By Edward P. Eze
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the local and global economy, microfinance has become more critical to the survival of the poor and near poor in developing countries. Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) provide the best access to banking services for the majority of such underprivileged populations whose livelihoods have been worst affected by the pandemic’s disruptions to transportation, customer service, supply etc. Because these populations generally save little and rely on daily basic income, they are now in greater need of sustainable credit and other pro-poor services that were already provided for them by microfinance institutions before the pandemic hit.
For a country like Nigeria experiencing mass poverty, steep unemployment and other serious socio-economic challenges, the implications are dire. It means that millions of poor citizens amongst the 40 percent of the population will find it difficult to get back on their feet without the sort of services and support that MFIs provide. It goes without saying that the effectiveness of Nigeria’s MFIs will be critical to rebuilding the economy.
One of the major players in Nigeria’s Microfinance sector is LAPO Microfinance Bank which has an extensive network of branches across the country and accounts for over 27 percent of the Microfinance (MFB) sector. LAPO MFB’s ubiquitous presence across the country as well as its pro-poor and solid corporate reputation established over nearly four decades have made it the country’s preeminent MFB. In fact, due to its popularity many Nigerians in the lower socio-economic groups use ‘LAPO’ as a generic name for all microfinance banks, the same way “Omo” has become a synonym for detergents and “Bournvita” used to be for cocoa beverages.
LAPO MFB has approached the challenges of the pandemic with its trademark rigour and thoroughness. It has made significant strides amidst the historic disruptions brought on by the pandemic whiche emerged in the country just over a year ago. It has sustained its support to low-income earners, even recording a total disbursement of N12.2 billion as loans to 152,446 rural farmers and owners of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) in 2020.
Announcing these milestones recently, Dr Honestus Obadiora, LAPO’s Acting Executive Director, said the loans were disbursed in 253 branches across 21 states. “We were able to achieve this in spite of the pandemic and we are committed to sustaining this financial support through our development plan to open more branches and reach more clients,” Obadiora said.
The N12.2 billion disbursement represents a 12 percent increase compared to N10.9 billion disbursed in 2019 with portfolio at risk standing at 18.62 percent.
LAPO MFB has recorded other notable achievements during the pandemic including the launch in February, 2020 of its second bond, a N6 billion fixed rate bond which within five months was already oversubscribed by N200m.
However, even with such stellar achievements, LAPO like other MFIs is weathering significant challenges due to the pandemic. A survey by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), a global partnership of more than 30 leading development organizations that works to advance the lives of poor people through financial inclusion, shows that microfinance institutions (MFIs) are dealing with rising ‘bad debts,’ which now account for up to 30% of their total loans. The survey, conducted with the SME Forum, also shows that there is now a higher rate of defaults in loan repayments because of widespread business failures and even outright closures due to the pandemic.
This is a major issue because most MFIs operate with little savings, expecting that small loans will be repaid in a timely fashion and with a low default rate. The fallout of increasing defaults due to the pandemic is that MFIs in turn face challenges repaying banks and their investors. As a result, the network of trust that is so vital to MFIs is threatened as investors are becoming more cautious about which MFIs they lend money to. However, reports say majority of MFIs remain reasonably sound financially and widespread bankruptcies are not expected at this time. In the case of LAPO, positive developments such as the enthusiastic response to the recent launch of its bond signal bright prospects for its long-term health.
It is also noteworthy that the pandemic disrupted business operations of many MFIs considerably. Like its counterparts, LAPO has had to alter physical and onsite operations especially at the start of the pandemic. The bank demonstrated commendable foresight by closing down its on-site operations across Nigeria on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, ahead of the Government’s lockdown directives for Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory. This proactive measure to ensure the safety of customers and staff is in line with LAPO’s well-known reputation for championing public health through investment and public enlightenment.
Interestingly, in a seeming foreshadowing of the pandemic a few months before it began, LAPO played an active role in promoting hygiene through hand washing on World Hand-washing Day, October 15, 2019. The organization donated items to schools to create awareness about the importance of hand-washing which would turn out to be essential in the fight against Covid-19.
While the pandemic persists, MFIs continue to face challenges meeting physically, communicating, and collecting loan repayments from their clients. International industry experts believe that now more than ever, the value of digital financial channels such as agent networks, e-wallets and mobile banking are vital because these technologies allow for continuity of service and spare customers the risk and inconvenience of travelling to branches as well as protect staff of the MFIs.
LAPO is in a good position to embrace such recommendations to further digitize operations because of its already existing culture of technological innovation. For instance, in February 2020, LAPO announced plans to implement Oracle’s Flexcube, a budding automated banking software that already powers more than 10 percent of the world’s consumer bank accounts. The preeminent microfinance bank appreciates that effective digitization must take into account the reality that majority of customers don’t have reliable access to technology. This is a key component of the conscientiousness required as MFIs navigate the realities of the pandemic and continue to support the poorest segments of the population.
Finally, robust policy support by government is required to assist MFIs maintain asset quality so that they can continue to give out new loans to low-income households or MSMEs as an empowerment and poverty fighting measure. It is therefore critical for policy makers to make necessary adjustment to extant laws and regulations to achieve this vital objective in order to stave off deepening inequality and poverty to give those at the bottom of the ladder a life line at this very challenging time for the local and global economies.
*Eze is a policy analyst based in Lagos.