Entrepreneurs everywhere need financial services, which include savings and loans, as well as ancillary services such as insurance and banking services. The inability to access financial services, particularly capital, greatly constrains entrepreneurs in the rural Amazon to sustain their microenterprises because they're starved of the resources they need to buy critical equipment and the raw materials required to produce their product.
Financial Services in the Brazilian Lower Amazon Region
Few financial services are offered in the Amazonian communities where CEN works, so residents are forced to travel five hours to the city of Santarém simply to access a bank. Government assistance programs, such as retirement pensions and Bolsa Familia (a family assistance program), upon which a sizeable percentage of the residents rely, only disburse payments through bank accounts. The trip to Santarém is a heavy burden for residents, costing both time and money. Furthermore, the bank deposits are not used to promote economic spending within the communities. Even when the savings are brought home, they're usually stashed in a hiding place for an emergency; thus, they are never circulated within the community.
Complicating this is the fact that very few programs offering noncollateralized microcredit operations exist in the region. The northern region of Brazil, comprising seven states with a total population of about 14.7 million, is home to an estimated 1.9 million microentrepreneurs — only 8-10 percent of whom have received any kind of loan from a bank or microfinance organization. To the best of our knowledge, there are only three programs operating in the Middle Amazon region: two limited government-sponsored programs and a rotating fund called the Banco da Mulher.
Banco da Mulher
The Banco da Mulher, founded in 2007, is the only successful rotating savings group, or ROSCA, operating in the region and one of the few CEN is aware of in the entire Brazilian Amazon. The Banco da Mulher not only functions as a group lending/savings fund, but it is also an educational program for its members. After group members each contribute a certain amount of money, they meet and share advice while providing each other with moral support. Each member must approve all loan and business plans, and the borrower makes payments on his or her loan every week until it is repaid. Once the loan has been paid in full, another borrower is able to take out a loan from the money that was repaid, upon approval of the group.
CEN's Strategy for Improving Access to Capital and Financial Services in the Region
Improving access to financial services is one component of CEN's overall approach to building self-reliance in communities. At the core of our approach is strengthening the basic skills and mindsets that form the foundation for successful utilization of financial services, as well as other building blocks of self-reliance, including building higher-level skills and reducing systemic obstacles. The following section outlines CEN's current strategy for improving access to financial services in the region.
Expand rotating savings funds (such as Banco da Mulher)
The Banco da Mulher model appears to be the most promising model for rapidly improving access to the modest amounts of capital that entrepreneurs in the region need in order to launch and build their microenterprises. ROSCAs generally have a strong track record around the world, and there is firm anecdotal evidence that the Banco da Mulher has helped members significantly expand their income levels. In the short term, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to attract existing microfinance institutions (MFIs) to the region due to the higher costs of providing services in isolated areas and the still largely untapped market opportunities available to MFIs in more urban areas of the Brazilian Amazon.
Many other organizations that work with entrepreneurs in the region have expressed a strong interest in implementing savings groups similar to the Banco da Mulher; however, the lack of documentation on how the project was implemented and the absence of a more comprehensive validation of its impact have prevented replication of the model.
CEN is currently in the process of launching the AOMT-BAM women's group capital and Banco da Mulher Project.
Increase social capital
Social capital is a sociological concept which refers to connections within and between social networks. Although connections within families and at the community level are generally quite strong in many communities in the region, local entrepreneurs already take advantage of these social networks. By increasing contact and connections with other networks, residents can expand their ability to gain access to additional sources of credit and financial services, as well as other resources that might help their microenterprise.
Expand access to banking services
The Banco do Nordeste, a medium-sized bank originally from northeastern Brazil, has begun delivery services in smaller and more remote communities in parts of the Amazon by piggybacking on existing infrastructure. Similar models are used in many other parts of the world. As the quality of infrastructure improves, it will become increasingly feasible for banks to offer some services in the communities where we currently work. For example, the Suruacá computer telecenter is already being used to renew certain government licenses. By setting up point-of-sale services in telecenters and rural stores, and connecting them to the bank through the Internet or some other telecommunications link, a bank would be able to offer financial services in areas where it could not otherwise afford to build offices or employ staff.
CEN plans to pursue this strategy through dialogue with financial institutions currently serving Santarém, as well as relevant government organizations, once we have started the implementation of savings funds within the region.
Expand the size and variety of micro financial services (including insurance, getting MFIs in, etc.)
As the communities' needs for capital and other financial services increase beyond what can be provided through the above means, CEN and our local partners expect to work with established private and public organizations to expand the quantity and size of loans, as well as other financial services to community residents. These ideas include:
- Attracting an existing MFI operating in other parts of the country to provide services in the region
- Establishing a business growth fund through a government organization, dedicated MFI, or other financial institution
Success in doing this will require:
- Demonstrating a demand for financial products
- Transferring best practices from other parts of the world, including leveraging telecommunication and other infrastructure to reduce costs of delivery for these services