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Microfinance and Africa: Renowned experts share views

Alex Silva, president of Omtrix, and Mecene Investment's Colin Sloand '09 explore the microfinance landscape in Africa. Mecene is a private equity advisory company for socially responsible investments located in South Africa.

Colin Sloand ’09 graduated from Lehigh University with degrees in finance and business economics. Despite the draw of New York’s financial sector, he took a detour and launched his career in South Africa working for a socially responsible investment firm.

That decision has paid dividends for Sloand, an investment analyst with Mecene Investments whose passion for microfinance has given him an unusual perspective on global business.

Watch video of Sloand talking about microfinance.

 Sloand and a chorus of leading microfinance officials from Africa, Europe, and North and South America converged at Lehigh University on April 19 and 20 for what was one of the industry’s first African microfinance conferences held outside of the populous and poverty-stricken continent.

It was an unusual forum for industry officials, says Todd Watkins, the Arthur F. Searing Professor of Economics and the director of Lehigh’s microfinance program.

“Today’s students are engaged and committed to tackling some of society’s bigger challenges. That’s why this conference was such an interesting forum to host. Seldom do students and renowned visionaries have the opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from one another,” Watkins says.

At Lehigh, Marguerite Robinson, emeritus fellow at the Harvard Institute for International Development and a pioneer of international microfinance, joined other microfinance experts from leading commercial and non-profit institutions such as ACCION, AfriCap, Omtrix, and the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation. They addressed a number of current trends in African microfinance, including information technology challenges and the obstacle of corruption throughout Africa.

Watch a video of Robinson discussing the impact of Equity Bank in East Africa—a bank that was recently named the "Best Microfinace Bank in Africa" at the African Bankers Awards Ceremony last year.

But the most discussed and debated topic appeared to be the growing commercialization of microfinance. For years, the industry has depended on the efforts of non-profit agencies and NGOs to initiate change in Africa’s rural communities.

Panelists at the conference, however, suggested that for-profit and socially responsible investing were not entirely incompatible. It was a revealing moment for Lyrana Hughes, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who is used to hearing that commercialization and socially responsible investing are always at odds with each other. 

Hughes joined students from Lehigh and the University of Pennsylvania at the two-day conference. The enthusiasm of these business and international relations students came as little surprise to Hughes.

“Students have always been at the forefront of social movements, grassroots initiatives, and change campaigns,” she says. “Through microfinance, students are finding an avenue through which to channel their passion and energy.”

Puja Parekh ’10 agrees. Successor to Sloand as the 2009-10 president of Lehigh’s microfinance club, she saw firsthand poorer areas of India growing up and sees microfinance as a means to overcoming global poverty. 

“What I’ve learned about microfinance is that it’s sustainable and that it can avoid creating a dependency issue, and that people can build stronger livelihoods for themselves and their families,” she says. “It’s a practical solution for some of the problems that I saw growing up.”

Story by Tom Yencho

Posted on Friday, April 23, 2010

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