asia. As a part of the sign up process, the new partner Microfinance institution (MFI) needs to fill an extensive evaluation questionnaire which we then assess. We also take third party reference checks, review their financials and also assess the commitment of the MFIs’ senior management to the mission of ending poverty. We also need to find a bank that is willing to make a loan based on the guarantee. Signing up the bank is one of the toughest aspects of our guarantee model.
We have been making good progress with an organization in Sri Lanka called Berendina Microfinance Institute (GTE) Ltd. One of the most interesting aspects about this organization is that apart from providing microloans they also provide business development services to their clients and they are able to do it sustainably through the usage of coupons.We took a third party reference check about the organization and the feedback we received is that Berendina is a very progressive microfinance institution.I am told that they are very professional, have a good long term vision and have good loan products. Their challenge is access to funding.
Berendina has recently approached a few banks to see if they can lend to Berendina based on a guarantee. Berendina has never borrowed from a bank previously so this loan would be the first of its kind. At present one bank is evaluating their proposal and a decision by the bank’s lending committee is likely in the next two to three weeks. From what I understand from Berendina, if the loan gets approved this could be the first loan to an MFI in Sri Lanka from a bank. We are cautiously optimistic that the approval would come through and I will be posting an update on this over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile in India, the Reserve Bank of India which is the Central Bank and the regulator for the large for-profit MFIs has yet to publish its revised regulations for microfinance. Thus the uncertainty amongst banks and MFIs in India continues. As a result there are virtually no loans being made to MFIs from banks. It is nearly seven months since the crisis emerged in Andhra Pradesh state in India and if clarity on regulations does not emerge quickly it will be an increasingly uphill task of reviving the confidence of banks in lending to MFIs especially the smaller and more socially oriented MFIs. While banks will not be much affected if they do not lend to MFIs as microfinance constitutes only a small percentage of the total loans they make, the biggest losers are going to be millions of low income families and especially those who are poorer and in the more remote regions.
I sincerely hope that the government and the regulators in India show the urgency and determination in laying out appropriate regulations for microfinance in India. This is the absolute need of the hour.
Ever since I started working on United Prosperity, I have learned that progress in a startup happens in spurts. One is often faced with what seems like an insurmountable problem. You keep trying various things – nothing seems to work. Nobody seems interested in what you are doing or if they are slightly interested they have other priorities. And then one day suddenly someone decides to help and lo and behold, things start moving. The seemingly insurmountable problem now transforms into a doable task which then gets done with relative ease. This has been the consistent pattern with all the big milestones we have had like Cognizant helping us with the software development; UC Berkeley, Hanson Bridgett and OMM helping us with the legal work or HDFC Bank in India agreeing to partner with us.
I met Jonathan Lewis, CEO of Microcredit Enterprises a few days back at Davis and it was a great opportunity to bounce ideas and take advice on solving the seemingly insurmountable problems. ‘It took us 3.5 years to get a bank to start working with us’, he said. That gave me a perspective of the level of patience needed to overcome these startup obstacles. In our case, we approached a few banks in India and gave an overview of our guarantee in November 2007. However things picked up a little momentum only in May 2008 when we contacted HDFC Bank, India. Since then we have been closely working with them and are at the final stages of finalizing the legal agreement.
Another aspect which has struck me since I started working on United Prosperity has been that many of today’s complex problems like poverty or cures to tropical diseases tend to be outside or on the periphery of market forces and players. However, getting the necessary resources to solve complex problems like poverty requires the immense support and collaboration of mainstream market forces and institutions. They have the resources and expertise to solve different parts of the problem. E.g. we would not have come to where we are today without the support of Cognizant in building the software or the various legal teams who have helped us.
I got to discuss this with Jonathan Lewis. He was quick to highlight the importance of collaboration. ‘The current financial crisis is going to require an unprecedented level of collaboration’ he said. He is even putting together a forum called the Opportunity Collaboration where people working on poverty alleviation in various capacities can forge new alliances. Check it out.
Overall it has made me realize that combating poverty requires immense collaboration, which further requires patience. And for startups dealing with the seemingly insurmountable problems which come up from time to time, the value of collaboration and patience can never be underestimated.
And yes, we are all eagerly looking forward to sign the agreement with HDFC Bank in the next few weeks, so that we can launch soon.