Surviving shocks such as the Covid pandemic requires rural communities in the developing world to be economically and socially resilient. For impact investors seeking to help that happen, more joined up thinking and resource pooling is needed, argues Oikocredit’s new MD.
“The pandemic has pushed more than 100 million people back into extreme poverty around the world and that makes institutions like us more valid and relevant than ever,” says Mirjam ‘t Lam, who took over as MD in November, having joined Oikocredit less than a year earlier as Director of Finance and Risk.
“We need to resume our pioneering role to make sure that we build resilient communities. We have learned that coping with Covid is not just about the individual, it's also the surrounding environment that enables people to survive the pandemic, especially in the Global South,” she says.
Oikocredit was founded in 1975 as a privately financed cooperative, initially driven by the World Council of Churches, to promote financial inclusion through support for local microfinance organisations (MFIs).
With total member capital now at €1.125 billion, it impacts the lives of an estimated 32 million people in Latin America, Africa, and Asia via almost 530 partners – mainly MFIs but also those within the agricultural, renewable energy/clean cooking sectors.
Pandemic effects ease
The pandemic has hit many of the organisation’s partners and beneficiaries hard, but recently released third quarter 2021 data show grounds for “cautious optimism,” ‘t Lam says.
“We see positive trends in the way that people, organisations and SMEs are dealing with the Covid situation in developing countries. At the height of the pandemic, last year, we had more than 130 partners that needed financial relief. Now there are only 12. Demand for credit is rising, our portfolio is improving in terms of quality, and partners that had been granted a payment holiday are resuming payments again,” she says.
Oikocredit’s extensive network of partners, working with the organisation’s regional offices, has enabled the organisation to overcome some of the challenges of restricted travel at a time when those benefiting from its support needed it most.
“We are in the fortunate situation that we have 18 offices around the globe, so we are still relatively close to partners. And we were already used to working digitally, so we were actually quite fast to switch to working online with our partners and to resume capacity building programmes online,” says ‘t Lam.
The rapid penetration of mobile phone and internet networks into remote areas has been a boon for organisations fostering rural development during the pandemic.
“Despite the pandemic we were able to launch a client survey where we interviewed about 2,500 of the end-beneficiaries – the poorest of the poor – we are trying to reach. We did as much of the survey as we could digitally, and found that about 87% could participate via a mobile phone or internet connection,” says ‘t Lam.
The survey gave insights into how much people given loans or training via Oikocredit’s partner MFIs have actually been able to improve their livelihoods as a result. Its findings have helped inform Oikocredit’s strategy for 2022-26, which is being discussed at an extraordinary general meeting on December 2, along with a proposed new capital raising model.
“We learned from that survey that the people who had access to energy, or were active in the agricultural sector, were more resilient during the pandemic,” she says.
“Community resilience is really something we need to include in our strategy. We’ve learned from the pandemic – and earlier – that we need not only to support our partners, but also to make sure that we create the right enabling environment for our partners and beneficiaries, so there is a lasting impact in poverty alleviation.”
‘t Lam gives an example of the pitfalls of failing to take a more holistic approach to impact investing: “In a previous role I was in Rwanda visiting a hospital and asked what they needed most. ‘We have already been given an X-ray machine by one organisation,’ I was told, ‘but we can’t use it because we don’t have reliable power. What can we do with an X-ray machine if we don't have power?’”
To avoid well-meaning but ineffective spending such as this, investors need to get better at “joining the dots” with sectors such as education, healthcare, and power, rather than working in their own bubbles, she says.
To that end, Oikocredit has recently embarked on partnerships aimed at improving the impact of its investments by taking this more holistic approach.
“We will achieve more by working together with peers in our sectors. Our partnerships with Opportunity International and AGF are examples of teaming up to bring a more total solution to communities,” ‘t Lam says.
As part of a three-year collaboration with non-profit Opportunity International, announced in November, the two organisations will invest up to $100mn in financial institutions benefiting from Opportunity International’s EduFinance programme.
The programme is estimated to reach 1.6 million children through provision of loans for school fees and tuition, and school improvements, among other education-related investments. The partnership will initially operate in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda.
“Facilitating access to education is very important for the microfinance sector if you are seeking to help people out of poverty. But we are aware of our own strengths. We know the agricultural sector, we know renewable energy, and we know that access to education is important, but we don't have sufficient expertise there,” she says.
“Opportunity International has the technical expertise to provide capacity building together with our local partners to make sure that we can structure school fee loans and other forms of funding.”
Under an agreement with the African Guarantee Fund for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, announced in October, AGF is raising its loan guarantee to Oikocredit by $ 25mn, bringing its total 10-year loan guarantee to $43mnn.
This enables Oikocredit to increase lending to higher-risk African SMEs and MFIs. The guarantee also supports lending to agricultural and renewable energy businesses and cooperatives, including businesses affiliated to women. AGF is also providing a grant of just under $400,000 to strengthen Oikocredit’s work in SME lending.
The organisation is working on these strategic changes while also adapting to changes in key personnel. Mirjam ‘t Lam took over as MD from Thos Gieskes, who was one of a number of key personnel who announced this year they would be leaving, both from within the operational side of Oikocredit and from its supervisory board.
‘t Lam says she believes the departures do not reflect underlying problems within the organisation, but can be better attributed to the wider trend known as the ‘great resignation’, whereby changes in lifestyle and working practices during the Covid pandemic have prompted people in all professions to re-evaluate their lives and pursue new career directions.
“That was very much linked to my own decision to join Oikocredit, less than a year ago, after five years in my previous role at Arise. I decided it was time for a new venture, of course not realising that a year later I would become the Managing Director,” she says.