In Bangladesh, smallholder farmers have traditionally had a difficult time securing loans from banks. The due diligence process is rigorous in Bangladesh and high loan interest rates can be prohibitively expensive for smallholder farmers. Moreover, commercial banks are often located in urban centers, making them challenging for rural farmers to reach.
To remove these barriers to financial inclusion that farmers face, mSTAR in Bangladesh is launching an innovative pilot program with IFIC Bank Limited and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Under the pilot, IFIC Bank Limited is offering 100 farmers one of their newest products, IFIC Amar Account, a unique transactional account where both deposit and loan facilities are bundled into a single account.
The service has a wide-range of benefits for farmers. It enables them to enroll into flexible savings schemes and save BDT 100 per month at an annual interest rate of 7.5%. Farmers will be able to purchase inputs from participating retailers, and they’ll have access to secure agricultural loans at a low interest rate with flexible repayment options. This flexible repayment scheme is critical for farmers says Josh Woodard, Regional ICT & Digital Finance Advisor and lead of mSTAR/Bangladesh. Currently, he says, “microfinance loans offered to farmers must be paid back on a weekly basis for around 46 weeks.” Paying the loan back so regularly can be difficult for farmers who do not have a steady weekly income: once crops are in the ground, it may be a few months before they have income. This causes a snowball effect. To pay back the original loan, farmers are often forced to “take out other loans…and rush to sell their crops immediately after harvest.” Rushing to sell their crops means they often don’t get their full market value.
However, this new service will relieve those pressures. With the flexible repayment scheme, farmers will pay back the loan in a single payment after six months. Since it will be after harvest, Josh explains, it will likely enable farmers to sell their produce at a higher rate as they are not in a rush to sell. And, there’s one more perk – perhaps most importantly, farmers will operate the account through the IFIC Mobile Banking system. In many respects, this innovative service is the first of its kind in Bangladesh.
mSTAR/Bangladesh held an event last week to launch the new service. Senior staff of Bangladesh Bank, IFIC Bank, and Feed the Future Bangladesh Rice Value Chain Project attended the event to explain the new product. Mr. Mohammad Robiul Islam, General Manager of Bangladesh Bank described the service as “a significant improvement over standard microfinancing.” He explained: the low transaction costs of the mobile phone system mean the bank can offer “unbanked farmers interest rates of 10%, which is much lower than those offered by traditional microfinance institutes.” The 100 registered farmers are being provided agricultural loans worth BDT 5,000 to BDT 20,000.
IFIC Bank made it clear at the event that they were not only aware of the financial inclusion challenges smallholder farmers faced, but prepared to take on those challenges. As “an urban-based commercial bank, rural penetration is always a concern of the bank,” Shah Md. Moinuddin, Deputy Managing Director of IFIC Bank acknowledged. “The vision of IFIC Bank,” he continued, “is to overcome all the hurdles.” This project was the first step, he said.
mSTAR, IFIC Bank, and IRRI have high hopes for the service. IFIC Bank hopes to extend it to more smallholder farmers, and IRRI and mSTAR plan to bring other value chain actors, such as input dealers, companies, millers and wholesalers into the system and ensure that all actors can benefit from the digitization of payments along the value chain.
To learn more about mSTAR, contact mSTAR_Project@FHI360.org.