Micro-finance travels fast in a poor country

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Micro-finance travels fast in a poor country

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[quote]The Banker - www.thebanker.com

Micro-finance travels fast in a poor country
Published: 05 September, 2005
Page 191

Amid economic and political turmoil, Haitian banks have woken up to the fact that micro-finance is an essential part of business, reports Michael Deibert in Port-au-Prince.

Port-au-Prince's Rue des Miracles, near Haiti's shuttered parliament, is usually bustling with activity in its fume-choked lanes. Recently, though, the area seemed rather quiet. The street vendors who usually clog its sidewalks had moved away in fear of the running gun battles between Haiti's police and gangs allied with ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which have become an almost daily occurrence in the capital. In his office at the Banque de la Republique de Haiti (BRH), Haiti's c
entral bank deputy governor Philippe Lahens surveys the situation in which the country was left when Mr Aristide flew into exile, following an armed rebellion and massive street protests against his rule in February 2004.

“The central bank was in very bad shape after Aristide,” Mr Lahens says. Haiti had no net international reserves after Mr Aristide, who had widely been accused of corruption, went into exile. The public deficit was 3% of Haiti's GDP and the government had defaulted on two separate contracts designed to provide the country with electricity, totalling $12m.


Economy improves

Now, a year and a half later, despite continuing violence, the interim government of President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue – which is in place until legislative and presidential elections are held this autumn – has managed to stabilise the situation somewhat. Haiti's net international reserves are about $80m and the rate of exchange has been stabilised at about 35-40 Haitia
n gourdes to the dollar. Although inflation is still about 22%, the Ministry of Finance and the BRH hope to bring it down to about 12% by the end of this month.

“I think the unique challenge for the central bank in Haiti is to obtain autonomy from the government,” says Mr Lahens. A series of Haitian despots have viewed the institution as little more than their private savings account and historically the bank has had difficulty in establishing a sustained path for the country's economic well-being.

“With this independence, we will be more at ease to provide transparency and more at ease with the government in terms of the everyday running of the bank, in terms of the interest rate, the rate of exchange and depreciation of the gourde and other areas,” says Mr Lahens.

Haiti is not an easy place in which to run a financial institution. With 80% of the population living in poverty and more than two-thirds of the labour force without formal jobs, the traditional means of lending and borrowing
do not apply. This has resulted in the rapid growth of a micro-finance industry that leapt from social experiment to profitable financial model in very short order.


Group lending

Though Haiti had a long history of peasant co-operatives, the first institution to target this niche of the financial market on a mass level was the Fondasyon Kole Zepol bank (Fonkoze), literally translated as the shoulder-to-shoulder foundation. It was created in 1994 by a liberation theologian priest Jean-Marie Vincent (slain by gunmen that same year) and another priest, Father Joseph Philippe, during the turmoil of the military government that ousted Mr Aristide for three years during his first term as Haiti's president. Recognised as a foundation by the Haitian government in October 1995, it opened its first savings accounts soon after.

Based on the group-lending model, Fonkoze has peer-group borrowing whereby a group of five individuals agree to cover each member for any amount loaned to the group as a w
hole. Many of the clients are ti machanns, the name Haitians give to the market women who swelter under the sun, selling their wares on the streets of the capital and elsewhere.

The sums are modest. Each member of a group of five is eligible to borrow 2500 gourdes (about $64) at first, gradually working their way up to 50,000 gourdes each (about $1282). The results are profound, says Anne Hastings, director general of Fonkoze, speaking to The Banker in the foundation's office in Port-au-Prince.

“Fonkoze believes that everyone needs access to financial services,”says Ms Hastings. “In Haiti, where the unemployment rate is so high, everybody has to be a micro-entrepreneur. Our ultimate mission is to empower the people who are the have-nots in this society so they can contribute to the economy and can improve their lives and their family's lives; it's providing financial services but also accompanying them as they struggle to make their way out of poverty.”


Branching out

Fonkoze ha
s largely paved the way for Haiti's commercial banks to branch out into micro-finance, and now the foundation has 24 branches around Haiti (including rural areas where it is the only bank for many miles) and 335 employees. It services 67,000 active savings accounts and has 25,000 active borrowers. Each year, 7000 to 8000 people graduate from the bank's basic literacy and business skills training programmes.

Pierre-Marie Boisson, president of the Administrative Counsel of Sogesol, the micro-credit unit of Sogebank, Haiti's largest, was initially met with incredulity when, in his previous role as the bank's chief economist, he tried to convince his colleagues of the necessity for Haiti's most venerable financial institution to reach out to this huge section of the Haitian market. “There was scepticism, definitely,” says Mr Boisson.

He helped to launch Sogesol in 2000 from his office in Petionville, an affluent suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince that is, like much of Haiti, ringed by shantyto
wns. “I was able to show to the board the business side of it and how profitable it was,” he says.

When Mr Boisson joined Sogebank in 1991, out of 400,000 depositors, fewer than 3000 people were eligible to borrow from the bank. Now Sogesol's 8000 clients (7000 micro-enterprises and 1000 workers' credit portfolios) comprise a substantial part of Sogebank's 250,000 depositors.


Banking on the poor

“The poor were very good credit subjects in the sense that, not only were they good payers, but also they had more per-dollar profit than their formal competitors because they had a very high turnover,” says Mr Boisson.

He sought and received technical assistance from the Action International micro-finance network to help launch his project. The network also became one of Sogesol's main shareholders.

“The poor were better able to utilise a dollar lent to them than a big business. There was an opportunity that was not being met by the banking system,” he says.

Following Sog
esol's lead, Haiti's five other main banks – Unibank, Socabank, Capital Bank, Banque Populaire Ha'eftienne and the state-owned BRH – created micro-credit ventures.

“If you want to be profitable as a bank in Haiti, you have to very quickly adapt your product to the reality of Haiti and to the fact that Haiti is a poor country, with a lot of poor people,” says Mr Boisson, as market women scatter from the driving rain beneath his office window. “That's why micro-finance has become so very important.”

© The Banker - 2005[/quote]

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