Africa Finance Forum Blog


The story of inclusive banking

25.10.2016Prof. Hans Dieter Seibel, Professor Emeritus, Cologne University

First published in the European Microfinance Platform Autumn 2016 Newsletter

In 1963 I went to Nigeria to seek the indigenous roots of what I expected, alas, to become the leading industrial nation of Africa. In my interviews with workers about their saving behavior, I found that many saved in a saving club, called esusu in Yoruba. I learned that the esusu dates back to the 16th century when it was carried by Yoruba slaves to the Caribbean where it is still widespread.

This was my first encounter with informal finance: savings-led! Later in Liberia I came across similar indigenous cooperatives in all 17 ethnic groups, including savings and credit groups and working groups as well as similar community-based arrangements. In towns, rotating savings groups predominated; in villages where regular incomes were rare people formed credit funds (ASCAs), with small, mostly weekly equity contributions - without a gender bias. They survived the civil war and are now, half a century later, to be included in an IFAD project.

With the ASCAs in Liberia I felt at home: Urmitz is everywhere. Urmitz is my home village where, in 1889, some 15 villagers formed a self-help group. During the same year a credit cooperative law was enacted, the group joined the Raiffeisen movement, kept growing, and eventually, in 1934, came under the banking law: as a Raiffeisen bank.

This experience inspired me, from my new base in Princeton NJ, to submit a proposal to USAID to help build a grassroots financial system on indigenous foundations. Unfortunately, the proposal, in 1969, was a few years early; it was only in 1973 that USAID sponsored the Spring Review on Small Farmer Credit, a scathing report of targeted credit and credit-driven agricultural development banks (AgDBs).

From microcredit to the microfinance revolution

I then watched with astonishment the rise of the microcredit movement, entering into the void left by declining support to AgDBs. For the new credit NGOs suffered from similar flaws as the AgDBs: donor dependency, credit bias, lack of self-reliance and profitability, and the absence of appropriate regulation and supervision. And they added a gender bias.

Recognizing these deficiencies led to a paradigm change around 1990, the "microfinance revolution", in which two of the authors were involved (also in coining the new term, microfinance). This paradigm shift spurred the reform of existing, and the creation of savings-led new, MFIs, among them inclusive (micro) finance banks.

Two centuries of inclusive savings and cooperative banking: the German experience

This paradigm change has a long prehistory. Since the 17th century, Europe experienced tremendous increases in poverty, creating new displacements and upheavals: traditional safety nets broke down, mass poverty spread. In Germany, preceded by pawnshops, widows'- and orphans' funds, a new breed of local institutions began to evolve around 1800: savings funds (Sparkassen) placing the poor at the center: foremost as savers. The Sparkassen offered special incentives to the poor: free doorstep collection services and stimulus savings interest rates. Their numbers and funds increased rapidly, enabling them to extend their outreach and offer credit to "the industrious and enterprising", such as craftsmen. From early on, they thus were inclusive, with services to the poor, non-poor, and eventually SMEs and the city or district for community investments. Two centuries later, Sparkassen serve >40 million customers (50% of all residents of Germany), with €1.2 trillion in assets (2015).

A different history of microfinance started around 1850 with the development of self-help groups (SHGs) - savings and credit associations, owned and governed by their members. The first urban SHG was initiated by Schulze-Delitzsch in 1850, the first self-reliant rural SHG by Raiffeisen in 1864, soon organized in separate federations of respectively Volksbanken and Raiffeisenkassen (merged only in 1974). After 160 years of evolution, they now serve >30 million customers (including 18 million members), and €800 billion in assets (2015).

The savings and cooperative banks are two of three pillars of the German banking system, providing inclusive universal banking services to all segments of society, including MSMEs. Self-organized federations, central funds and auditing apexes, and appropriate regulation and supervision, have played crucial roles in their development. Government has been kept at bay. Ultimately, their strength lies in the mobilization of local savings for the local economy: the foundation of their crisis resilience.

What role for government in cooperative banking?

The case of India and Vietnam Since around 1900, the German credit cooperative model has spread around the world. In two of our case studies, India and Vietnam, we examine the role played by the state in that process. In 1904, the British Raj, inspired by Raiffeisen, introduced the Co-operative Credit Societies Act of India. By the mid-1920s, this had given rise to some 50,000 self-reliant credit cooperatives, backed by a network of cooperative banks. But ultimately, the Indian state governments played a destructive role: by taking over the operations of the cooperatives rather than providing a regulatory operating framework. By 2006, more than half of the 106,000 credit societies were insolvent, and more than one-quarter of the 1,112 cooperative banks reported losses. Reforms are struggling: of a sector which is too big to fail and too sick to heal.

Our contrasting story of Vietnam starts with the collapse, in the 1980s, of the socialist command economy and its cooperatives. In the early 1990s, the government launched a fresh credit cooperative initiative as part of a market economy, based on the Raiffeisen model. These People's Credit Funds (PCFs) have become one of the most impressive credit cooperative movements. PCFs are prudentially regulated and supervised by the central bank (SBV), which has not shied from enforcing compliance. They now profitably serve over four million clients (2014), having successfully weathered both the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98 and the global crisis of 2008. Most importantly, in contrast to India, the PCFs have not served as a tool of political favoritism. 

Two inclusive commercial banks: Centenary and BRI

Finally, I am presenting two full-fledged inclusive commercial banks, one from Africa and one from Asia. Both are the product of transformations. Centenary Bank in Uganda started in 1985 as a "trust fund" of the Catholic Church.

Century-old Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI) dates back to a member-owned Volksbank (bank rakyat) in the 1890s, later transformed into a government-owned national bank. In 1969 it was commissioned to set up a network of village units, disbursing subsidized agricultural credit, in addition to BRI's main banking business. Their performance declined rapidly, and by 1982, BRI faced a choice: reform or close the units.

Technical assistance played a crucial role in transformation of both. Centenary was assisted by the German Savings Banks Foundation (SBFIC) together with IPC. They provided a highly effective cashflow-based lending methodology and MIS, combined with incentives for staff and borrowers. As microsavings continued to grow, exceeding the lending capacity of microcredit, Centenary added SME lending. It now profitably serves 1.3 million customers (2012), calling itself "Uganda's leading Microfinance Commercial Bank".

BRI was assisted by the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) to transform the village units into microbanking units as of 1984. Their success has rested on two products, both with commercial rates of interest: voluntary savings with positive real returns and unlimited withdrawals; and general credit, open to all and available for any purpose. These two products have made the microbanking units the largest national microfinance network in the developing world, resilient to the crises of 1997/98 and 2008. BRI, an MSME bank, currently serves 53 million customers (2015) with by far the largest outreach of any bank across the Indonesian archipelago.

The two banks, in vastly different countries, have much in common: individual lending, opportunities for graduating to SME loans, and genuine inclusiveness, excluding no one. They may be indicative of the future of inclusive finance, pointing the way to a new stage of institutional development - similar perhaps to the evolution of savings and cooperative banking in Germany.

See From Microfinance to Inclusive Banking, by R.H. Schmidt, H.D. Seibel, and P. Thomes (Wiley-VCH 2016),


About the Author

Hans Dieter Seibel is a professor emeritus at Cologne University. He is specialized on microfinance and microbanking, linkages between informal and formal finance including digital linkages of SHGs with banks/MNOs, agricultural development bank reform, SME development, M&E, and sociocultural system research. In the 1980s, he designed the linkage banking program with GTZ, FAO and APRACA and was team leader of the first pilot project in Indonesia. In 1999-2001, he was Rural Finance Advisor at IFAD and author of its Rural Finance Policy. He also is a founding board member of the European Microfinance Platform (2006-2015).

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