Industry Leadership in Driving Ethical Microfinance Practices
Going the Extra Mile – Local Currency Lending
We are also working hard to protect micro-entrepreneurs against currency risk. Until fairly recently, investors were only providing hard currency, in the form of dollars or Euros, to microfinance institutions. The majority of MFIs were turning around and lending that capital either in U.S. dollars or local currency, and absorbing the devaluation risk themselves or pushing it down to the weakest link in the chain, to the microentrepreneurs who were responsible for paying much more in local currency terms when the currency devalued. Not only was this a serious credit risk for investors, but also seemed to me a moral dilemma that social investors should help resolve. Indeed, some of us deemed it microfinance's “original sin.”
Last November, Calvert Foundation closed its first deal with Microfinance FX Solutions, or MFX Solutions, to provide a loan in Kenyan shillings to Kenyan Women’s Finance Trust (KWFT). The loan was fully hedged to the U.S. Dollar, protecting Calvert Foundation and its more than 7,500 investors from the risk that the Kenyan shilling would devalue against the dollar and KWFT would be unable to repay the loan. The loan was denominated in local currency, so that neither KWFT nor its clients would assume that same devaluation risk. It was the quintessential win-win.
In the more developed currency markets of the U.S. and Western Europe, hedging foreign exchange risk is common, widely available, and relatively cheap. Many banks are in the business. The same is not true of less liquid, developing country markets where hedging is prohibitively expensive or just plain unavailable. A group of us came together to try and help address the problem – Calvert Foundation, Calmeadow, ACCION International, Microrate, and Global Partnerships. It didn't stop us that we had little background in traditional foreign exchange derivatives. We did some research, consulted with experts, and wrote a business plan for MFX Solutions, a new social enterprise that would offer modern currency risk management to the microfinance industry. We knocked on a lot of investor doors, most of whom were challenged by the novelty of our model. Omidyar Network was brave enough to step up as a generous anchor investor, along with Triodos Bank and Incofin, two leading impact investors that were interested in using MFX's services for to hedge their own investments. I am thrilled that MFX Solutions is now a reality and has closed more than $50 million in business, helping to fund more entrepreneurs more safely in developing countries around the world.
Looking Ahead to Finance Future Innovation
As an investor, there is often a tension in wanting to support an organization that has an executing business model and is making an important impact, but that has not yet reached a sustainable financial stage; often, in support of those emerging innovators, we will invest a small amount at an earlier stage to catalyze growth and encourage additional investment. Through our Mission Plus portfolio we ensure that up to 3 percent goes to organizations like this. We think it’s our responsibility to finance not just the organizations that are the current leaders of the inclusive finance movement but the future sources of innovation that will push the industry to greater heights.