Medellin, Colombia. Photo: Random Institute

The pandemic has affected every corner of the world and is having particularly devastating consequences in Latin America and Caribbean, where countries have limited capacity, infrastructure, and resources to absorb economic and public health shocks. Strict lockdown measures imposed by many governments have exacerbated negative impacts on the most vulnerable populations at the base of the pyramid. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimates that direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 could lead to a 5% income reduction which would increase poverty by 3.5 percentage points or an additional 23 million people living in poverty. Sharper drops in income would mean even greater increases in poverty rates.

Microfinance institutions in the region have traditionally supported micro and small entrepreneurs, who face barriers to accessing financial services and capital. Increasingly, they have been providing clients with additional services such as healthcare and business training. As such, these organizations are uniquely positioned to help mitigate the effects of this crisis and assist in recovery efforts. Leaders in the impact investing community, fund managers and microfinance institutions are collaborating to ensure that organizations receive the resources and flexibility that they need to continue their operations, support their clients, and emerge from this crisis. 

Group lending meeting in Ecuador prior to COVID-19. Photo: Espoir

At Deetken Impact, we support these collaborative efforts and are assisting our partner organizations in the region in a variety of ways. Latin America is a region familiar with economic shocks, and they had the experience to act swiftly and effectively to implement crisis management plans, ensure business continuity and protect their staff and clients. We’ve noted more rapid expansion of existing digital channels, and even new adoption of digital channels driven by the necessity of social distancing and quarantine measures. Importantly, we are seeing these business pivots occur in a way that recognizes and empathizes with the unique needs of clients in this challenging time. While the responses of these organizations are designed to meet the specific needs of their clients and stakeholders, we are seeing four main strategies put into action by our partners in the region:

  1. Enabling staff for effective at-home work

In Latin America, microfinance institutions have often relied on exclusively in-person interactions. As such, moving to a work-from-home model has brought various  challenges. According to a recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) some of the obstacles these institutions face include the organization of tasks and systems not intended for teleworking; concerns, commitments and home situations that make concentration difficult; and limited access to high-quality internet.

One of our partners, the ESPOIR foundation, an organization focused on financial inclusion in Ecuador for the past 20 years, had already suffered a severe crisis during the earthquake of 2016 and its devastating aftermath. That experience allowed them to quickly establish a Crisis Committee that effectively rolled out the necessary tools to work remotely and continue operating from home using video calls and enabling VPN connections.

Similarly, our partner INSOTEC, an Ecuadorian microfinance institution that serves mostly rural communities, had fortuitously been conducting work-from-home tests last year. Those proved invaluable in allowing their tech team to set up staff to work from home even before the Ecuadorian government announced lock-down measures. 

In the case of FINCA Haiti, a microfinance organization with a majority of women entrepreneurs clients at the base of the pyramid, they not only moved their operations quickly to the at-home model but also provided their employees with additional resources such as computers and mobile data bandwidth upgrades to make the transition as efficient as possible.

  1. Emotional support and work-life balance

Having the right systems and processes in place to work from home is essential, but economic uncertainty and physical isolation takes a toll on mental health. We’ve been impressed by the supportive and understanding way our partners have acted towards their collaborators and employees. From ESPOIR’s early communications to all employees reassuring them that their jobs and salaries were safe; to INSOTEC’s webinars by the company’s medical staff advising them on health related topics;  to the videos ESPOIR sent to their staff via WhatsApp with exercise routines and other activities to do with their children, recognizing the fact that  women’s  workload at home would increase due to additional care of children and elderly relatives. All our partners have been extremely sensitive and supportive of their employees.

  1. Adapting practices for effective communication with clients 

Our partners in the region have recognized that this situation offers an opportunity to deepen the relationships they’ve built with their clients. This is being done by replacing in-person interaction with frequent phone calls, video and WhatsApp messages to keep them informed and to provide support and solidarity. 

The first steps taken by both Pro Mujer in Argentina and ESPOIR to adapt their field operations were to reach out to all clients by phone, inform them of their contingency plans, answer their questions and offer their support. ESPOIR has followed up with regular phone calls to  clients to learn how their businesses are faring and to inquire about their health and overall well-being. They’ve provided additional business support, such as advertising their clients’ products on  staff WhatsApp accounts to promote sales. Similarly, our partners INSOTEC and Pro Mujer have advised their clients on business diversification and the use of digital channels to promote and sell their products.  From a financing perspective, our partner organizations have restructured their portfolios in accordance with the regulatory guidelines in each country and based on the specific needs of their clients.

  1. Digitizing  operations

Many microfinance institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean were unprepared for virtual operations, and the same could be said for their clients. As this January 2020 report by the IDB found, only 2% of global e-commerce transactions occur in Latin America although it represents over 7% of the global economy. Furthermore, that small share is concentrated in just three countries – Argentina, Brazil and Mexico – which make up 70% of the total transactions in the region. Our partner FINCA Haiti is one exception to this generally low penetration of electronic transactions, having years ago developed their electronic wallet (known as Moncash) which  enables their clients to make transactions from their cell phones.  Similarly, recent investments in their digital platform allowed our partner INSOTEC to continue to provide services. They are now quickly expanding client options for loan payment and disbursements through key alliances with other banking and non-banking networks. 

But the crisis has done more than prove the importance of online channels; it has rapidly accelerated the uptake of technology that may have otherwise taken years for some institutions and clients to embrace. This was the case for Pro Mujer Argentina, where the crisis demanded a rapid shift to digital channels. Through deft management and the prioritization that comes with crisis, the company achieved  in a month and a half what they hadn’t been able to do in the previous three years. They’ve been able to provide loans to their mostly women clients through digital transfers; they’ve conducted virtual credit committees, and their goal now is to move one hundred percent of their clients to online banking.

Digitization is not only limited to financial transactions; it has also proven essential to providing healthcare services in isolated regions and has gone mainstream during these times of quarantine and physical distancing.  Most of our partners that offer healthcare services have managed to expand their telemedicine offering to clients and their families. They’re also leveraging their connection to their clients by circulating videos with hygiene and illness prevention information.  

Emerging  stronger from this crisis

The pandemic has forced all of us to adjust and adapt in a very short period of time. It has accelerated the digital transformation of many businesses and institutions. We couldn’t be prouder of our partner organizations and of the diligent and empathetic way in which they have acted towards their staff and clients. We don’t yet know what the full effect of the pandemic will be in Latin America and the Caribbean, but we know that strong and innovative institutions, with a clear vision and quick response, will be able to move forward and emerge stronger from this crisis.

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