(L-R) e-MFP Financial Inclusion Specialists Sam Mendelson and Joana Afonso; Credit: e-MFP

European Microfinance Week (EMW), hosted by the Luxembourg-based European Microfinance Platform (e-MFP), is taking place at Neumünster Abbey (neimënster) in Luxembourg-Grund from Wednesday 16 to Friday 18 November 2022.

EMW 2022 is returning to Luxembourg as an in-person event after two years of virtual editions in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event comprises more than 30 sessions organised around several themes, including women’s financial inclusion, green and climate-smart finance, digitalisation, financial health and social performance and impact, among others.

"Financial inclusion that works for women" is the topic of the European Microfinance Award 2022, a €100,000 prize awarded by Luxembourg's Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. The two runners-up receive €10,000 each. This year, the award will highlight organisations working in financial inclusion that aim to understand and meet women's challenges and aspirations in order to go beyond traditional gender outreach strategies.

Three finalists have been selected from a record 88 applicants this year: Bancamía, a Colombia-based microfinance foundation; Banco FIE, a financial institution supporting micro- and small-sized enterprises in Bolivia; Kashf Foundation, a Pakistan-based non-banking microfinance company.

Ahead of EMW 2022, Chronicle.lu had the opportunity to sit down with Joana Afonso and Sam Mendelson, Financial Inclusion Specialists at e-MFP, to discuss the upcoming event and, more specifically, the topic of women's financial inclusion.

Joana and Sam are part of the core team at e-MFP who put together and oversee the running of the European Microfinance Award and EMW each year. Joana is also the coordinator of the platform's action groups which address specific topics ranging from green finance to human resources and research, whilst Sam is responsible for writing several e-MFP publications; notably, he is the lead author of the publication that comes out of the European Microfinance Award process each year. This year's award publication "Financial Inclusion that Works for Women" will be released during EMW 2022; the publication gathers the best practices and lessons learned from the finalists and the semi-finalists of this year's award.

The e-MFP, which was created with the support of the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, counts over 130 members worldwide and is the leading network of European organisations and individuals active in the financial inclusion sector in developing countries. As Sam and Joana explained, most of the members are institutional, although there are some individual members. Most e-MFP members are based in Europe - hence the name "European Microfinance Platform". Sam added that the e-MFP has a dual purpose: as a member-based platform, its role is to "reflect and amplify the position of and work on behalf of and connect members", but it is also a think tank.

European Microfinance Award

Sam and Joana noted that each year the European Microfinance Award focuses on a different topic and this is the first time that the topic is on a segment (women) rather than a product type or an end result. Regarding the importance of this year's topic, Sam explained that from the beginning, "microfinance has claimed to be all about women" but "the reality is that the sector has for too long rested on its laurels by just talking about outreach […] as if just giving [women] access to finance is the same as financial inclusion. And it's not". Sam added that it was important to "start from the ground up", looking at and taking into consideration women's specific needs and aspirations, the particular challenges facing them and how to design products and services that respond to these needs and thus "leading by example" among institutions in the sector to ensure that there is "equity and fairness and opportunity for leadership". He recognised that progress has been and is being made, as reflected by this year's European Microfinance Award, which attracted a record number and a wide range of applicants.

Joana added that this concern with going beyond outreach and targeting what effectively works for women was "reinforced and gained a lot of momentum with COVID, because it was very clear that women were more affected than men" - this applied to female staff as well as clients of microfinance institutions (MFIs). "It was a topic that became unavoidable. It was an obvious choice in terms of what an award on microfinance should be". Reflecting on the purpose of the award, Joana noted that for many emerging countries, the prize money represents a significant amount but what is particularly important is that "we are both rewarding excellence - and the idea is really to highlight and give visibility to this outstanding institution that is doing outstanding work on the topic - but also giving relevance to the award and bringing attention to it, not only to the winner but to all the good practices that are unveiled during the process and highlighted in the publication".

Sam also noted that the application process involved the applicants disclosing what they would use the prize money for if they won. "It is always something to do with the initiative or area. […] It's a non-negligible impact that the money can have […] particularly for smaller organisations", he explained. "The exposure is considerable. The award publication is widely read […], then there's follow up the following year". Indeed, throughout the year (ahead of the award winners announcement), participants attend webinars, the ten semi-finalists are profiled in the award publication and the following year, there is a follow up with the winner to see what they have achieved since winning the award.

Award publication

The award publication is composed of three parts: the first part provides a landscape of the topic, e.g. what the issues and barriers facing women are, a compact history of women's microfinance and what role MFIs can play. There is always a section on what MFIs can do, in this case to advance women's financial inclusion. Then there is a section on the award itself, detailing its objectives, eligibility criteria and the selection process, which Sam described as "extremely rigorous"; there are two rounds of initial evaluation, followed by a performance evaluation, additional materials that need to be sent, a supporting letter from an e-MFP member, then a selection committee of about nineteen experts meet in September over two days to narrow down the "middle" list to a shorter list from which the ten semi-finalists and three finalists are chosen. Then the high jury, who will meet this week, chaired by Her Royal Highness the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg and joined by last year's winner, will pick the winner.

The main section of the paper focuses on the ten case studies of the semi-finalists within a number of representative approaches. For several years now, e-MFP has always chosen three approaches; in this case, there were three broad ways that they thought these institutions could advance women's financial inclusion: "meeting women's needs through financial products and services, mainstreaming gender equity and leadership within the institution […] and empowering women with non-financial services". The final section is always dedicated to factors for success in which the e-MFP team tries to "extract best practice from everything we've seen over the course of the year and, despite it being a heterogenous group, to try to say what epitomises excellence in this field".

As Joana recalled, when one award process ends, the next one begins. Once the winner and the next award are announced during EMW 2022, the e-MFP core team will start to work on the next one, first researching the selected topic and determining what additional external expertise might be needed to develop this topic. Indeed, it is the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs that chooses the topic each year. "We will be given a broad topic [this] week. And then work starts all over again", noted Sam. Whilst there are "hard deadlines" to meet, Sam and Joana agreed that getting to work on a different topic each year was "very rewarding".

Women's financial inclusion at EMW 2022

Returning to this year's award topic and why women's financial inclusion is important and indeed beneficial to society as a whole, Sam stated: "I think it is so widely accepted […] that the biggest bang for the buck you can get in development is investing in girls, particularly in girls' education". He cited the "untapped potential" of girls who cannot attend school and the "opportunity costs" of teenage pregnancy as some of the reasons for this. "And financial inclusion is a lot more than access to loans, although that has been the low-hanging fruit. It means autonomy, self-confidence, privacy, not being dependent on male family or household members for decisions, the ability to invest, to take risks… it's transformational for women who have been dependent on men for so long or unable to have the confidence to take hold of their financial destiny". Joana added that one thing the award process had highlighted was that the products and services offered by these MFIs were important but their "role as employers and as examples, and the advocacy role that they have usually at local and national level" was equally important and was very clear among several applicants this year. "So it's not only the work they do directly with their clients and their households, it's also their role in society and in their own countries, in pushing this agenda of gender equality", she concluded.

EMW 2022 will have an unprecedented range of sessions on this year's award topic, including a plenary on "What women want" (i.e. women's needs and aspirations and how stakeholders can respond), a session dedicated to "Gender diversity and leadership in financial inclusion" and another session on "High Tech & High Touch" (comparing various models and approaches to improve female agent incomes and business outcomes).

Further details about EMW 2022, including the full programme and registration, are available at: https://emw2022.eu/e/c960a670-2ce9-11ed-afcb-79a136ae0d1a.