July 8th 2016
by Nicholas Walton

If any organisation is proof that microfinance has been an issue for far longer than it has been on the front pages of newspapers it is Accion. It has spent half a century helping millions gain access to financial services, and now has a presence in more than thirty countries, from the US to large swathes of the developing world. Now, however, that microfinance space is undergoing a revolution, and that is where Nancy Widjaja comes in.

“For decades microfinance has been working very well,” says Nancy, who leads the technology and industry engagement work for Accion Venture Labs. “But we’re now seeing the rapid adoption of technology, of mobile phones, the proliferation of internet across the world, all converging on financial services and bringing innovation. We see the opportunity for financial services to leverage this innovation, making it easier, more comfortable, and cheaper for those without financial services to get access to them.”

home_banner_01aThis opportunity is the reason why Venture Labs exists. The unit was set up in 2012 as the venture capital arm of Accion, looking to invest in and encourage new social enterprises who have harnessed digital technology to give even more people access to financial services. “Venture Lab is an impact investment fund, using money from donors, fundraising, investors, and returns from past investments,” explains Nancy. “Our mandate is to invest in financial technology start-ups – small businesses using technology to address the issue of financial inclusion, particularly in emerging markets. We provide what we call seed-stage funding, usually ranging from $100,000 to $500,000, and we are usually one of the first institutional investors – if not the first to provide equity investment.”

The irony in Venture Lab’s work is that such start-ups themselves often suffer from lack of access to finance. “There’s a new stream of fintech start-ups across the world, with cool innovations. But these start-ups are small, growing businesses, in many cases without a track record allowing them to access capital enabling them to grow their technology and business models past pilot products and services and scale up.”

One such start-up is Varthana, which provides small business loans to affordable private schools in India.casestudy1“In terms of quality public schools don’t match what’s needed by India’s low to middle class families,” says Nancy. “But affordable private schools are filling that gap, providing tuition from US$2 to US$5 a month, and they’re becoming the backbone of the education system. They need capital for computers, buildings and investment, but although they’re in effect small business, banks do not serve them because they’re not structured like businesses. Accion Venture Capital is investing in Varthana, as it’s not just about improving access to finance, but improving the quality of education of Indian children.”

privetschoolsBut, Nancy adds, it is not just about investment. “We also provide what we call our portfolio engagement services – like in-house management consultancy services from McKinsey or Boston Consulting – assisting with strategy and business development. This type of expertise is invaluable in helping such enterprises to grow. And as well as equity capital we also helped Varthana with debt capital, helping them package their requirements professionally so they could approach institutions. All this has helped Varthana with the end product of increasing the quality of education in India.”

The idea that philanthropic venture capital needs to be about more than just money is what Accion is especially keen to share with other AVPN members. Nancy calls this the ‘Capital Plus’ model of impact investing. “In addition to capital the value-add that an impact investor can bring is when they also provide advisory services to your portfolio companies or investees or grantees. We’re really keen to discuss this more with partners like AVPN members – how to expand this idea further, and connect innovators underground with technical expertise, networks, business opportunities.” Nancy says Accion has also learned important lessons about the need to engage with big corporates, helping them see the benefit of serving those in society who do not usually have access to financial services. She says that being part of AVPN helps provide a platform to get this message across.

Nancy herself started out in management consultancy. “I worked for Boston Consultancy Group in Indonesia, working with financial services in South East Asia. One of my projects revolved around microfinance, and I developed an interest that led me to the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, which was set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Financial Inclusion has been a passion, combining development with more of a market-driven approach.”

As an Indonesia based in the US (in Washington DC) Nancy also has direct experience of what it is like to have problems accessing financial services. “Credit scores are vital for banks, and when I moved to the US I found it really difficult to get access to normal services because I didn’t have one.” Luckily, this is one area that Accion Venture Labs is able to target thanks to new digital technology, for small businesses as well as individuals. “There’s a lot of potential in the digital data explosion,” says Nancy. “Now that everyone’s online a lot of small businesses are transacting online or taking online payments through cards or mobile money. This creates digital data footprints that allow lenders to assess a small business’ credit risk, and this can be a game changer. There’s commercial viability behind all this, as well as real economic benefits,” concludes Nancy.


NWaltonPassportNicholas is a journalist and writer. He spent 14 years working in world news for the BBC, including as a foreign correspondent and editor, then 4 more years for ECFR, a foreign policy think tank. He lives in Singapore, writes on a wide range of subjects, and recently published his first book, ‘Genoa La Superba: the rise and fall of a merchant pirate superpower’.