Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Exhibit at the National Museum in Nairobi.
Many find it difficult not to be condescending about Africa. Some might argue that referring to 54 diverse countries with thousands of cultures as “Africa” alone is demeaning, and yet it happens every day (just look at my blog address.) Footage of kids with big bellies and stories of corruption seem to be the only stories to travel across the ocean, and they are typically only salvaged by some agency telling the world not to worry, they’re working on it. No, I am not immune. I’ve been known to lament the inefficiency of “Africa” while sitting in Nairobi’s unbearable congestion or one of Accra’s power outages. At the same time, I feel fortunate to tell a story that I hope will travel across these borders and demonstrate that “Africa” is indeed a place of innovation and hope.

Nairobi is one of the continent’s star children: the one who may place third in the spelling bee but won’t mind because she has a good shot at winning the science fair competition. The region serves as a lab for innovative ideas and the microfinance sector here is a great example. Like Ghana, each MFI in this region has varying models of delivery and a unique portfolio of products. Unlike Ghana, every MFI in this region has a website. Is this a key indicator of success? Surely not, but it indicates that microfinance is a visible and competitive industry here. Microfinance institutions here are not asking “what can we do?”, but “how can we do more?” For them, it’s not just about lending money. It’s about finding ways for that money to create things that generate a larger return for the community. Two trends have emerged here to ensure that microfinance is doing just that: mobile services and partnerships.

Nairobi's city centre.
Millions of Kenyans are able to hold, send and collect money with their mobile phone through Mpesa – can you do that where you live? An article in the Guardian recently highlighted how mobile money is an impressive force for good. One Kenyan MFI I met with just received an award for its innovative use of mobile services - quite a feat, considering their official launch isn’t until this Friday. Every MFI I’ve met wants to work towards providing mobile solutions to those who need it most – the farmers, the entrepreneurs, and the mothers who work hard every day to improve their livelihoods.

Directors of MFIs here also know that the greatest impact is made in tandem with focused expertise. One microfinance institution partners with an agricultural agency to make sure that their products are transformational for their farmer customers. Staff at many Kenyan MFIs are trained to deliver financial literacy tools to clients, frequently a requirement for microloans. My assignment here has been to partner MFIs with professional expertise from the global private sector and not surprisingly, my job has been easy. Companies, educational institutions and development agencies recognize the pivotal role that MFIs play in increasing income generation and improving the quality of life for Kenyans living on less than a $1 a day, and they’re eager to take part.

Sunrise at Nairobi National Park
I can’t forget that this revolution is taking place less than 300 miles away from a record famine. With foresight, planning and investment, these tragedies in “Africa” can be avoided.  The magic of microfinance is that it grants citizens the capability to make a difference for themselves. Things are moving fast here, and it’s been a pleasure to help establish partnerships to catalyze that movement. In this day and age, I think access to financial services is a human right. A big thank you to the Grameen Foundation for allowing me to help us get one step closer to ensuring that Africa's poor, in all their diversity, can exercise that right.

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