More education and venture capital for developing countries

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 pontus.engstrom@hhs.se or pontus.engstrom@mti-investment.com.

On the benefit of switching towards financing SMEs rather than micro businesses

Published in Faedrelandsvennen 12 july 2018

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.

For Norwegian version, see this link: 2018-07-12_Faedrelandsvennen

For English transaltion, see this link: Strømme Foundation puts microfinance on the shelf.

Tidningen entré skriver om min mikrofinansforskning samt MTI Investment — investerar i växande små och medelstora företag i Östra Afrika

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:

Pontus Engström_entre-nr-4-2016

För att ladda ner hela tidningen, klicka här:

http://www.esbri.se/pdf/entre/4_2016.pdf

A research mention in “Vårt Land”

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.

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Microfinance does not eradicate poverty

Translated from original article in norwegian found here.

 

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.

Financial illiteracy

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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.

MTI Investment, investing in the growth of Eastern Africa

We are launching our website now for MTI Investment.

www.mti-investment.com

“Mti” is Swahili for tree – symbolizing MTI’s focus on growing companies, with the potential to bear fruit from our long-term efforts of investing, coaching, mentoring and monitoring our portfolio companies.

 MTI Investment is a Tanzanian/Nordic investment company founded by Professor Trond Randøy, PhD candidate/MSc. Pontus Engström, Dr Neema Mori and Dr Gibson Munisi. Since 2012 the team has been seeking investment opportunities in Tanzania, and built the relational infrastructure with key stakeholders such as universities, legal advisers and local firms. In early 2014 the company was formally incorporated and the first initial investments were performed.

 What makes MTI Investment unique is our university-based approach to investing. We seek businesses that are run by highly competent university-educated managers and owners, and we capitalize on our university-based networks to help these businesses further excel. By being university-based we are able to be at the forefront of knowledge creation and entrepreneurship in East Africa.