​What is Microfinance and Why Is It Important?

what-is-microfinance

Ever wondered what microfinance is? No, it’s not finance for kids. Also called microcredit, microfinance is a way to provide business owners and entrepreneurs who don’t have access to traditional financial resources with loans, insurance, and investments to help grow their business.

Essentially, microfinance is providing loans, credit, access to savings accounts – even insurance policies and money transfers––to small business owners, entrepreneurs (many of whom live in the developing world), and those who would otherwise not have access to these resources.

How Does It Work?

Microfinance, pioneered by the Nobel-Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, helps the financially marginalized by providing them with the necessary capital to start a business and work toward financial independence. These loans are significant because they are given even though the borrower has no collateral. Worth noting––interest rates for these microloans are often very high.

The term microfinance encompasses microloans, microsavings, and microinsurance. Microfinance institutions provide small loans and other resources to business owners and entrepreneurs to help them get their businesses off the ground. Many of the recipients are in developing countries, and could otherwise not obtain a traditional loan.

Microsavings accounts are also under the microfinance umbrella. They allow entrepreneurs to have a savings account with no minimum balance. And microinsurance provides these borrowers with insurance, at a lower rate, and with lesser premiums.

Sometimes, those who receive microloans are required to take training courses. These courses include book-keeping, cash flow management, and other relevant skills.

Access to cell phones and wireless internet around the world has also lent itself to the prevalence of microfinance since potential borrows can use their cell phones as banking channels.

Why Is It Important?

Microfinance is important because it provides resources and access to capital to the financially underserved, such as those who are unable to get checking accounts, lines of credit, or loans from traditional banks.

Without microfinance, these groups may have to resort to using loans or payday advances with extremely high interest rates, or even borrow money from family and friends. Microfinance helps them invest in their businesses, and as a result, invest in themselves.

Who Benefits?

While microfinance can certainly benefit those stateside, it can also serve as an important resource for those in the developing world. For example, cell phones are being used as a way to bring financial services such as microlending to those living in Kenya.

It’s also made headway in the United States, where burgeoning entrepreneurs with no collateral are able to take out loans of less than $50,000 to jump-start their business ventures.

Microfinance can also help women break the cycle of poverty. Often, these loans can be as small as $60, for something as small as starting an empanada and snack stand, such as this young single mother from Paraguay. She continued building her business, repaying this loan and taking out larger loans to buy a building for her stand, complete with a refrigerator and attached home for her family.

This is microfinance at its best.

In fact, women are major microfinance borrowers, making up 84 percent of loans in 2016, according to the 2017 Microfinance Barometer. Most of these women – around 60 percent – live in rural areas.

The microfinance industry is also growing rapidly. In 2016, there were 123 million microfinance borrowers, for a total of $102 billion in loans. India accounted for the most of these borrows, followed by Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Peru.

Does It Actually Work?

While some have lauded microfinance as a way to end the cycle of poverty, decrease unemployment, increase earning power, and aid the financially marginalized, some experts say that it may not work as well as it should, even going so far as to say it’s lost its mission.

Others argue that microfinance simply makes poverty worse since many borrowers use microloans to pay for basic necessities, or their businesses fail, which only plunges them further into debt.

For example, in South Africa, 94 percent of all microfinance loans are used for consumption, meaning, the funds are used to pay for basic necessities. This means borrowers aren’t generating new income with the initial loan, which means they have to take out another loan to pay off that loan, and so forth and so forth. This translates into a lot more debt.

However, other experts say that microfinance can serve as a valuable tool for the financially underserved when used properly. They also cite the industry’s high repayment rate as proof of its effectiveness.

Either way, microfinance is an important topic in the financial realm, and if done correctly, could be a powerful tool for many.