July 3, 2017

Are we paying enough attention to the microfinance customer?

Without access to savings and insurance, vulnerable households are likely to take as much debt as they can from MFIs (and now banks). A more holistic approach to financial inclusion will help avoid another bad debt crisis.

5 min read

The twin effects of demonetisation and farm loan waivers have led to long and high-decibel debates on their impact on various aspects of the economy. The conversation however seems to have left out one significant segment of society–poor households who borrow, for non-farm based activities, from microfinance institutions.

The microfinance industry in India itself is at an inflection point. Several microfinance institutions (MFIs) have converted into small banks, a few universal banks have acquired full or strategic stakes in NBFC-MFIs, whilst others have taken a direct or business correspondent-bank partnership route for providing micro loans.

Banks are now embracing financial inclusion as a commercially viable proposition, rather than an obligation. For the first time in the history of banking in India, it is possible for financial services to reach every individual and small business at an affordable cost.


We have, no doubt, come a long way since the Andhra Pradesh crisis of 2010, with the credit bureaus, transparency, borrower education and improved collection practices.

[quote]For the first time in the history of banking in India, it is possible for financial services to reach every individual and small business at an affordable cost.[/quote]

Today, with microfinance clients entering the mainstream, the formal banking system has an opportunity to cultivate a symbiotic relationship with vulnerable households to build their financial health rather than focussing on microcredit alone. And they must do this not only for the sake of their customers but also for their own financial well-being and profitability.

Related article: Increasing the profitability of MFIs

Was demonetisation a black swan event for the microfinance industry?

Until demonetisation, the industry strongly echoed the mantra of the historically ‘golden’ repayment rate of 99%. After demonetisation, we saw a slump in disbursements over November and December 2016, and an erosion in repayment rates. The disbursements have quickly bounced back, but repayment delays continue.

Non-performing assets (NPAs)–the position for accounts due beyond 90 days–which hovered at well below 1% of the portfolio in the past, are nearing a record 5% across the industry and even double digits with some lenders. The general belief is that these too will gradually come back, as they were impacted by an ‘external event’; that the client will be able to make up the missed EMIs at the end of her loan cycle. The RBI provided a grace period of 90 days before NPAs needed to be recognised. This period has since lapsed and delinquencies continue to loom higher.

The areas that showed particularly bad behaviour were those heading towards polls, with local leaders calling out to women groups to boycott repayment to MFIs saying that they would ensure loan waivers, along-side farm loan waivers.

Loan waivers are anathema to good credit culture, and if farmers or poor households need help to tide over shocks, there are other ways to deal with this–but that is a different story.

If the MFI client’s debt is really within prudent levels, and she understands that her access to formal credit will vanish if she defaults, why is she following the political Pied Piper to stop repaying her loans? We must introspect–is the drop in repayments the outcome of an ‘external event’ or is there something we are missing?

Related article: Designing financial products for women

The changing nature of loan usage

MFI clients have exhibited stellar repayment rates and normally, they prioritise repaying loans as they value their access to formal financial institutions. However, incurring expenses towards for instance, an unexpected health scare or a child’s education, in the absence of a financial cushion, creates tremendous stress. Loans are used as a surrogate when other financial products would better serve such situations. There is also the tendency, amongst the most vulnerable MFI clients, not to refuse debt whenever it is available.

[quote]Loans are used as a surrogate when other financial products would better serve such situations.[/quote]

My memory takes me back to when I would spend time with community women in financial literacy classes. Participants, many of whom were not necessarily loan clients, would role-play, and the classes were structured to mimic real life choices.

One of the situations dealt with the ability to take a loan from an MFI, and then a second, a third and so on.

“What do you think you would do with the money?”

“What factors would influence your decision to take the loan?”

The answers for taking the first couple of loans were usually well thought through: to repay the moneylender or for an identified need such as paying school fees, improving the home or investing in business. However, with successive loans the purpose became vague, and on probing, she would admit, “I will take the additional loan, as it may not be available next time or next year.” Or, “Someone else in my family or social circle could use it.”

Such clients are looking at cash flow and not the cost of money. INR 10,000 for INR 1,000 per month seems a good deal. In our financial literacy classes, when the trainer would explain the concept of interest and add up the EMIs to show how quickly they can balloon, there would be an ‘Aha’ moment; a recognition that debt should be limited to what you need and more importantly what you can pay from your own sources, not by taking another loan.

The ratio of vulnerable MFI clients whose monthly cash flow has been swallowed up by excess debt is rising. Though initially seen as a ‘boon’–money available at reasonable rates–regular repayments have mounted. This is causing enough financial stress for a critical mass of borrowers to willingly follow the pied piper who promises that the problem itself will go away.

Women sitting with Indian money-Microfinance

This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

The continuous cycle of availability, coupled with group dynamics leads to evergreening–using fresh loans solely to pay off older loans–and stress for such type of borrowers. Higher delinquencies than the sub one percent–that is touted as the norm–are to be expected on an ongoing basis in a credit portfolio made up of vulnerable households, and should be factored in. Also critical is a need to go beyond loans, towards building financially healthier clients.

Related article: Financial inclusion: The key to closing India’s gender gap

A three-pillar approach to financial inclusion

Whilst there is some basic financial training provided to most MFI borrowers–emphasising the need to borrow for productive purposes, the long memory of the credit bureaus and comparing interest rates with the money lender–it is not enough. Nor should we expect that one lesson on over-indebtedness will create a lasting impression.

Providers need to recognise at the outset that there is a tendency to take as much debt as is available, especially when cash flows are tight–and therefore adopt a ‘risk management’ approach towards the client.

She should have the ability to plan and manage her finances, understand other appropriate products and have easy access to both the knowledge and the products.

[quote]Providers need to recognise at the outset that there is a tendency to take as much debt as is available, especially when cash flows are tight.[/quote]

Whilst financial products can be hard to understand for even highly literate consumers, the lack of this basic understanding leads to unmanageable levels of debt for illiterate, vulnerable customers.

It is in this context that financial inclusion should be built on a three-pillar strategy. It can be led by credit, but without savings and insurance products, and continuously building financial capability, there is a risk of accumulating debt, using evergreening to keep up the good repayment record, and eventually default when access to debt is disrupted.

Mainstreaming the microfinance client means getting it right–with a full suite of products that she understands and buys, not just increasing the debt portfolio. The opportunity is here and now–I hope it doesn’t get wasted.

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Veena Mankar-Image
Veena Mankar

Veena has over 4 decades of financial services experience, with both banks and non-banking finance institutions. She is Founder and Chairperson of Swadhaar, an organisation that has been engaged in financial inclusion for the past decade. She is the independent non-executive Chairperson at IDFC Bank Limited and also serves as an independent director on the Board of Liberty Videocon General Insurance Company Limited. In the past, she has been on the boards of factoring entities in India, Dubai and Egypt, and on the governing board of Sa-Dhan. She hopes her work through Swadhaar will contribute to a better and more equitable world.