Entrepreneur Development in West Bengal

By Dr. Natalie Schoon, Steering Committee member


On the 6th of February, we were joined by Olly Belcher and Victoria Denison of Shivia for the first WAM Dinner of 2018 at the Waterloo Bar & Kitchen. After a brief introduction, the rest of the evening was an open exchange of views and questions. You just know when an event is successful when the discussions continue well after the bill has been paid.

Founded in 2008, Shivia operates in rural West Bengal and has specifically chosen to assist not by giving money or lending, but by promoting entrepreneurial activity. A poultry toolkit comprises of chicks, training, and inoculation and on-going guidance by a local specialist. The farmer contributes £5 to the £15 cost of a toolkit, which further promotes the entrepreneurial proposition. To date in excess of 42,000 tool-kits have been delivered to more than 10,000 farmers across 1,028 villages impacting an approximate 61,000 people. Shivia carefully manages the number of tool-kits provided per farmer and per area to make sure they do not flood the market. An additional benefit from the project is that local staff of Nirdhan (Shivia’s India operations) are also recruited from the villages where the tool-kits are supplied.

In case you missed the event, but would be interested to support Shivia, click here.

More recently, Shivia has started to explore two new programmes: Agri-management services and Goateries. Agri-management provides training and advice to farmers with unproductive plots of land. In addition to providing food for the families, there is an opportunity to sell these fruits and vegetables in the city where many Bengals have moved in search of work. Initially the project worked with the husbands of the poultry beneficiaries, but has since been rolled out to farmers beyond those and includes male as well as female farmers. Among the benefits for the farmers are lower cost of agri-inputs, increased yields, higher quality of produce, and increased profits.

To date, 1,050 farmers have benefited from training across 60 villages. The next phase of this project will be to construct a Farmer Producing Company, a co-operative structure with approximately 1,000 members, which will provide the farmer with enhanced purchasing power, a better position as a seller, and access to larger, low-interest bank loans to further grow the business. Shivia has joined forces with a local company who buys from the farmers and sells the produce to the West Bengal community in Delhi. When surveyed, it transpired that the consumers buy the produce because it is clean, well packaged, and very fresh. To them, the fact that they are helping poor farmers is almost an afterthought. Which means that the business model is solid and these farmers will, at some point not too far in the future will be able to stand on their own feet.

The latest Shivia programme is goateries. Farmers will receive two female goats on loan for three years as well as training, insurance, and access to a male goat for breeding. In each year, the farmer will retain half of the kids for sale or breeding and return half of them to Shivia. After three years, the original goats are returned. This way, farmers can establish a small goat farming enterprise. In addition, the programme will become self-funding. Goats can be given to other farmers, and a profit may be made from the sale of goats which can be re-invested. The programme has successfully completed its pilot phase and is set to be rolled out on a larger scale early 2018.

Shivia was awarded International Charity for 2017 by the Charity Times and there are more exciting projects in their future. Certainly one to watch! To support their work check out this link.



Financial Education for Girls: Breaking cycles of poverty

by Miranda Barham, WAM Steering Committee

On September 13, 2017, we will be holding an event with guest speakers Eva Halper from Credit Suisse Global Education Initiative and Aukje te Kaat from Aflatoun International to discuss the Credit Suisse initiative around financial education for girls. In addition, two Plan International managers from China and Brazil who are directly implementing the program will also be present.

We asked them to give us an introductory overview ahead of the event to tell us a little about their initiative and what they hope to achieve.

  1. Please tell us a bit about the background of the Credit Suisse initiative ‘Financial Education for Girls’?

In 2014 Credit Suisse launched a Signature Programme focusing on Financial Education for Girls. This programme is part of the bank’s Global Education Initiative, one of the 2 global initiatives Credit Suisse launched in 2008.  Aligned with the core business of Credit Suisse and the other  global initiative in Microfinance (Microfinance Capacity Building Initiative), the Financial Education for Girls programme aims to improve the financial education and life skills of approximately 100,000 adolescent girls and to encourage them to transition through secondary school.

As a global financial institution, we see first-hand how important financial skills are to enable people to actively participate in the economy and society. Many young people aged 14–25 in developing countries are already economically active but without a basic education in the key tenets of finance. They are therefore not only less likely to maximise the benefits from their economic activity, but also risk making decisions that may result in debt and further poverty over time and into adulthood.

Given that girls in developing countries still struggle to overcome many barriers to education compared to their male counterparts, focussing on financial education for girls in particular can mean transformed futures. Empowered girls can manage their own savings, spending, and make decisions about their future endeavours in life.

By increasing both the financial capability of girls as well as their awareness of their social and economic rights, they can better fulfill their potential and take advantage of economic opportunities as they transition into adulthood. Furthermore, financial education for girls also mitigates their vulnerabilities such as sexual and domestic violence, school dropout, illiteracy, early marriage, and pregnancy.

  1. Where is the programme run and what are its objectives?

The programmeme is being implemented by our partners, Plan International and Aflatoun International in Brazil, China, India and Rwanda. As of this year, we will be also working in Tanzania and Sri Lanka with another of our long standing partners, Room to Read.

Financial Education for Girls aims to:

  • Improve the financial education and life skills of approximately 100,000 adolescent girls
  • Support approximately 100,000 girls to transition to, or remain in, secondary school
  • Advocate at local and national levels to create a positive environment for girls’ education
  1. Tell us about how you hope your work will inspire future programmes?

In addition to meeting the goals outlined above, the partners are investing time and resources into pursuing a thought leadership agenda in the area of financial education for adolescent girls. The aim is to make recommendations for development practitioners and national policy makers. We hope our findings will inform the creation of new programmemes by indicating critical success factors needed for programmemes targeting girls’ Financial Education. We also aim to identify gaps in current understanding of similar programmes and therefore where further research would be of value.

The thought leadership component of the partnership is a research project to explore the impact of financial education on adolescent girls and to contribute to the debate more broadly around financial education – specifically for girls.

Through this research we hope to:

  • Increase understanding of how financial and life skills education programmes can be used to improve the life chances and selected educational outcomes of adolescent girls
  • Make recommendations to improve the quality of financial and life skills programming for adolescent girls
  • Develop a body of evidence and insights which will inform the design of innovative and integrated financial education and life skills programmes for girls

We do hope that you will be able to join us to discuss the initiative further and hear more about how the partners have planned and implemented the programme and what sorts of results are apparent at this initial stage.

Please book your ticket here

When: Wednesday 13th September 2017, 18:30 – 21:30 BST

Where: Credit Suisse, 1 Cabot Square, London E14 4QJ

Networking from 18:30; talk begins 19:30


We look forward to seeing you!

WAM UK Steering Committee


More about our guest speakers


Eva Halper was educated in Australia, Canada and the UK and has lived in several countries and worked in a variety of roles focusing on education, corporate employee engagement and multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development. She currently leads Credit Suisse’s Global Education Initiative, building and managing partnerships with international not for profits. This program currently focuses on Financial Education for Girls. In 2010, she conceived and subsequently rolled out the Bank’s flagship international skills-based volunteering program, The Global Citizens Program. This is today offered as a unique leadership development opportunity enabling employees to work with the company’s not for profit partners abroad and has been integrated into the portfolio of Talent Development programs.


Aukje te Kaat is Research Manager for Aflatoun International and has a particular interest in life skills education, sexual and reproductive health and girls empowerment. With degrees in sociology and development studies, and work experience as a researcher with Ghent University, UNHCR in Malawi, and youth NGOs in Kenya and Tanzania, Aukje now works with Aflatoun International – a social franchise that develops and examines educational materials for social and financial education. Aukje works with academics, research institutions, and evaluators worldwide to contribute to knowledge around life skills and financial education.


Empowering today’s women for the women of tomorrow



Johanna Ryan will be speaking at a dinner hosted by Women Advancing Microfinance UK on Tuesday 31st January 2017 in London. She will talk to us about the work VisionFund International does and the impact it’s having on the lives of women. Tickets to the event are available here.

Ahead of the event, we asked Johanna to give us some thoughts about what it is that makes VisionFund International different, how it has evolved its approach to empower women and drive financial inclusion through a gender lens.

Tell us about VisionFund and how you empower women.

For more than ten years VisionFund has worked to build solid foundations in our microfinance institutions to reach rural, under-served areas in over 30 countries, impacting the daily and future lives of millions of children.  Whether it is a mother of a suffering child or a caregiver of an orphan, we regularly witness the economic empowerment of women through access to financial services, and the benefit this change has on children.

This is why more than 70% of our clients are women and why we implement products and services   that are tailored for women and help them to change the lives of their children by enabling them to afford healthcare, education and proper nutrition.   While we continue to make progress, we know we have a long way to go and many more opportunities to transform the lives of women worldwide.

Why are you intentionally targeting female clients? How does financial inclusion go beyond small loans?

Seventy per cent of the world’s poor are women. Sixty-three per cent of them do not have access to a bank account. Eighty cents of every dollar earned by a woman is invested in her children (compared to 30 cents by men). Women in most countries earn on average only 60 to 75 per cent of men’s wages. Around the world, mothers and female caregivers work tirelessly – inside and outside the home – to improve the lives of children and provide them with brighter futures.

At VisionFund, our mission is to empower women, who in turn will enable their children to have access to resources and opportunities that they lacked. If we aim to work with women, we need to model our offering to their requirements. Thus VisionFund specifically encourages women to become loan officers as they better understand the needs of women clients and their children.  We have therefore created a recruitment programme that targets women with “life experience,” which is currently being rolled out across our network. As Melinda Gates once said – a strong and empowered mother is the best champion a child will ever have.

You are developing an initiative called the Women’s Empowerment Fund. Can you explain a little about what you hope to achieve?

The Women’s Empowerment Fund aims to empower two million women and impact six million children across our microfinance network by 2021. The key innovation of the Fund is the gender lens – and especially a mother’s lens – that will be applied to all our economic empowerment work to increase financial access for vulnerable women and develop financial and other services that are tailored to meet women’s needs.

To hear more from Johanna about VisionFund’s unique approach, please join us for the dinner discussion on Tuesday 31st January 2017. Tickets for the event are available here.

7 Things We Learnt from Trust Women -Day 1

by WAM UK Steering Committee


CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation, Monique Villa

  1. There is a $285BN Credit Gap for Women Entrepreneurs Globally

Goldman Sachs and the IFC estimates that there is  $285BN credit gap for women entrepreneurs, with 70% of women-owned small businesses underserved by financial institutions in developing countries.  At a breakfast event, White and Case discussed the challenges to ensuring women had legal rights over their businesses – a significant challenge preventing women accessing financial services for women owned SMEs. White and Case are working with Women World’s Banking to research the legal and cultural challenges facing women entrepreneurs and business owners. Having conducted research in 14 countries across emerging markets, they highlighted some of the key challenges as below:

  • Property rights prohibiting women from holding property
  • Divorce laws determining that assets can only be owned by men, transferred to men upon divorce.
  • Inheritance laws prohibiting women to inherit assets.
  • Legal issues preventing women from having bank accounts or access to credit, for example challenges in determining national ID numbers.
  • Illiteracy, preventing women from using technology and financial services
  • Cultural ideas that women don’t manage money or businesses

In 2014, Goldman Sachs and IFC created a $600MN loan facility for women entrepreneurs as an evolution of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 women project.

  1. The Migrant Crisis Is Giving Rise To Greater Human Rights Abuses And Slavery, Including Women And Children.

Thomson Reuters Foundation, CEO, Monique Villa opened the 5th Trust Women conference with a compelling address covering a range of topical issues affecting women globally today, making a link between the migrant crisis and human rights abuses. As the former Italian Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino explained “in the west we are creating a new breed of subjugated human beings in the migrant crisis” in our failure to respond appropriately to the issue.  As she astutely summarised “we known we don’t take enough action to solve this problem, creating our own problems – then we blame global mobility.” She stressed that the European response to the migrant crisis has led to a loss in credibility to the West’s international development work – in the observation of the failure to respond to challenges on its doorstep, how can its advice in developing countries be taken seriously?

Migrants are vulnerable to trafficking networks and increasingly, radicalisation.  Europa calculated that the number of asylum seekers to the EU doubled in 2015 vs. 2014.

  1. Slavery Still Exists Today

We heard from speakers from Nepal, Mauritania, the US, amongst many others on how prevalent slavery is today. Lisa Kristine, a humanitarian photographer shared harrowing stories and images of child and adult slaves around the world in her modern day slavery campaign. The size of the problem is huge – an estimated 46 million people are in modern day slavery, according to the Walk Free Foundation.

Biram Dah Abeid, Lawyer, Human rights activist and President of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA)- educated us on the institutionalisation and prevalence of slavery in Mauritania, where 50% of the population belong to a caste vulnerable to slavery. Slavery is matrilineal and can be inherited – children borne into being slaves for their mothers were. He explains that although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 (the last country to do so) and has adopted international law, the domestic Sharia Law is dominant and permits slavery to exist with impunity. He spoke of girl slaves being sexually abused and enslaved by a master class being culturally and legally accepted.  He explained that men were often abler to flee and escape, whereas girl and women slaves are not as likely to do so. Biram himself has been arrested many times for peaceful and legal protest against slavery.

  1. Children are Vulnerable to Trafficking and Slavery Worldwide

Walk Free estimates that approximately 1 in 3 slaves are estimated to be children.  Aside from labour and domestic work – there are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world, 40% of which are girls and expected to be treated as wives for male soldiers. The facts were incredibly sobering.  We learnt of exploited labourers toiling in Brick kilns in India and Nepal working over 16 hours’ day in over 120 Fahrenheit heat, covered in dust. Children in Ghana working on one of the largest man made lakes in the world –  and they don’t know how to swim. Children in India favoured for their small hands in manufacturing and labour. The examples were too many to count; in contrast to these devastating accounts we heard from an incredibly brave panel of child slavery and trafficking survivors:

  • Tindyebwa Agaba, Human rights activist, who survived being a child solider in Rwanda to become involved in international conflict work and advocacy.
  • Sunita Danuwar, Executive Director, Shakti Samuha, who survived sexual enslavement as a girl in Nepal.
  • Ashley Cacho, FAIR Girls Survivor Advocate, who survived failures by the Social Care and Criminal Justice system in the US and sex trafficked by a relative.

All three have been detained by their states and failed by their justice systems, but they spoke movingly and openly of their experiences showing incredible resilience and commitment to speak out against modern slavery, moving from victim to survivor to champion for other victims.

Representatives from Interpol and New York Country District Attorney spoke about their efforts against child abuse, trafficking and slavery. Although they acknowledge that there is still too little work ongoing to address the scale of the problem; developments in technology and concentrated effort in child abuse victim identification and awareness has helped advance their work of late

  1. Accept That Slavery Is Likely In Corporate Supply Chains – Actively Seek to Identify It To Address It

Panel and video speakers with representatives from Tesco, Primark, Hilton and Thai Unions discussed slavery in large corporate supply chains. The presence of corporates on the panel was commended for the simple fact of publicly acknowledging the issue – many brands, not just low-cost ones – perpetuate the problem by refusing to acknowledge it. As Monique Villa, CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation suggested: “no company can say that they are slavery – they simply do not know”. Or they have a very small and simple supply chain.

Slavery has increasingly become a corporate governance issue following decades of being overlooked. By comparison, Villa emphasises that “companies pay attention to anticorruption because the law is harsh on them, but not on slavery because the pressure isn’t there.” However important policy changes such as the Human Slavery Act in the UK is making slavery a business issue – corporate bonds are now required to sign off on Anti-Slavery statements, making it a board issued to incentivise top down change.

Thai Union stressed that engagement is key – if corporates boycott suppliers from countries at risk of slavery they can inadvertently make the problem worse in country. Instead engagement can work to lift standards. There was agreement that corporates, industry bodies and NGOs needed to work together – forging coalitions against slavery to actively look for evidence of it to resolve, not just sticking to high level codes of conducts or acting in silo.

  1. Global Migration – Not A Crisis, Nor New Normality – But Reality

50% of unaccompanied children who arrive in Europe vanish. Victims of human or organ trafficking, or other forms of exploitation. Geopolitical uncertainty, conflicts and climate change render human migration a trend likely to stay. Alternatively, Thomson Reuters argued that migrants remained stable and approximately 3% of the global population, but the global population is growing in absolute numbers, therefore recent trends should not be seen as a crisis but instead a new normality. This is coupled by the trend of rising anti migration sentiment around the world with more border walls being built in recent years– 70 in total currently.

International President of Medicins Sans Frontieres, Dr Joanne Liu, argued passionately that we only see migration as a crisis now because it is happening in our back yards in Europe– much like the example of the spread of Ebola, which was not a taken as seriously until it started affecting the West. Liu has been working in conflict areas for over 20 years and observes that migration has always existed and there are no such things as “good or bad refugees”– the right to move and be treated with dignity is fundamental.  Humans Right Watch argued that the migrant population arriving in Europe is approx. 1% of the EU population – numerically not challenging yet there is a political crisis in response to accepting migrants. The panellists compared the European response- failure to accept and integrate 1% vs. Lebanon which has accepted Syrian refugees equaling 25% of its population. Given the prevalence of migration and historic relevance of remittances in financial inclusion, it begs the question as to what the microfinance community and impact investors can do to address the challenges and opportunities migration poses today.

  1. The Challenges Are Immense But There Are Incredible People Doing Incredible Work And Civil Society Has A Role To Play.

The conference’s focus on modern day slavery and migration was sobering indeed. Survivors told their stories of trauma and hard hitting facts documenting the scale of slavery, trafficking and refugees – with women and girls especially vulnerable. However, what was also evident was human resilience and the power of organising to challenge these global challenges. Speakers and panelists continuously highlighted the power of the individual – in civil society, as investors, as consumers, as professionals to work towards today’s addressing these challenges. The first step is awareness – to open our eyes to the problems and then to act. The Trust Women conference launched the #IChooseToSee campaign to continue to disseminate information and hosted clear action sessions for delegates to make concrete commitments either as individuals or as organisations to address slavery and migration.

If you’re interested in learning more about the event and its speakers, please visit http://www.trustwomenconf.com/  and review our live tweets from the events at @WAM_UK. Stay tuned for a report on Day 2. Videos from the conference are also available here.




The State of Responsible Investment



For our dinner event on responsible investment, specifically looking at how we can influence the way global companies act and impact the world, we interviewed one of the speakers, Martina Macpherson, Managing Partner of SI Partners.  

On the evening Martina Macpherson will be accompanied by Natacha Dimitrijevic, Associate Director at Hermes Equity Ownership Services and together they will lead an interactive discussion on responsible investment and the role of stakeholders in the investment value chain.

In theory long-term shareholder interests are aligned with environmental and social good. How does this work?

Large institutional investors, most of them pension funds are, in effect, ‘Universal Owners’, as they often have highly-diversified and long-term portfolios that are representative of global capital markets. Their portfolios are inevitably exposed to the external costs of business. Corruption, for instance, could lead to a significant fine with a direct impact on a company performance, but it also raises the cost of doing business for all others. Unchecked carbon emissions raises questions on a company’s quality of management; it also contributes to climate change with increased financial risks for all.  Long-term economic value creation and the wellbeing of beneficiaries are at stake.  Hence, long-term investors can and should act collectively to reduce financial risk from environmental and social impacts which means they have a responsibility to adopt an investment approach which considers sustainability issues.

Some investors have started to utilise a proxy such as employee safety. If we look at BP, this is a prime example where the safety record could have signalled future risk. Imperfect safety procedures in its US operations led to accidents and eventually the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that cost the firm tens of billions. Another more recent example is BHP Billiton, where shares hit a seven-year low after the Brazil dam disaster in November 2015.

How sensitive are companies (board and management) these days to sustainability issues in their business – how has this changed over the last 10 years?

Over the past decade, companies have started to think more intentionally about how to maximize shareholder value by exploring the complex interplay between financial, human, social…. Investments in better training, healthcare for instance have demonstrated direct financial returns through gains in productivity and efficiency.  Support for social programmes has accelerated economic growth and raised incomes – creating a wider consumer base and easing entry into new markets.

Terms like ‘shared value’ and ‘triple bottom-line’ are now commonplace in board rooms around the globe. As a result, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is no longer conceived as a series of seemingly random feel-good grants, but as an essential tool that impacts a company’s philosophy and core business strategy including its brand value, market access and operations.

This development is also supported by global norms and social initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals, more defined reporting and accounting frameworks such as GRI, IIRC, SASB or UNGP and encouraged by legislation, such as the EU Directive 2014/95/EU of non-financial and diversity information and the Modern Slavery Act, UK.

 While it sounds like an ideal situation if all investors took a long-term approach to investing, it would seem that many still chase short term returns and gains.  What proportion of global investment really now takes into account ESG issues?

The global sustainable investment market has grown both in absolute and relative terms to US$21.4 trillion at the start of 2014 – equal to approximately 25% of all the world’s financial holdings.

Source: GSIA, ‘Global Sustainable Investment Review 2014’

Negative screening, integration of  environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) factors into investment processes and corporate engagement have been identified as the key investment approaches (for market growth and ‘impact’), in Europe and across the globe:

Source: Eurosif, European SRI Study, 2014

Overall, the definition of best practices in ESG integration is evolving very quickly. A few years ago, being a PRI signatory – where signatories pledge their support for responsible investment and incorporate ESG factors into their approach – was considered as advanced; it is now seen as a requirement for asset managers and, instead, the focus has shifted to measuring and benchmarking the effectiveness of ESG factors.

This blog also appears on Business Fights Poverty


Microfinance and Women’s Empowerment: is it really helping them?

by Kim Croucher, WAM UK Steering Committee

Source: US AID, Flikr Creative Commons

Source: US AID, Flickr Creative Commons

It’s a question that has occurred to many of us who work in women’s financial inclusion and  increasingly  pertinent as the industry has developed and changed; whilst data and research has oftentimes been disappointing in providing a clear link, we ask, is microfinance – as a tool to empower women – really working?

In June, Ernst & Young hosted WAM and the Microfinance Club UK to debate this hot topic – aided by three highly qualified speakers on the subject:

  • Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, the global nonprofit devoted to giving more low-income women access to the financial tools and resources they require to achieve security and prosperity.
  • Sevi Simavi, Chief Executive Officer of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women,a charitable foundation that develops programmes to provide women with the skills, technology, networks and access to capital that they need to become successful small business owners.
  • Justina Alders-Sheya, Senior Manager, EY, specializing in Financial Inclusion & Microfinance and Wealth & Asset Management.

Justina showcased the work that EY has been doing to investigate this topic, to offer better advice to its clients in this space (microfinance institutions and investors).  According to her, there are various broad themes that may help the microfinance industry to understand its impact on women better, but more importantly may help the industry serve women more effectively.

The first is technology, which has the potential to boost financial inclusion for women in a way that was not possible before.  Some of the basic barriers that used to exist for poor women to access finance – safety of carrying cash in public, the ability to travel long distances to reach a bank branch, confidence to walk into a bank and speak to a male member of staff – all this is blown away with mobile banking. Of the 2 billion unbanked individuals in the world today, 1 billion have mobile phones and mobile accounts are now available in 61% of developing markets.  The potential to reach the previously unreachable is huge.

Mainstream financial institutions are entering the space faster than ever and this could enable microfinance to further extend its reach. With this entry may also come increasing regulation, which could mean better customer protection and potentially harmonizing standards across countries and regions.

Impact measurement has been a focus for years, but is still key to understanding whether microfinance is helping women.  Measuring the impact of having access to finance is important, but the answers rely on long-term research. Leading on from this is a topic that is relatively new – but receiving a lot of attention – and that is looking at behavioural insights when lending.

The understanding of psychological, social and cultural influences on decision making and behaviour can really help providers in delivering a service that leads to the best outcomes. But the very reason why it is attracting attention, might lead to the mainstreaming of microfinance – since behavioural insights would make it easier for commercial financial institutions to know how they can offer services to this segment of the market and still make a profit.

Sevi Simavi presented how the Cherie Blair Foundation realized very quickly when they set-up that access to capital was key to empowering female entrepreneurs. When the organisation first started, a lot of women they worked with still kept their cash under the mattress.  Having a bank account is critical from an empowerment perspective, without this, a woman rarely has control over her money – the cash ends up going to husbands or fathers.

In a recent report by the World Bank on Financial Inclusion, it quotes findings that the number of unbanked individuals has fallen by 20% between 2011 and 2014 (that amounts to 62% of adults who have a bank account vs. 51% in 2011) – which reveals some improvement in access to banking services.  However, there continues to be a gender gap in account ownership – the gap varied depending on the region, but overall only 58% of women worldwide are banked vs. 65% of men.

So while there may not yet be the hard evidence to point to the empowerment effect that microfinance is having on women around the world – there is most certainly a need for increasing financial services made available and accessible to women.  But to benefit from these services, Sevi made the interesting point that female entrepreneurs also needed to be given knowledge and capabilities (the ability to manage an account, to know the difference between profit and loss, basic book-keeping skills). Financial literacy training is therefore key.  Here technology can also have a part to play – delivery of training through a mobile phone can be fast, efficient and can reach those who were previously unreachable.

Our main takeaway from Mary Ellen’s speech was the idea that to serve the poor most efficiently, one has to address women,  and this means thinking about the services that women need, because they will be different to men’s.

Empowering women is crucial to serving the poor and developing economies, because women make up a far larger proportion of the poor, because a woman is far more likely to make investments back into her community and her children if she earns money – and one aspect of empowerment is through financial inclusion, so that women are increasingly in control of their money and their own decision making and futures.  Yet women are facing greater financial exclusion in every geography and across every income level.

The key to Mary Ellen’s message was that in order to support women’s empowerment – we need to make financial services better tailored to women.  Her point was that it was becoming clear that women wanted different things to men when it came to financial services.

For example, women want convenience, they greatly value confidentiality, they want more security, they want to trust the organization they are dealing with. Technology can go some way towards addressing these needs – but building trust may mean offering a lot more information to potential female customers because that is what they require to make a decision, it may mean explaining things in a more transparent way and it may mean having female agents.

In Tanzania for example, women are opening bank accounts at the same rate as men, but the main feedback from women there is that it is too easy to spend the money in the accounts – instead they would like restrictions on withdrawing money and incentives to save towards a goal – again a different way of thinking and different needs.

Mary Ellen was also optimistic about digital banking due to the convenience it offers women, the new markets it represents for banks and customer stickiness it offers the mobile operators – many reasons why she thinks digital banking may be a game-changer for financial inclusion.

Given all the talk over the evening about the coming revolution of digital/mobile banking, a question from the audience was put to the panel on whether mobile phones would destroy the support dynamic that can come from more traditional group savings and loan arrangements.  The panel felt there was a way to use mobile phones in microfinance (distributing loans, repayments) that would work either on an individual or group level – so it did not necessarily threaten the group model.  But they added that eventually individuals, especially entrepreneurs, needed loans that were specific to their own needs and so having this ability to tailor a product to individuals is advantageous to all involved.

If the conclusion the room was coming to during the evening was that financial inclusion is really key to women’s economic empowerment – even if the evidence isn’t there to directly link this progression yet – why then is there still a gap?  What about discrimination in this space – did the panel think that this was a more serious hurdle than the microfinance community are currently expressing and does the language around discrimination need to be ramped up in order to change the attitude of providers?  The panel felt there certainly is discrimination – but not always on the part of the players in the industry – it is a wider issue involving governments and communities. The fact that women can’t open a bank account in many countries, or face significantly more hurdles than men do when trying.  In Bangladesh, women need a birth certificate to open a bank account, but many poor women weren’t registered at birth – ID issues are a huge challenge for the poor.  Ownership of property that can act as collateral is another common problem for women, which also makes it more difficult to access capital.

Summing up – do all these developments mean that microfinance can help increase gender equality?  The panel were optimistic.  Sevi put it so well when she said that for all those who work tirelessly in this space and who care about women’s empowerment – it should be about progress and not perfection.

Unlocking the potential of women benefits all

Half the Sky: Why Unlocking the Potential of Women Benefits Us All

by Marjolaine Chaintreau – WAM UK Co-Founder


On May 14th 2013, the WAM UK and Women in Social Finance networks got together to organise the UK Premier screening of the highly acclaimed film documentary Half the Sky. As a co-founder of WAM UK, I wanted to explain why it was such an important milestone for us and why we wanted to share this movement with you.

Half the Sky started as a book, written in 2009 by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, both acclaimed journalists at the New York Times and Pulitzer Prize winners. At its core, the book seeks to ignite the change needed to put an end to the oppression of women and girls worldwide. For Nicholas and Sheryl, the fight for gender equality is the moral challenge of our century, like slavery was before us. Further, the key to our economic progress they argue, lies in unleashing women’s potential. Building on the tremendous success of the book, the Half the Sky film documentary was then shot in 10 countries with 7 celebrity advocates; America Ferrera, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, Olivia Wilde; and released in October 2012.

Half the Sky represents a breakthrough on how the world should think and talk about gender equality. Unfortunately one thing has not changed: the topics covered in Half the Sky are as heavy, difficult, and overwhelming as issues related to girls and women have always been for everyone. What makes Half the Sky unique is the strength of Nicholas and Sheryl’s method, painfully documenting the facts, clarifying the drivers and mechanisms behind some of these issues, and providing a balanced diversity of examples.

But Half the Sky is not about showing how difficult the life of women and girls are in some parts of the word.  It is about promoting examples of courage; life transformation; hard work; virtuous circles; leadership and the economic power and hope represented by women worldwide. Both the book and the film are based on the power and emotion of the extraordinary, and hopeful, stories of women and of the local organisations supporting them.  Half the Sky focuses on the solutions and opportunities that women represent in the fight against oppression and poverty.

Today, in some countries women and girls represent the greatest unexploited economic resources of our time. Unleashing women’s potential is not only the right thing to do, but it is the best strategy for fighting poverty globally and benefiting everyone in our society. This is the reason why “it is impossible to stand by and do nothing after reading/watching Half the Sky”.

Our only objective is that learning about the Half the Sky movement will urge you to become a champion for women globally and act to unlock the opportunities women and their businesses represent for the world’s economic and social development.

Women Advancing Microfinance (WAM UK) and Women in Social Finance are two networks bringing together women professionals working in the field of social impact finance or personally engaged in women empowerment, financial inclusion and how to use the power of business to solve some of the world’s pressing issues.