Earlier this week, when President of MFIN Vijay Mahajan tipped off that “some MFIs may have to shut shop as early as 1st Jan 2011, as Banks refuse to lend”, of all things, Karna from Mahabharata came to my mind…

Bankers may only be proving the stereotypical notion that they are, after all, fair weather friends; or may be right in their judgment in not putting any more good money behind bad. But, much like the Karna’s story, many factors beyond the new loans from Banks may have contributed to the death of such MFIs.

Here is my take on what some of those factors are:

  1. While the interest rates of MFIs are lower than what a local money lender charges, the fact that the rates hardly came down in so many years of MFI existence implies that the sector hasn’t innovated enough. Whoever survived without innovation for long?
  2. Actually, at the heart of MFI value proposition are two other complementary services viz. (a) improving income generating capability of the borrowers – beyond their cost of borrowing – through several Business Development Services, including collectives for scales of economy and (b) social mobilisation for improving credit repayment culture and taking up activities that benefit the community as a whole, eg anti-liquor campaigns. Along the way, as MFIs proliferated many of them focused on transaction efficiency, and lost sight of these two pillars that defined the original business logic.
  3. That politicians cutting across party lines are egging the borrowers not to repay their loans, likening the MFIs to Loan Sharks, suggests that the industry hasn’t built any political capital either, in all these years! A wide range of motivations were attributed though, such as opportunistic political gains and selfish interest of some politicians who are money lenders themselves hence anti-MFI.
  4. What’s even more surprising is the lack of overt support (in this hour of crisis) from the very beneficiaries themselves – the borrowers – even after knowing fully well that the MFIs would close and they may have to resort to higher cost borrowings again. The absence of social capital in the operations of many MFIs (described in 2 above) meant that the borrowers didn’t see the long term benefits of continued engagement with those MFIs, instead were happy extracting the short term transactional benefits (escape from repaying their loans). In contrast, when the middlemenstruck work at mandis in 2004 to stop ITC eChoupal from making the agri markets transparent, thousands of farmers came on to the streets spontaneously to support eChoupal.
  5. Appropriate regulations did not evolve along with the growth of the MF sector.
  6. The MF market got distorted, with Government also acting as a lender through SHGs in many States. In fact, competition with Government (who is also a regulator) in a distorted market, is a big threat for the sustainability of many social enterprises. People at BoP are the common target, by definition.
  7. Wrong choices of scaling models by many MFIs is another factor. Any organisation can choose from four scaling models – scaling up, scaling deep, scaling out or scaling through. Up requires standardisation of processes for efficient replication of a demonstrated unit. Prerequisite of deep is a capability to orchestrate an ecosystem to deliver multiple products & services to the same customer group. Out is replication of the same model in a different domain. And, through is a typical franchising approach with the attendant conditions. Some MFIs attempted crossing from one model to the other or even blending different models without building the requisite capabilities, obviously leading to trouble.
  8. Large sums of money was pumped in through Private Equity, IPO etc. before the sector geared itself for scaling. These sources of money demanded rapid growth, which in turn meant diluted quality of execution (multiple loans to the same borrower, coercion in recovery etc). Coupled with 7 above, this is a recipe for disaster.
  9. Not enough manpower was trained in conjunction with the growth of the sector, unlike what was done in other manpower intensive large scale businesses, such as Software, Green Revolution and Operation Flood. It is estimated that some 100,000 people are employed in MFIs. Again, whoever succeeded without quality manpower.
  10. In many places, the group leaders (of borrower groups) started their own bridge loan businesses, thus “ever-greening” the loans, making the ground reality opaque to MFI staff.
  11. Many people question the ethics of some MFI promoters for using the growth & profits from the highly leveraged soft loans (originally given for a social cause) for private gain. In businesses at BoP, it is important for the lead players not to lose the strength of morality to be able to push Government towards reform.

What Next?

Notwithstanding all the above factors, the business case for MFIs still exists. By virtue of the crisis wrought by the Ordinance in Andhra Pradesh, good MFIs are suffering as badly as the bad.

Instead of trying in vain to revive the sector after it is dead, all the stakeholders need to kick-off a consultation process to determine the right way forward in each of these and such other factors, with the future of the borrower in mind. Karna did die due to many curses, but mythology tells us that every curse can be lifted too!