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The Top Three Challenges Facing Leaders in Inclusive Finance

By: Robert Abare 01 May 2024
Program participants engaged in a case discussion.

Robert Abare is Director of Executive Communications at Accion, a global nonprofit on a mission to create a fair and inclusive economy for the nearly 2 billion people left out of the global financial system. In his role, he collaborates with the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative to help manage the HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance.

More than ever, the world needs leaders dedicated to advancing financial and economic inclusion. Underserved communities are most affected by slowing economic growth, tightening monetary policies, persistent inflation, worsening climate disasters, and conflicts — all of which create great fear and uncertainty about the future.

Leaders in inclusive finance are playing critical roles in helping vulnerable populations access responsible solutions to overcome these challenges. And encouragingly, the field of inclusive finance is expanding to include new backgrounds and skillsets. Fintech startups, multilateral development institutions, fast moving consumer goods companies, central banks, insurance providers: leaders from all these players are increasingly working together to create a fair and inclusive economy for underserved people globally.

The 2024 HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance recently welcomed 65 professionals from 30 countries to the Harvard Business School campus for a week of forging new connections and exploring pivotal developments in financial inclusion, digital technology, and business management. I spoke with five participants from this year’s program about the issues that are top of mind for them today — and what they need to achieve success going forward.

1. Adapting to reach and uplift underserved clients

For leaders at multinational corporations, adapting existing business practices to cater to underserved customers is a major priority — and a challenge.

“As a traditional insurance company, we need to ask: how do we adapt our products across home, health, life, and business for low-income segments?” said Anastassia Senegas, Head of Customer Value Proposition and Inclusive Insurance at AXA. She added “How do we ensure we’re there for these clients, especially as they’re being approached by predatory actors that will damage their financial health?”

Digital technology is a central part of the solution, said Aria Widyanto, Chief Risk and Sustainability Officer at Amartha in Indonesia. Amartha is a provider that connects microentrepreneurs, mostly women, to the financial services they need to grow their businesses.

“Our biggest challenge is making our processes more efficient through digital transformation,” he said. “On the business side, it involves investment in new technology and data practices, and on the customer side, it involves encouraging behavior change among our clients to adopt new technology.”

Anastassia also pointed to the importance of behavior change. “Financial education is critical to insurance. If you don’t have a problem today, it’s easy to think you don’t need protection for tomorrow. But if your business and your livelihood aren’t protected, it’s extremely risky.” She added, “At AXA we are simplifying our policy terms into language that clients can easily understand, and we launched a holistic financial education platform where we explore insurance, but also budgeting, paying taxes, and more.”

2. Collaborating to create the most effective change

Identifying who’s doing what in the financial inclusion ecosystem — and how to form the most effective partnerships — is both an obstacle and an opportunity. “Our biggest challenge is collaboration between varying actors in our space, to work together rather than duplicate efforts,” said Bernard Ayitey-Adjin, Acting Lead for Access to Finance at Mastercard Foundation. “In Ghana, there’s a $6 billion financing gap facing small businesses. No one organization can bridge that gap.”

He added that public-private partnerships will be vital to confront emerging development challenges. “With high interest rates and high inflation, we’re seeing more people in Ghana and the region move back into poverty. We need the private sector and government to work together to achieve the common goal of expanding economic opportunity.”

For Aria Widyanto of Amartha, collaboration with local communities is key. “We need to build an inclusive ecosystem,” he said. “We are sending our field officers to remote villages to conduct trainings and deliver interventions, knowing that the more people we encourage to start using digital tools, the easier it will be to release solutions that are relevant to them and ultimately create systemic change.”

3. Achieving balance between competing priorities

The role of government leaders and regulators is not always straightforward, with so many economic, social, and environmental crises demanding their attention. “It’s always a challenge to be as strategic as you can with the resources you have available,” said Patrick Starr, Director of Relationships for Africa at the U.S. Development Finance Corporation. “We often invest in repeat clients to develop their growth, but we’re also looking for new clients who may not be familiar with us — and who may not be on our radar. It’s a challenge to balance those priorities.”

Better information is part of the answer. “We’re being very careful about gathering information and market assessments,” he added, “and we’re encouraging more contact with us, to get a better sense of what the needs are in the markets where we work.”

For Sophia Abu, Head of Gender at the Financial Inclusion Delivery Unit for the Central Bank of Nigeria, achieving balance is key to advancing inclusion. She explained, “One of our biggest challenges is finding balance between our role as a supervisor and stabilizer of the financial system and advancing our financial inclusion objective. As we work to ensure that financial service providers are following guidelines, we’re also aware that they are the main tools to provide access to finance for underserved communities.” She added, “How do we enforce compliance with regulations while also ensuring it doesn’t constrain access and reach?”

This challenge is especially important in Nigeria. “We are dealing with rising inflation, unemployment, and currency volatility. These are the issues we’re grappling with.” Sophia explained. “As Nigeria is heavily dependent on imports, we’re working to boost our productivity among smallholder farmers and all MSMEs, which account for almost 90 percent of Nigeria’s economy. If we enable them with access to responsible finance, they can create jobs, increase their production, and eventually boost exports to generate wealth.”

Through the HBS-Accion Program, leaders in inclusive finance have the rare opportunity to zoom out from these challenges, hear from their global peers, and gain insights to devise a more informed and united course of action. These leaders are building powerful new connections across disciplines, skillsets, and geographies to co-create a more inclusive economy for underserved people. If you’re interested in joining next year’s program, sign up here to be the first to hear when applications open in August.

This post was originally published at Accion.org.