Translated from the original article in Swedish found here. A PDF version can be found here.
Microfinance funds are more popular today than ever. They attract billions from Swedish institutions and savers – even though researchers have not been able to confirm the benefits of microfinance. Swedish investors receive a high return on these investments, but the result for the poor entrepreneur ultimately becomes rather lean. Growth often fails. There are therefore reasons for politicians and decision-makers to consider whether other efforts and priorities are needed to create a more just world, where more people are given reasonable conditions to succeed.
Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, once compared people in poverty to a bonsai trees. He said that if a bonsai tree does not grow, the seed is not to blame – it is the soil that is insufficient. In a study that I have published with Alex McKelvie in the International Small Business Journal, we show how the soil, exemplified by poor financial literacy and lack of formal education, greatly affects microfinance’s chances of success. The often low level of education becomes the Achilles heel of microfinance itself.
Economic welfare in more developed countries is also not based on microfinance, but on the fact that talented small business owners and entrepreneurs are given better basic conditions to grow and become both nationally and internationally successful. Despite the obvious insight, efforts are often lacking in this group of companies in developing countries, although government development financiers want to focus on small and medium-sized companies.
New methods and processes are needed to enable and support private investments in smaller companies in developing countries. Today, this segment is mainly achieved through lending or grants. Loans are expensive for the small business, with interest rates exceeding 20 percent. And a loan that is not repaid can risk the company’s future. Grants require a great deal of knowledge about how applications are written. They are time-consuming, burdensome to report, associated with obligations – and difficult to obtain.
Instead, private equity is needed here, but since it is almost as demanding and costly to finance a company with a turnover of $ 100,000-200,000 as a company that has a turnover of $ 3-4 million, the investment often fails. The minimum level can be $ 3-5 million for a maximum ownership of 20-30%, which is impossible for a smaller company.
Despite the realization that education and financing of small businesses is the key to combating poverty, efforts remain modest and disproportionately distributed. The bonsai tree simply does not get the nutrition it requires.
In 2019 alone, Swedish government aid organization Sida’s aid budget is SEK 51 billion (USD 5.3 billion) for efforts to improve people’s living conditions. Of these, 5 percent go to education. To finance entrepreneurship, the sister organization Swedfund has invested a total of SEK 5 billion (USD 510 million) over 40 years, which has created 167,000 jobs. It is recommended that our politicians consider redistributing the contributions from Sida to Swedfund, and in the regulatory letter increase the investments in educational efforts.
About Pontus Pontus Engström is an affiliated researcher at the House of Innovation, Stockholm School of Economics. He defended his PhD in 2016 and researches the informal sector and entrepreneurship in developing countries. Pontus is the co-founder of MTI Investment AS, which invests in smaller companies in East Africa. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Strømme Foundation changes its strategy from a focus on microcredit to a focus on financing small and mediums sized companies, in line with what my own research and experience indicates to be a better path towards prosperous economic development. I concur with this move and look forward to seeing the results from this change, and encourage more organizations and investors to follow this path. This is not to say that microfinance is not helping poor people. Someone said to me: “These microloans do help a little especially when it comes to women who can send their kids to school. Put a metal roof with monies earned from the small businesses they setup.” I completely agree, but by focusing on small and medium sized companies, we can help create even more jobs through scaling businesses led by competent managers. It is simply difficult to scale a small microentrepreneur with very limited personal capacity to lead a larger business. I simply suggest that there are other means which we also need to explore. Financing of SME´s has until recently been a forgotten area of focus, and more and more investors are shifting towards this group as well for more impact.
I senaste numret av entré skriver journalisten Maria Linde om min avhandling samt om vårt jobb med MTI Investment AS – det nordiska investmentbolaget som investerar i växande små och medelstora företag i Östra Afrika.
För att ladda ner delen som har med min forskning att göra klicka här:
The Norwegian newspaper Vårt Land writes in the Monday issue (October 17, 2016 p. 8-9) about my research in an article with the title “Therefore microfinance is not that effective” (Derfor er mikrofinans lite effektivt). While my findings do find that microfinance does add extra income to an individual´s business, it also shows that size can act as a counterbalancing factor such that income actually is reduced with increased sized. The economies of scale are in other words negative in the early phase of the firm. My research also points to the fact that growth in sales or assets does not seem to be related to taking on microloans. This is not controversial. What is obvious and perhaps more relevant from my research is that the level of financial literacy among poor microentrepreneurs is VERY low, and then one should take into account that the clients I surveyed were not the poorest of the poor, but merely poor. Little research is still however done in this area, and much more is needed. There is even research pointing towards the odd fact that those with more education actually do worse. This
Little research is still however done in this area, and much more is needed. There is even research finding in some informal economies that those with more education actually do worse (Honig, 1998). This is counterintuitive, and much more research is needed here. I am currently working on a paper which looks at the role of Financial Literacy, Role Models and how these two concepts affect firm performance in the informal economy. Research in the left tail of human capital among the poorest individuals on the planet is still in its infancy, but over time we will eventually learn how to effectively lift the human capital and sustain individuals in an improved economic state. The practical example of MTI Investments, and other pioneering firms, financing small and medium-sized firms, may be leading the way in this regard, where more investments are allocated towards small and medium sized firms, rather than mostly microenterprises today.
Here I present my story, connecting the dots of my academic life. I began thinking about pursuing a PhD in 1991, when I was an undergraduate student at Slippery Rock University (SRU) in Pennsylvania, USA, on a Sweden–America Foundation scholarship.
Several informal talks with one of my undergraduate professors helped me weigh the pros and cons of an MBA versus a PhD. Being a bit ambivalent about the decision and wanting to keep both doors open, I elected to go for a bachelor of science degree in economics. Upon graduating summa cum laude in 1994, I was still ambivalent, so I returned to Sweden, where I took a job assisting Professor Lars Oxelheim at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN, then known as IUI) in writing a book about the deregulation of the Nordic financial markets and its effect on Nordic interest rates as compared to a global interest rate (Oxelheim, 1996). Professor Oxelheim and I also discussed me potentially pursuing a PhD, but back then I did not know what research focus I was interested in, nor did I realize that embarking on a PhD is one of the more entrepreneurial ventures in which a person can engage.
The experience at IFN led to my next job as a researcher at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where I specialized in corporate valuations and a corporate performance framework known as Cash Flow Return On Investment (CFROI), developed by HOLT Value Associates (Madden, 1999). The experience at BCG motivated me to take a master of science degree in economics and finance from the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE). This was one of the best career decisions I have made and gave me many valuable contacts with whom I still interact today. In 1998 and 1999, after graduating, I tried starting a couple of businesses. One was an online database for financial analysis services called MIG (Management Information Group) and the other a business promoting stand-up comedians and speakers, called IGNITE Infotainment Professionals. Both firms had high-flying visions (seen in the pluralistic nature of the names) but made meager progress. Despite the tough times, the experience was enjoyable, and I learned more about business in these two years than any school could have taught me. Specifically, I learned that perseverance, along with a strong personal conviction, is important, but that luck is probably also part of the equation. The experience and knowledge gained through these years are also shown throughout this dissertation.
In 2005, having spent five years as a financial advisor on global equities at Credit Suisse, I became a portfolio manager at DNB Asset Management, responsible for global cyclical firms (materials, transportation, automobiles, and commercial services). However, in 2008, this work came to a sharp halt with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the layoff of many in the financial industry, including those of us at DNB. I discussed with Professor Carl Fey starting a PhD, but I still felt ambivalence about the prospect. I had previously written an academic paper with Professor Fey and Professor Ingmar Björkman based in my master thesis at SSE. The article is today cited 49 times according to Google Scholar (Fey, Engström, & Björkman, 1999). However, I did not pursue the opportunity, as this was not an area of interest close to my heart, and I therefore again missed how incredibly entrepreneurial it is to undertake a PhD.
Instead, I worked for three years as chief financial officer at the Swedish Mission Covenant Church, which not only gave me a better understanding of civil society and organizations based on the popular movements from the late 1800s and early 1900s but also a lot of experience in managing people, creating control systems, and managing a budget process and different type of assets, such as properties and foundations. The job involved a lot of responsibility and creativity, but it was also very entrepreneurial. It gave me a good glimpse at how small businesses are run and governed, since the church was involved in several small and large businesses.
One of the investments the church had made was a small footnote on the balance sheet, Oikocredit, that was not earning any interest for the church. As the financial assets I was responsible for were a guarantee for the future pensions of several employees, I was keen to ensure the assets were managed in the best possible way. Not getting a return on investment was unsatisfactory to me. I therefore investigated Oikocredit and visited an annual general meeting in 2011 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I learned about microfinance. I observed how controversial the idea of paying investors a market interest rate was; some owners there argued frantically that this was morally wrong. In 2011, the interest investors could receive from lending money to Oikocredit was at most 2%. In a scenario where inflation is running at 3%, I as an investor would lose 1% by investing in microfinance. The argument against a higher return to investors was that there was also a return to society, a social return, upon which investors should look favorably. The return was not close enough to the cost of capital required by the pension fund, which was the foundation of the church assets, and thus microfinance did not seem as a good investment to me at the time. Now, with global interest rates at record low levels, many investors are turning towards microfinance as an alternative asset class, in hopes better returns.
AGM at Oikocredit in 2011
Members of Oikocredit
The experience in Tanzania sparked my interest in this controversial topic, and I immediately contacted Professor Lars Oxelheim again, with whom I had kept in touch with over the years. The decision to contact Professor Lars Oxelheim was also inspired by my friend Klas Palm, who had just initiated his PhD studies on innovation and quality management related issues. My research interest then was how interest rates are affected by the increased rate of return required by investors. My hypothesis was that the interest rate would not change to the end user, as the local market sets the interest rate. What I therefore wanted to research was the degree to which the microfinance investment vehicles like Oikocredit, which operate between the investors and the local microfinance banks, could absorb a higher required rate from investors, and whether this would pressure them to become more efficient in order to preserve a low interest rate. Little did I know that my topic would be completely different a year later.
I believe it is also worth mentioning that about a year prior to me beginning at the University of Agder, I became friends with the beat artist Michael Bowen and his family, who had moved from Hawaii to Sweden (Collin, 2006). On a few occasions, I played the saxophone while Michael spoke or painted. It was inspirational to meet with Michael, who was very positive and encouraging of my talents. Tragically, Michael passed away in 2009. However, his memories live on and are, in fact, scattered all over the University of Agder. He has more than 100 art objects installed at the university and the nearby Kristiansand Cathedral School. I have obtained permission from his widow Isabel Paoli-Bowen to use his paintings as article separators in this thesis. Michael was a pioneer in combining music and painting (art), known as performance art, and building on these ideas, I would like to emphasize the long-standing relationship between research and art, and the inspiration both music and art are to my endeavors.
After my first year of PhD studies, during which I learned about current and historic research and methods and interacted with many students and faculty, my interest had turned to how microfinance impacts the microentrepreneurs. I had experienced being an entrepreneur previously, and the topic of microfinance and the microentrepreneurs seemed a lot more interesting than doing research on the sensitivity of interest rates. “Come on,” as my supervisor Trond Randøy would say. I also had access to unique data, since one of my supervisors, Professor Roy Mersland, had helped build a leading microfinance institution in Ecuador (Banco D-Micro). I am especially grateful to Carolina and Hans Martin Espegren, for a successful collaboration in gathering data in Ecuador. We spent several weeks collecting and analyzing the data together, but we also had fun visiting the coast, surfing, cooking dinner together, or going for an evening run.
I would also like to express my gratitude to my supervisors. First of all, a big thank you to my main supervisor, Professor Trond Randøy. Working together with Professor Randøy has been truly enjoyable from the start, and I am grateful for not only the professional collaborations, but also for the personal friendship we have built over the years, including a few jazz jam sessions, hikes in the mountains, canoeing around Kristiansand, international research conferences, and entrepreneurial ventures in Tanzania. An indirect result and spin-off from this PhD endeavor is the creation of MTI Investment AS (www.mti-investment.com), a venture capital firm investing in the growth of eastern Africa. In MTI, all of my previous undertakings and experiences are combined and maximized, and every person with whom I have ever worked is connected somehow with this business.
“Ut på tur, aldri sur” is a Norwegian saying – “You’ll never be grumpy on a hike”
One of Professor Randøy’s previous PhD students, Professor Roy Mersland, was my second supervisor. He became a professor within five years of obtaining his PhD. I am grateful for having met Professor Mersland and seen the dedication, passion, and focus with which he carries out all work. Professor Mersland was instrumental in getting me access to Banco D-Miro data, which form the skeleton of my PhD. My third supervisor is Dr. Leif Atle Beisland. Dr. Beisland and I had many discussions about performance measurement that were instrumental in focusing the thesis on return on assets. I would also like to express a special thank you to Professor Oxelheim who has followed my academic progress and with whom I have written several debate articles with during these three years (Engström & Oxelheim, 2013a, 2013b, 2014). Professor Oxelheim has an inner energy and passion for research that is truly inspirational. Just like my supervisors did, I wrote this thesis during numerous flights, on various airport buses and trains, sometimes in a hotel room in a foreign country such as in Tanzania, sometimes in the office in Kristiansand, and sometimes in the office at the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), with which I was affiliated during the last year of my thesis.
I also would like to thank all the faculty members at the University of Agder, in particular Professor Otto Andersen, Dr. Bjørn-Tore Flåten, Dr. Rotem Shneor, Professor Andreas Falkenberg, Professor Joyce Falkenberg, Andre Tofteland, Anne Line Omsland, Dr. Burak Tunca, Dr. Daniel Göller, Daudi Pascal Ndaki, Diana Trydal, Professor Ellen Nyhus, Erik Arntsen, Geir Haaland, Gro Anita Homme, Professor Emeritus Harald Knudsen, Professor Ilan Alon, Irfan Irfan, Professor Jan-Inge Jensen, Dr. Kjetil Andersson, Dr. Kristin Dale, Kristina Walker Pedersen, Bandula Galhena, Amila Sirisena, Harald Stokkeland, Lisa Whitehead, Dr. Naima Saeed, Dr. Neema Mori, Dr. Gibson Munisi, Nertila Stringa, Professor Stein Kristiansen, Dr. Stina Torjesen, Stina Øyna, Stine Bårdsen, Unni Henriksen, Inger-Lise Myrvold, and Målfrid Tangedal.
In addition to the above-mentioned individuals, I also owe a thank you to many of the faculty members and PhD students from other schools, such as Professor Dale Duhan, Professor Arent Greve, Professor Terje Moen, Professor Yaakob Weber, Professor Kirsten Foss, Dr. Gry Alsos, Professor Tommy Clausen, Professor Johan Wiklund, Professor Karl Wennberg, Professor Carin Holmquist, Professor Sara Carter, Professor Hans Lundström, Dr. Espen Isaksen, Dr. Marianne Steinmo, Dr. Maj Munkefjord, Dr. Sølvi Solvoll, Marianne Arntzen-Nortquist, Marit Breivik Meyer, Karin Wigger, Oxana Bulanova, Nhien Nguyen, Thomas Lauvås, Siri Jakobsen, Are Jensen, Dr. Terese Strand, Nedim Effendic, Dr. Nadav Rotemberg Shir, Beldina Owalla, Kajsa Asplund, and Professor Alex McKelvie.
Apart from academia I am also grateful to the Norwegian Alliance Microfinance and their CEO Andreas Andersen for allowing me to work with Banco D-Miro in Ecuador. At Banco D-Miro, I am thankful to all the support and help from the CEO Carlos Viteri and the marketing director John Pacheco in creating the survey instrument and in motivating and instructing the local call center. I am also grateful to Johnny Villavicencio and colleagues for helping me in retrieving longitudinal (historic) data from the Banco D-Miro database. When in Ecuador, I was also fortunate to get to know many wonderful people from the local Alliance Mission group, including Hans Martin and Caroline Espegren,Isak Holmen Sørensen, Maria Andreassen, Rebeckka Andreassen Garcia, Daniel Garcia, Maria Andreassen,Ingunn Skutlaberg Valbø, Bjørnar Valbø, Rita Franco, Lily Macias Ramos, and many more. Gathering data without this group of individuals around would simply not have been the same experience. Thank you all.
Last but not least, I would like to thank my close friends and family for supporting me every step of the way. I wish I could thank my aunt Kajsa Tunér, who is not with us anymore, but she definitely was an influence, and I still to this day remember when she earned her PhD in 1986 when I was 15 years old (Tunér, 1986). The same must also be said about some other important people who are no longer with us, like my grandparents on both my mother’s and father’s sides. My brother Johan Engström has been an inspiration in his hard work to become a radiologist, and also my sister Hedvig Engström Jakobsson, who earned her PhD in 2011 (Engström Jakobsson, 2011). I would like to thank my mother Margareta Dehle for always being very supportive and for helping my family in so many ways. A special thank you is directed to my two daughters Ella and Kajsa who, who during these three years, have had to speak to their father on Skype and Facetime far too many times. A special welcome and thank you to my newborn adorable daughter Leona, who was born in the very last phase of my PhD, a phase when I also lost my dear and greatly missed father, Per Engström, who had been a surgeon. This dissertation is therefore made in memory of my father and dedicated to my three children.
Collin, L. (2006, November 7). Det bor en beatnik i staden. Svenska Dagladet. Stockholm.
Engström Jakobsson, H. (2011). Molecular characterization of the dynamics and development of the human microbiota.
Translated from original article in norwegian foundhere.
This is revealed in the doctoral dissertation of Pontus Engström at the University of Agder (UiA).
– Microfinance provides a little more money in the wallet to the microentrepreneur, but they remain poor. Microfinance does not contribute to business growth or economic growth in society at large, says Engström.
He has just defended his doctoral dissertation on microfinance. Engström has followed 755 microentrepreneurs in Equador over a ten-year period. The findings show that, on average, the entrepreneurs make a little more money on their business, but not enough for the business to grow and fight poverty.
– The intention of micro-loans is to kick-start economic growth from scratch by giving small loans to poor people. Most small contractors want to grow, but that doesn’t happen. Microfinance does not help fight poverty as the scheme is used today, says Engström.
Engström shows in the doctoral dissertation that experience and general education mean little to the development of micro-entrepreneurs. What matters, on the other hand, is an understanding of basic financial concepts.
– Lack of growth in micro enterprises is often due to financial illiteracy of the business owner. The microentrepreneur is most concerned about getting money in his wallet from day to day and is not concerned about long-term value creation, says Engström.
He believes there is a need for more training in business and finance.
– The actors lack financial skills to grow and must be offered more education in business and finance. We must not stop supporting micro-enterprises, but most preferably we must invest in small and medium-sized enterprises with 10 to 300 employees. There are too few SMEs in poor countries, especially in Africa. The lack of such companies is called “the missing middle,” says Engström.
According to the World Bank, SMEs create four out of five jobs.
– We need to support the slightly larger companies, which have the power to hire people. There is no shortage of access to micro loans, but the loans must be given to the small and medium-sized businesses that have already grown and shown that they have a market position, says Engström.
Norway with a key role
Norway plays a key role when it comes to microfinance in the world. Norad, the Mission Alliance and the Strømme Foundation are among the Norwegian players involved in microfinance in poor countries, and in 2006 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus.
– Microfinance became a hype when Muhammad Yunus received the Peace Prize, says Engström.
The Bangladeshi economist received the award for developing microfinance. Yunus believes that all people are potentially entrepreneurs, but that not everyone has access to resources. When he received the Peace Prize, Yunus said that microfinance would create a world without poverty, and that in the future we would go to museums to experience poverty and unemployment.
Criticism of microfinance
Engström was among those who liked the message from the business professor, but the Peace Prize gave a brief cheer in public space before criticism began. Both Yunus and microfinance were criticized for being too big in words and too strong in ambition.
– Critical journalists claim that microfinance led to more poverty. This was partially confirmed by other research showing that microfinance has no or very little effect on the economic development of poor countries, says Engström.
He believes the peace award to Yunus has helped reinforce a romanticized image that it is good that all people are entrepreneurs.
– We have to move away from the naive idea that everyone should be their own entrepreneur. 40 per cent of Uganda’s residents are entrepreneurs, while only 6-7 per cent of the population in the Nordic countries is. Everyone does not want to be entrepreneurs, many just want a job, says Engström.
Assistance with aid
Micro businesses have up to 10 employees, but often only 2-3 employees, including the one running the business.
– Microfinance as it is practiced today simply does not have the socially changing power of Yunus as such. Microfinance is too much of an aid issue. We need to stop thinking about assistance and start thinking about business. We must think about economic growth and development, as we do in the West. Short-term thinking prolongs poverty, says Engström.
– Does this mean that microfinance players today are extending poverty in the countries they operate in?
– Microfinance gives money to the individual, but it does not develop to a small extent.
The local knowledge players that the Strømme Foundation has built up are very important for being able to further develop microfinance. I have faith in the actors working on this, but the method itself is ripe for change, says Engström.
The poorest do not get a loan
Stromme Foundation has been operating with microfinance in poor countries for several years, and is aware that the financing scheme does not always work.
– Microfinance does not work when we talk about micro loans to the very poor, says Bjørn Stian Hellgren, head of Strømme Mikrofinans AS.
– Only when a borrower has a sustainable business plan, some productivity and some values in terms of products and production conditions will it make a positive contribution from a micro loan. Therefore, Stromme Foundation emphasizes that micro-loans should be linked with education and training. The borrower must have some prerequisites for us to provide micro loans, says Hellgren.
– Who gets micro loans from you?
– There are everything from small toy companies with 2-3 employees on the street in Uganda to companies with up to 10 employees.
– You have not considered changing the practice and lending to larger companies?
– So far we have not done so, but we are closely monitoring microfinance research and are constantly assessing what we can do to improve our microfinance, says Hellgren.