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Financing African SMEs: can more of the same help bridge the gap?

24.10.2017Rodrigo Deiana, Junior Policy Analyst & Arthur Minsat, Head of Unit, OCDE

This post was originally published on the OECD Development Matters website.

African firms don’t have it easy. Among the many constraints faced by formal companies, access to finance consistently ranks as a top issue. Almost 20% of formal African companies cite access to finance as a constraint to their business.[i] Overall, African micro, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) face a financing shortfall of about USD 190 billion from the traditional banking sector.[ii] African firms are 19% less likely to have a bank loan, compared to other regions of the world. Within Africa, small enterprises are 30% less likely to obtain bank loans than large ones and medium-sized enterprises are 13% less likely.[iii]

To bridge this gap, governments and market players need to strengthen existing credit channels as well as expand new financing mechanisms.

Various innovative financing instruments are currently expanding or present strong growth potential across Africa. Private equity funds invested a total of USD 22.7 billion in Africa across 919 deals between 2011 and 2016, although less transactions took place in the last months. Most took place in capital-intensive sectors such as telecommunications and energy.[iv] Asset-based lending can ease some stringent conditions associated with traditional credit. Experiences in Burkina Faso (with Burkina Bail) and South Africa suggest that commercial banks and other financial operators can engage in factoring and leasing services, without the need for additional legislation.[v]

At the same time, many entrepreneurs can directly harness new financing mechanisms such as crowd-funding or venture capital within and outside Africa. Togolese entrepreneur Afate Gnikou successfully used crowdfunding to raise the capital for a prototype 3D printer from recycled electronic waste selling at an affordable price of less than USD 100. Nigeria’s online movie entrepreneur Jason Njoku, for one, raised USD 8 million in venture capital from African and global investors. Andela, a pan-African start-up launched in 2014 that pairs coders with global companies, recently obtained USD 40 million in funding from an African venture capital fund.[vi] This opens the door for African entrepreneurs to look for funding within the continent rather than in Europe or North America. Return migrants are using remittances, expatriate savings or loans to fund their businesses. More international equity funds are providing seed or venture capital to African SMEs, often by specialising in African markets with a mix of private and public funds.[vii]

Many other instruments can help fill SMEs’ financing gap: microfinance for SMEs, direct support from development partners (e.g. the African Development Bank’s Souk At-Tanmia initiative, providing financing and mentoring services to entrepreneurs), and philanthropic finance (the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s support to start-ups in Africa regularly makes the headlines; other initiatives are also growing such as the think tank Land of African Business).

However, these innovative financing solutions are out of reach for the majority of small businesses operating in the informal economy. To bridge the financing gap, we must also improve traditional credit channels by expanding best practices in the financial sector.

Some emphasise the role of traditional instruments, such as credit guarantee schemes (CGSs). CGSs are guarantees by third parties -- governments or development partners -- that can cover a portion of the lenders’ losses from loans to SMEs, significantly reducing default risk for banks. CGSs can benefit small businesses that have little collateral, no credit history or are perceived as too risky. Policy experiences outside Africa (from Turkey and Malaysia) have shown that CGSs can avoid creating market distortions.[viii] A set of key principles can guide the design of effective guarantee schemes without incentivising lending to high-risk borrowers. They can also contribute to reducing poverty. In Tanzania, for instance, several of these guarantees effectively channelled funds to the more vulnerable groups otherwise unable to access credit, such as smallholder farmers as well as micro and small entrepreneurs.[ix] CGSs can also work on a larger scale, as shown by the African Guarantee Fund’s experience. Commercial banks leveraged the Fund’s USD 230 million in guarantees to lend out double that amount to 1 300 SMEs, generating 11 000 jobs. The Fund reached break-even point and started turning profits in just three years, quadrupling its revenue.[x] 

Many solutions exist to bridge the financing gap faced by Africa’s SMEs. Finding a balance between traditional and innovative financing depends on each country’s context. While the 54 African countries are very diverse, three main issues stand out. First: developing regulations and policies (e.g. on tax compliance, contract enforcement) that are flexible enough for innovation by African entrepreneurs. Second, broadening and widening financial solutions that are accessible to the most vulnerable groups. For example, Rwanda’s financial sector has been able to diversify despite its small size, with banks, savings cooperatives, microfinance institutions all tailoring their products to different target social groups. Finally, governments must aim to ensure macro-economic stability by avoiding market distortions and excessive risk taking. In this sense, the establishment of SME Authorities may help reduce information asymmetries and reduce lending risks. To achieve these objectives and increase the financial sources available to small African businesses expanded co-operation between governments, development partners and the private sector will remain vital.


[i] AfDB/OECD/UNDP (2017) African Economic Outlook 2017: Entrepreneurship and Industrialisation: 210, calculations based on The World Bank Enterprise Surveys. World Bank Enterprise Surveys cover firms in the formal sector with at least 5 employees.

[ii] Based on data from IFC’s Enterprise Finance Gap Database

[iii] AfDB/OECD/UNDP (2017): 225, based on Beck and Cull (2014), “SME finance in Africa”, Journal of African Economies, Vol. 23 (5), pp. 583-613

[iv] AVCA (2017), 2016 Annual African Private Equity Data Tracker

[v] Based on evidence from factoring and leasing services in Burkina Faso (through the financial company Burkina Bail) and South Africa (through the commercial banking sector), the Bank of Namibia argued for the possibility of successfully replicating such services in Namibia. See AfDB/OECD/UNDP (2017): 226 for further information.

[vii] Severino, J.-M. and J. Hajdenberg (2016), Entreprenante Afrique, Odile Jacob, Paris.

[viii] IFC (2010), Scaling-Up SME Access to Financial Services in the Developing World

[x] AfDB/OECD/UNDP (2017): 226, based on African Guarantee Fund, 2015 Annual Report

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About the Authors

Rodrigo Deiana is a Junior Policy Analyst in the OECD Development Centre's Africa Unit as part of the UN's JPO Programme financed by Italy. He contributed to the 2017 edition of the African Economic Outlook (AEO), and among other topics works on policy aspects of international trade and financial sector development in Africa. Before joining the OECD, Rodrigo was an economist in the Government of Rwanda as part of the ODI Fellowship, advising on regional integration, trade policy, and private sector development. He also worked as consultant to the World Bank Group in Kigali on matters of agricultural policy. Prior to that, he worked at the European Central bank in Frankfurt and at the World Trade Organization in Geneva. Rodrigo holds a Master's degree from the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics and a BA in International Economics from the University of Nottingham.

Arthur Minsat leads the OECD Development Centre's Africa Unit. He is responsible for the African Economic Outlook (AEO), a partnership with the African Development Bank and UNDP, and the Revenue Statistics in Africa, a joint publication by OECD, the African Union Commission and the African Tax Administration Forum. As lead economist, Arthur drafted the thematic chapters of the AEO 2017 on Entrepreneurship and Industrialisation, AEO 2016 on Sustainable Cities, AEO 2015 on Regional Development. Before joining the OECD, Arthur contributed to the UNDP's flagship Human Development Reports. He worked in Abidjan during the electoral crisis in 2010 and 2011, monitoring West Africa's economic outlook for the United Nations Operations in Côte d'Ivoire (ONUCI). Prior to that, he taught economics and international relations in several British universities and gained private sector experience with Wolters Kluwer Transport Services. Arthur holds a PhD from the London School of Economics (LSE) and a Franco-German double diploma from Sciences-Po Lille and the University of Münster.

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