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Rural Women’s Access to Microcredit: Necessary but not Sufficient for Socio-economic Empowerment

21.09.2015John Kuumuori Ganle, Researcher, Kwame Nkrumah University, Kumasi, Ghana

In many parts of rural Africa today, microcredit schemes for women are increasingly being promoted as both a solution to women's limited access to credit and a strategy for poverty reduction and women's empowerment. Microcredit is simply the extension of a small amount of collateral-free institutional loans to jointly liable poor group members for their self-employment and income-generation. In a recent paper that we published in World Development (Vol. 66, pp.335-345, 2015), we studied the empowerment benefits of rural women's access to microcredit using data from a longitudinal multi-method research that we conducted with rural women who were involved in an NGO-run micro-lending programme in Ghana. We developed a simple, yet multifaceted model of empowerment in which the empowerment benefits of women's access to microcredit were evaluated based on three main pathway matrixes: material, relational, and perceptual pathways to women empowerment.

We found that some women are empowered along several dimensions as a result of their access to credit; several other women have little control over the use of loan funds and are therefore no better off due to receiving credit; while some women are subjected to harassment and abuse due to their indebtedness and inability to repay loans, and are therefore worse off. Those women who became more empowered as a result of their access to credit were women who either were already engaged in some business venture before receiving the loan or they exercised full or significant control over proceeds from their loans. Women borrowers who became vulnerable and even disempowered were however those who either received loans to start-up new businesses but who actually failed to do so due to loss of loans to other unapproved loan uses such as direct consumption, or those who had no control over investments and earnings from their loans.

Our findings suggest that having an understanding of the nature of potential loan recipients and the socio-cultural context within which they live could be vital for the survival, effectiveness and long-term success of any microcredit programme. In some cases, access to credit is the only input needed on the road to women empowerment. At the same time, our findings also suggest that in a culture in which women have little control over their loans and income from their investments, it is a singularly poor environment to give out credit to women to start-up new businesses.

This suggests the need to focus the lending approach of microcredit schemes for rural women on a number of things. First, it might be better to focus on women who already have an income-generating activity that generates sufficient income to repay the loan. This would not only help loan recipients to grow their existing businesses and generate more income, but it would also ensure the sustainability of the schemes themselves. Second, it might be useful to first screen and determine which clients have adequate control to be able to use a loan productively. This might require moving beyond individual women to focusing on families and communities to redress powerlessness and gender-based discrimination against women. Finally, borrower groups should be encouraged to build-up their own emergency savings through small regular contributions. Such funds could be loaned out (and to be replaced later) to group members who might have legitimate reasons for being unable to repay at the time of collection. This could reduce the harassment, abuse, and seizure of assets that insolvent borrowers often experience due to other group members having to cover for them out of their own pocket.

Overall, our study suggests that empowerment cannot always be assumed to be an automatic outcome of women's access to microcredit particularly in contexts such as Ghana where women still face considerable socio-economic disadvantage relative to men. However, with adequate loan size, appropriate timing, effective monitoring, and better screening methods that avoid giving loans to potentially insolvent borrowers, women's access to microcredit does have the potential to impact positively and powerfully on their empowerment.


This blog post is based on the study Microcredit: Empowerment and Disempowerment of Rural Women in Ghana, World Development, Vol. 66, pp.335-345, 2015. Corresponding Author: Dr. John Kuumuori Ganle, Department of Geography and Rural Development, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana, Tel: 0249957505, E: johnganle[at] 

About the Authors

John Kuumuori Ganle, is a population, rural and international development researcher at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health from the University of Oxford, UK. 

Kwadwo Afriyie is a Lecturer at the Department of Geography and Rural Development at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. He holds a Master of Philosophy in Geography and Resource Development from the University of Ghana, Legon. 

Alexander Yao Segbefia is a Lecturer and Head at the Department of Geography and Rural Development at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. He holds a doctorate degree in Geography and Resource Development from the University of Ghana, Legon.

Gravatar: Niels Hermes, Professor, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Microfinance and the Incompatibility of Outreach and Cost Efficiency

07.09.2015Niels Hermes, Professor, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Since the late 1970s, the poor in emerging economies have increasingly gained access to financial services offered by so-called microfinance institutions (MFIs). These MFIs have shown significant growth rates in terms of providing financial services to poor households, especially during the early 2000s until the breakout of the financial crisis. Next to the growing numbers of clients, the number of MFIs went up as well. Microfinance was perceived as a successful model, both from a developmental as well as from a business perspective. Thus, not only new NGO-type of institutions, also commercially oriented MFIs, entered the market. The strong growth of the number of MFIs led to increased competition for clients and markets. In addition, over time also the orientation of many MFIs changed. Whereas in the beginning of the microfinance movement, the focus was mainly on social objectives, this changed towards focusing more on financial performance, i.e. an orientation on profits and efficiency of operations.

These changes in the microfinance landscape do raise a number of questions. How did MFIs cope with the rapid increase of clients? What has been the impact of the change to being more profit-oriented for the social performance of MFIs? Is there a trade-off between these two orientations or can they be complementary? These are all important questions the microfinance sector, as well academics, have been struggling with during recent years.

In particular, there has been a lot of discussion on the existence of a trade-off between financial and social performance. On the one hand, improved financial performance may help MFIs in obtaining more funds, e.g. by making profits and/or by attracting the attention of external investors. This allows them to provide more services to the poor, thereby raising their social performance. At the same time, however, the focus on financial performance may go at the cost of servicing the poor as this is generally more costly, both in terms of delivering and monitoring services, i.e. financial and social performance could also be substitutes.

One could investigate the existence of a trade-off by looking at the association between measures of the financial and social performance of MFI operations. If this association is negative, this may indicate there indeed is a trade-off, i.e. financial performance goes at the cost of social performance. In contrast, a positive association would support the idea that both objectives are complementary. We studied this issue by measuring the cost efficiency, which is a proxy for financial performance, of 435 MFIs during the period 1997-2007. In particular, we compared cost levels of MFIs relative to the cost levels of the most efficient MFIs in our sample. The distance between the cost levels of these most efficient MFIs and the cost levels of an individual MFI is a proxy of the (in)efficiency of its operations: the smaller the distance the more cost efficient the organization.

We measured social performance (or outreach to the poor) of an MFI by taking the average loan size per borrower (in US dollars) and the percentage of female clients of its total loan portfolio. A higher average loan size may indicate that the MFI focuses on the less poor; a higher share of female borrowers suggests a stronger focus on the poor.

Next, we looked at the association between these measures of financial and social performance. In particular, we investigated whether the cost efficiency of an MFI is related to the extent to which the MFI focuses on reaching out to the poor, controlling for a number of MFI-specific variables, which may also influence its level of financial performance. We found strong evidence supporting the idea that financial and social performance are substitutes. On average, MFIs scoring high in terms of cost efficiency provided larger loans and had fewer female clients, i.e. they scored low on reaching out to the poor. These outcomes strongly suggest that a trade-off between financial and social performance exists. In other words, on average it will be difficult for MFIs to achieve both goals. We therefore conclude that the claim made by microfinance practitioners and researchers regarding the compatibility of efficiency and outreach, allowing MFIs to achieve a double bottom line, is a myth.


This blogpost is based on the study "Outreach and Efficiency of Microfinance Institutions", World Development, 39, 6, 2011, pp. 938-948, by Niels Hermes, Robert Lensink and Aljar Meesters. Corresponding author: Niels Hermes, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen, PO BOX 800 9700 AV Groningen, The Netherlands, telephone: +31-50-363 4863; email:[at]

About the authors

Niels Hermes is professor of International Finance at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and visiting professor at Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium

Robert Lensink is professor of Finance and Financial Markets at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and professor of Finance and Developemntat Wageningen University, the Netherlands

Aljar Meesters is post-doc researcher at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Gravatar: Niklas Buehren with Malcolm Ehrenpreis and Rachel Dawn Coleman

From Cash to Accounts: Switching how women save in Uganda

04.05.2015Niklas Buehren with Malcolm Ehrenpreis and Rachel Dawn Coleman

In Sub-Saharan Africa, many women are keeping their savings at home where it is most vulnerable. Why not use semi-formal or formal institutions instead to better protect hard-earned cash?

Even the world's poorest women save to protect themselves in case of unexpected needs but often in ways quite different from wealthier women. What is common knowledge for many Westerners-that formal savings institutions provide better protection-is not accepted practice in many Sub-Saharan African countries.

One potential explanation among several is lacking knowledge of how to save in a more formal institution, and about the relative risks, costs and benefits of keeping savings as cash versus using a semi-formal or formal savings device.

In Uganda, BRAC, a development organization dedicated to alleviating poverty by empowering the poor, set out to study if information on how to use formal financial devices can impact women's savings behavior. I had the opportunity to work with the BRAC team to design a randomized controlled trial to rigorously analyze the effectiveness of the Saving Mobilization program-this work is exactly aligned with what we do in the World Bank's Africa Region Gender Innovation Lab (GIL) in trying to find solutions that really work to improve opportunities for women and girls. In the program, BRAC Uganda organized an informational campaign for groups of women in Kampala and Iganga that focused on the importance of savings in general and the different types of available saving services including more formal and relatively secure saving devices. The study produced several interesting findings that are important to consider when thinking about how to improve women's savings strategies.

First and foremost, the results show that there is an information constraint that is particularly pronounced for illiterate women and for formal savings options. Six months after the campaign, illiterate women were 19 percentage points more likely to be saving in formal institutions rather than keeping their savings as cash.

Additionally, the pilot found that theft is a prevalent issue for many of the women in the study (1 out of 4 women at baseline had experienced this in the past year). After the information campaign, women who had experienced theft or robbery in the past 12 months were 19 percentage points more likely to take up formal savings services.

Interestingly enough, however, the pilot found that, overall, women did not tend to move their cash into a formal savings option. Instead, the largest shift was in women reallocating savings to semi-formal savings options, such as Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs). Taking the step from saving informally to working with a group of individuals who agree to save and borrow together, rather than at a bank, appeared to be the preferred short-term path for women in this pilot. This, however, is a significant step towards a more formal and structured approach to savings.

It is important to note this pilot shows that an informational campaign is sufficient to address the allocation of savings but there is no evidence that it is enough to impact the total accumulation of savings. To increase total savings more powerful tools may be necessary, such as programs that improve the financial situation of households-helping them gain more income to potentially save.

To protect the large percentage of women who keep their savings in cash from theft and burglary, this pilot showed that implementing a relatively simple and cost-effective learning intervention focused on the value of moving along the spectrum to more formal savings options is enough to encourage women to transfer their savings from household hideaways to more secure community savings systems.

This experiment is part and parcel of GIL's work, which tries to provide more specific, actionable and rigorously tested advice to development teams who want to make their projects and programs more effective in increasing women's and girls' economic opportunity. Follow this link for details about the 40 impact evaluations GIL is carrying out in 20 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This blogpost is based on the academic study Allocating Cash Savings and the Role of Information: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Uganda, prepared by Niklas Buehren, Impact Evaluation Expert within the Africa Region Gender Practice at The World Bank.

Financial Inclusion through Savings and Village Enterprises (FINISAVE)

24.11.2014Theopista Ntale Sekitto

Financial inclusion has become a contributing factor to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly MDG1, which promises to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. The MDGs also include a gender-specific target for achieving full and productive employment and decent work for all. MDG3 is aimed at promoting gender equality and empowering women, and includes a specific reference to women's economic empowerment. Globally, women account for 66% of the labour force and have played a major part in the growth of small businesses. Women entrepreneurs, in particular, are contributing significantly to economic growth by creating jobs and generating revenues. Yet, women-owned businesses' access to credit remains difficult.

In rural areas of Africa, women constitute the largest percentage, 70% of the rural labour force that derives their livelihood from subsistence agriculture. A large number of these farmers aspire to employing better production techniques that can lead to increased output. However, they are dealing with challenges of access to capital that would enable them re-invest their businesses. Only thirteen per cent (13%) of rural people obtain loans from banks for re-investing in agricultural production. This lack of access to finance for the poor, particularly for rural women is attributable to a number of factors including, the location of their businesses and banks' perception of agricultural lending as risky business. Currently, there a few products for agricultural lending tailored to suit women's needs and to couple this, the lending criteria employed by banks is complicated for women. Moreover, the reality in most African countries is that women lack access to and control of land, which serves as collateral for bank loans. There exists also a fear by women to walk into banks and/or financial institutions due to the language barrier. The list can be endless: Mobility restrictions due to the geographic spread of homes across large areas; low levels of education and business training that hampers skills in record keeping, business plan preparation and general management of the business. All of these barriers affect the performance, growth and sustainability of women's enterprises.

In addition to these barriers, the New Faces New Voices (NFNV) Uganda Chapter, a Graca Machel Initiative, identified specific gaps for rural women in terms of access to finance including: little or no formal education, inadequate training on formal financial literacy, women being perceived as housekeepers and not fit to participate in economic activities and poor infrastructure in rural areas.

Against this backdrop, and in an effort to address the challenges of women's access to finance in rural areas, NFNV Uganda Chapter, in partnership with the Uganda National Entrepreneurship Development Institute (UNEDI) began implementing a Financial Inclusion model through the Savings and Villages Enterprises (FINISAVE), a financial cooperative model aimed at increasing the availability and size of finance in remote areas. The FINISAVE Model is based on two schools of thought: (i) People do earn some income but need to be guided on responsible spending and on investments that fall within their income; and (ii) collectively pooling resources together for improved household incomes while working hard on key productive value chains. The FINISAVE model was pilot tested in Lwengo District, with more than 125,000 women entrepreneurs, and a total of 250,000 men and women in 465 villages benefitted from this initiative.

We noted the following during implementation: (i) The sharing of costs through a public-private-civil society partnership has assisted in addressing the lack of infrastructure in women accessing financial institutions in rural areas; (ii) through the formation of savings and investment village based groups that is linked to a commercial bank via mobile banking, women in rural areas are able to work in profitable and sustainable investment cooperatives; (iii) the model underscores a paradigm shift in the cultural and traditional beliefs that a woman is a mere house labourer. This was done through a high-level business and financial literacy training programme, which encouraged communities to move towards self-discovery, a mind-set change, enabling a woman to identify opportunities around her. These women, who had previously not seen the inside of the bank, can now confidently walk into a bank with clear knowledge of the banking services, products and their rights as consumers.

Looking forward and from what we have learnt from this process, regulatory authorities and financial institutions should:

  • regulate agent banking services shifting from a corporate culture to a pro-poor service delivery that is context specific;
  • create rural women guarantee and production material subsidy funds;
  • embrace and highly promote the policy of public-private civil society partnerships in financial service delivery;
  • design products that can be accessed by all categories of the female clients especially those at the lowest financial strata;
  • build capacity to serve women as a special segment by developing new finance models specifically geared towards increasing access to finance. The proposed initiatives should address the gendered factors that constrain the growth and sustainability of rural women's businesses.
  • There must be a mind-set change and paradigm shift that the rural populace are merely recipients of corporate responsibility to financial institutions and that poverty is part of the package for rural communities in Africa. This will be a missed opportunity, as the rural populace are credible, vital contributors to the economies in Africa.

New Insights into the Financial Behaviour of Men and Women in Six African Countries

17.06.2013Sharissa Funk

Financial exclusion in Africa is high, but financial exclusion of African women is even higher: While about one third of the population is completely excluded from the financial sector in Botswana, Namibia and Uganda, this figure amounts to more than half of the population in Rwanda, Malawi and Zambia – and in all six countries more women than men do not have access to services such as bank accounts or payments.

Why is there a persistent gap in the usage of financial services by men and women? Do women find it harder to access formal financial services? What are the obstacles that women face when approaching these providers? What could be the reasons for choosing informal services over formal ones?

The recent set of country studies conducted by GIZ on behalf of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) can help us gain a better insight into the very different financial lives that men and women lead in each of the six countries.

The largest gender gaps were found in the usage of formal savings products, particularly in Botswana (14.6 % more men than women access formal financial services), Uganda (12%), Rwanda (9.5%), and Zambia (9%). Compared with credit and insurance, the difference in the ‘savings’ category is relatively high. Several reasons were identified in the course of the research: First, women tend to have lower incomes and higher expenses. They are often financially responsible for the whole family and therefore have less money available for savings. If they do save, they prefer informal savings groups over formal financial institutions. Women feel more comfortable talking about their financial matters to people they know, such as other women from the same neighbourhood who often set up these informal savings groups. It also is a question of trust: In some countries, people mistrust in institutions because of bad experiences in the past, e.g. of depositors losing money because of bank closures. In Zambia, only 22% of adults trust in banks. Besides, when income is irregular and excess cash is hard to find, flexible repayment schedules and regular small payments are very important advantages of informal services. The costs of transport and time for travelling to the nearest bank, particularly in rural areas, are other issues that can easily be overcome by using local informal services.

With the exception of Rwanda, the financial sectors in the countries researched have a very high concentration of foreign banks, mainly located in urban centres. Formal service providers, particularly these foreign-owned banks, find it hard to adapt to the local market. They still take a rather conservative lending approach, focusing on salaried employees with stable income, and requesting collateral. Since more men than women have salaried jobs, access to formal financial services is difficult for women. For example, by asking for payslips as precondition for loan appraisal, banks automatically exclude the self-employed and non-salaried segments of the work force. Obtaining significant assets that can serve as collateral (e.g. land property) is another major constraint for women, as customary laws still prevail in many regions of the countries studied. These laws can require that the head of the household (mostly the husband) is registered as the property owner, not his wife. Often customary inheritance laws are also found to be discriminatory against women.  

Similar constraints can be found with micro and small enterprises: formal banks tend to focus on medium or large businesses that have attained a certain degree of formalisation. Many women-owned enterprises tend to be small or micro, are often informal, and face severe difficulties in accessing formal credit – for example if they are not able to provide financial statements and proof of formal business registration. At the same time, almost no financial institutions target this niche of underserved potential clients – unmet demand among women-owned enterprises in sub-Saharan Africa ranges from an estimated 30% for medium-sized enterprises to more than 60% for micro enterprises.  

Insurance providers, but also banks and other formal financial institutions, fail to target women as a clientele; e.g. in advertisements that clearly address the male (working) population. Long and complicated claims procedures and a widespread perception that the costs are too high for no apparent (immediate) do not help to convince people to buy insurance either. Providers need to react by improving their marketing and costumer education and by making their processes more transparent.  

Action needs to be taken, not only by service providers but also by regulators. On April 25th 2013, Central Bank Governors and high-level political and private-sector decision makers from the SADC region were invited to the South African Reserve Bank to discuss the ‘Advancing African Women’s Financial Inclusion’ policy recommendations which were drafted during a MFW4A expert round table in 2012. Mrs Graça Machel, the founder of the New Faces New Voices network summed up the recommendations as follows: ‘Regulators and policy-makers need to play a more transformative or developmental role in deepening financial access for women, and financial institutions need to have clear strategies for targeting women in order to expand their access to financial services[…]”. The conference encouraged participants to take the discussions to the national level and push forward Women’s Financial Inclusion in Africa.  

If you would like to find out more about why men and women don’t use financial products in the same way and what should be put on the policy agenda in each of the countries, please have a look at our Synthesis Report or the detailed country reports:

Botswana Rwanda Namibia Uganda Malawi Zambia


Judith Frickenstein is financial sector advisor at GIZ’s programme Promoting Financial Sector Dialogue in Africa: Making Finance Work for Africa, where she is in charge of Gender and Agricultural Finance. Prior to her current position she led the economic empowerment component of GIZ’s gender sector programme, where she helped to design a regional programme in the MENA region and consulted economic development programmes in Albania, Montenegro and Uganda. Before joining GTZ (now GIZ) in 2007, Judith worked for the Retail Development Group in Cologne, Germany and for the German DEVK insurance company. She holds a diploma in economics from the University of Cologne and completed a vocational traineeship at an insurance company.

Sharissa Funk is part of the GIZ team supporting the Partnership MFW4A. She mostly focuses on gender finance issues in her work. Previously, Sharissa worked on agricultural finance with the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management and with Peruvian agricultural cooperatives and Microfinance Institutions for Oikocredit, a social investor. She holds an Economics degree from University of Tuebingen, Germany.



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