North Macedonia: “Readiness for Digitalization in Microfinance – Challenges and Trends in the Region” Forum Summary

 

On May 12/13, 2019, in  Ohrid, North Macedonia the Alliance of Microfinance Organizations and the USAID’ Microfinance Innovation and Inclusion Project hosted the fourth regional microfinance forum “Readiness for digitalization in microfinance – Challenges and trends in the region”. The forum was attended by 48 CEOs and officers from different departments from 18 microfinance organizations from North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland and Greece. The event was organized in cooperation with Savings house Moznosti, Savings house FULM, Microcredit foundation Horizonti and the Macedonian Enterprise Development Foundation and in coordination with the leading microfinance organizations in the region: MKO Partner, Microcredit Organisation EKI Sarajevo and MKO Mi-Bospo from Bosnia and Herzegovina, KEP Trust from Kosovo, Montekredit from Montenegro, Agro&Social Fond, Fondi Besa, FED Invest, NOA, Kredo from Albania as well as KEPA Microstars from Greece.

The agenda included following topics:

  • The newest MFC research: “Riding the technology wave in European microfinance”;
  • Regional research “Readiness of clients for digitalization” performed by MFI’s and their clients;
  • Digitalization of business processes in microfinance organizations: How do we make it work for our employees?
  • Digitalization and Microfinance daily business: Experiences from the region/ Practitioner’s perspective
  • What can we do to avoid financial exclusion caused by digitalization?

Grzegorz Galusek, the executive director of the Microfinance Centre, presented the newest findings of the MFC research: “Riding the technology wave in European microfinance”, after which the participants engaged in a vibrant debate to identify the key challenges in the process of digital transformation and present their practices and policies in this regard.

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In the second session of the forum, the focus was set on “Readiness of the customers for digitalization”, with the extensive presentation of the performed regional research of over 900 microfinance clients from the region by the Director of Savings house FULM, Ms. Eleonora Zgonjanin Petrovikj, elaborating different aspects of behaviours on digital transformation. The presentation was followed by an open peer-to-peer discussion on specific findings and their interpretation in the national contexts of different countries and markets.

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At the discussion:”Digitalization of business processes in microfinance organizations: How do we make it work for our employees?”, the participants engaged in an intense discussion on manners to address the concerns of employees and their expectations and create an environment which will be favourable for stronger growth. A variety of interesting and innovative approaches were discussed, supported with an exchange of experiences which were found to be implementable in all countries in the region.

Digitalization and Microfinance daily business: Experiences from the region / Practitioner’s perspective” was next on the agenda, to talk about the need to implement the transformation in a comprehensive way which will equally consider the needs of all stakeholders rather then risk dealing with an environment which is not ready yet.

At the round-up session, Mr. Lazarevski (Alliance of Microfinance organizations, Chief of party)  drew conclusions from the discussions and presented them to the participants, with the following key findings and recommendations:

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  • Digitalization sets new and previously unknown challenges as well as development options for the microfinance community and has no alternative;
  • With digital transformation, challenges follow with key questions to answer:
    • Do we have the necessary infrastructure available?
    • Is the regulatory framework ready and supportive of new solutions?
    • Have we reached the needed level of general, IT- and financial literacy?
    • Can our clients afford to get digital?
    • Is our client structure adequate for digitalization or is it better to delay the process?
    • What is the right level of investment and how do we sustain it?
    • How important is the security challenge for the process?
    • Can digitalization make our business slower and for how long?
    • Who should be in charge of the process and who on all levels is to be involved and to what extent?
    • Are adequate vendors and products/services available on the market and what can we do to develop their knowledge alongside ours?
    • What do we do to educate our clients, employees and regulators?
    • Do we need a strategy or another structured document for the digitalization process in order to avoid some of the risks and challenges?

All these issues were discussed, attendees learned a lot from each other, gaining knowledge they can use in their own collectives.

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It is recommended, that:

  • Regulators and legislation are currently the highest priority for all countries of the region. It is important to have them on board, understanding the significance of microfinance and creating an even-ground for healthy competitiveness among the banking and non-banking financial institutions. The Forum recommends that for the next session the focus should be on the regulators;
  • Study visits in the region from one NBFI to another are recommended to create a platform of dialogue and exchange of knowledge as a process of improvement towards a favorable environment for all stakeholders;
  • The offer of digital solutions on the regional markets can be improved through a process of cooperation with the IT-companies, giving them an opportunity to learn from experiences and needs to better address them. The Forum recommends that the vendor community be included on future forums and meetings;
  • Meetings of this kind need to be organized for professionals with different fields of expertise regularly, in the countries of the region, to establish a platform for cooperation and communication in microfinance, and
  • A regional joint initiative for the establishing of a microfinance education center was presented by the Alliance of microfinance organizations, with more details and ideas to follow shortly.

The forum was closed with the conclusion that these efforts need to continue without delay and that a knowledge resource network of relevant partners in the region has successfully been established, soon to result in closer forms of cooperation.

The forum established a sound base to build a regional cooperation platform for joint action in improving regulations and strengthen microfinance, access to finance and financial inclusion.