Financial inclusion: using business to empower fragile populations

Euromoney has named BNP Paribas "World's Best Bank for Financial Inclusion". What is financial inclusion and why is it so important?

Claudia Belli is Global Head of Social Business and Microfinance at BNP Paribas. She talked to us about the bank’s longstanding involvement with financial inclusion.

Hello Claudia. First, could you tell us what financial inclusion is about?
Financial inclusion is about improving accessibility to financial products for all people, whatever their situation. The first thing the vast majority of financially excluded people lack is financial education. They also lack access to finance itself – that’s where microfinance comes in.

What’s the story of BNP Paribas’ involvement in financial inclusion?
Starting with our domestic markets, the Group has been involved in offering broader access to banking, savings and funding products for a long time.

We have also been active in low-income suburbs: for 17 years now, BNP Paribas has been the biggest private employer in Seine St Denis (north of Paris), enabling social inclusion. In 2005, the BNP Paribas Foundation developed the Projet Banlieues to provide funding to ADIE, (the Association for the right to Economic Initiative), the first microfinance institution (MFI) in France, as well as  subsidies and mentoring to small associations operating in this area.

Concerning microfinance – a great tool to provide loans to financially excluded people – we have been involved for more than 30 years! The Bank launched its first ever partnership with Crédit Rural de Guinée in 1989, followed four years later by one with ADIE. Microfinance has since become one of the Group’s flagship commitments.

Why work with microfinance institutions and not directly with micro-borrowers?
Working with the financially excluded is very difficult for a bank. Such people may not approach banks directly, they might live far away from our branches, or be considered as risky clients. MFIs, on the other hand, are set up to cater for their needs, so by working with them we can overcome these barriers.

That is why BNP Paribas lends to selected MFIs in countries where we have a presence: almost none of our MFI clients have banking status, so they need to obtain technical assistance and funding to lend on to individuals. That is where we can help most efficiently.

How does the bank work with these institutions?
We see financial inclusion as business, as a social business [1]; we use the bank’s capital, like we do for lending to other clients. Our goal in microfinance is to cover our costs – including cost of risk – and also to achieve a social return.

For our loans to MFIs, therefore, all the usual business processes are carried out plus specific due diligence and analysis of social performance. So the MFIs we work with are selected both as good business partners and for having a real positive impact on their borrowers.

Financial inclusion is often associated with emerging countries, but we also have a focus on our domestic markets. In these countries, our relationship with certain MFIs is particularly close – for example, we are the biggest funders of ADIE, and we contributed to the creation of MFIs in Belgium and Luxembourg and have shares in these MFIs and in Italian MFI PerMicro. 

Which parts of the bank are involved with financial inclusion?
Most of BNP Paribas’ businesses work in financial inclusion; we have made great efforts to embed it across the bank.

In terms of microfinance, BNP Paribas Corporate & Institutional Banking provides loans to MFIs in many Asian and Latin American countries, while our international retail bank does it in five African countries. Sometimes MFIs need equity and so other business lines are involved like Principal Investment (PI) teams, working alongside the Bank’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department. PI has invested in the Belgian Helenos fund, the first private equity fund dedicated to young MFIs in East Europe.

BNP Paribas Asset Management is a leader in solidarity savings products like BNP Paribas Social Business France and the Multipar Solidaire offerings, of which more than a third is invested into financial inclusion. BNP Paribas Wealth Management offers clients similar kinds of funds.

Tell us some more about other financial inclusion products.
The subject is at the heart of the Bank via our staff. Most of our subsidiaries offer financial education programmes, which are carried out pro bono by employees, because learning is key to prevent over-indebtedness and enhance savings capacity. Facilitating mobility and housing, access to studies, to energy efficiency – these are also part of the Group’s financial inclusion activities. 
BNP Paribas: 30 years of financial inclusion

  • More than 2 million people have benefited indirectly from microfinance – mostly women 
  • 84 MFIs have been supported in 33 countries
  • Cumulative loan total of nearly €900 million

Read more about our actions in financial inclusion.

Including women in finance is also key in countries where they have less access: across the world there is a 7 percentage-point gap between men’s and women’s access [2]. Providing products that promote women’s inclusion (gender bonds, facilitating funding for companies headed by women, microloans for more sustainable agriculture) or young people (specific offers for them or sustainability-linked loans with dedicated metrics) is also part of what we do.

We also have specific products to advise people who are in financial difficulty, for example in French retail banking who advises them on budgeting solutions and in the 32 countries where BNP Paribas Personal Finance is present through tailored solutions to fight overindebtedness.

Financial inclusion is of course also about getting people “banked”. The Group’s independent subsidiary Nickel offers a digital bank account via tobacconists’ shops to anyone in France over the age of 12, with no conditions or minimum income requirements. It now has more than 1.5 million clients, 78% of who earn less than €1,500 a month, with numbers growing further during the pandemic. Nickel is now being rolled out in Spain and is also proving to be a powerful tool to enable inclusive savings.

You mentioned the pandemic: how is Covid-19 affecting financial inclusion?
MFIs have been hit hard by the crisis.  The kind of businesses they lend to – small businesses in areas such as catering and personal services – have been among the most vulnerable. The bank has decided to offer specific support via subsidiaries to microfinance in certain countries to help with clients’ urgent difficulties, providing €1.2 million in Covid-related grants. We are also closely monitoring each loan and have so far been able to accept all requests for moratoria by MFIs to help them recover.

Also, BNP Paribas Asset Management has contacted the heads of its solidarity-based partners in France to evaluate their situation, measure the consequences on their activity and their beneficiaries and identify actions to take. About half were affected by a significant stalling in their activities. For those in serious financial difficulty, it is collaborating with the Group’s retail network to help them access the French State-Guaranteed Loan.

Finally, what are, for you, some of the highlights of BNP Paribas’ work on financial inclusion?
One is the Bank’s signing in 2019 of a five-year Global Partnership with Grameen Creative Lab, founded by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, the founder of modern microfinance who is known as the “Banker of the Poor”! Through this partnership we aim to build awareness about social business among employees so they feel empowered to integrate positive impact into business and even create social businesses.

Also, to celebrate 30 years of microfinance we created a digital Exhibit, Little Big Movement, featuring interviews with women who have borrowed to start or enhance their microbusinesses.

[1] Muhammad Yunus – “social business is a no loss, no dividends company serving a social or environmental purpose”.
[2] IFC Global Findex, 2018: Although significant progress has been achieved, there is a persistent gender gap in access to basic accounts in the financial system, with 72% of men having access to an account compared to only 65% of women.