Mastercard and Unilever CEOs: How We Can Help Microbusinesses Grow

A microfinance meeting in a village in Burkina Faso.
UBTEC NGO microfinance meeting in a village near Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso. (Photo by: Godong/UIG via Getty Images)
Godong—UIG via Getty Images

There are somewhere between 365 and 445 million micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) in emerging economies. They are the backbones of their local economies and a key driver of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—promoting inclusive growth, decent work for all, and innovation.

Yet too many small business owners remain disconnected from the vital networks and resources they need to thrive in today’s economy.

When we speak to small shop owners, we hear that access to affordable credit is their biggest barrier to growth. As of 2017, 70% of women-owned small- and medium-sized businesses in the developing world do not have access to adequate financing. This represents a $300 billion credit gap each year.

Some progress has already been made to close the gap. Governments around the world have made it a priority to improve the availability of digital financial services, with 50 countries setting formal targets. Private companies have also stepped in to work with governments and NGOs to reach more people and run trials on new models.

But to achieve scale and long-term growth, it will be crucial to bring together tools, data insights, and partnerships from across different sectors to change the model of small business financing. For example, Mastercard and Unilever are working together on new lending models for micro merchants in Kenya. The journey starts with a storeowner who is buying products from a distributor and needs to sell all their products in order to buy some more supplies and feed their family. The cash nature of the business essentially prohibits their ability to obtain a credit line, which is necessary to grow the business.

Our companies have combined forces to create a safe digital platform for merchants to access and use low-risk micro-credit, which is underwritten by a local bank. By digitizing information from suppliers and local distributors, we can analyze merchants’ purchase history and transform it into a proxy for credit.

The impact of such a platform on small shopkeepers, their families, and their wider communities can be transformative. For example, Lucy, a single mother of two, has been a retailer for 10 years. Her store represents her only source of income. Participation in this program means that she can buy more products, giving her access to formal credit services and increasing her customer footfall. She now feels confident about meeting her family’s financial needs—including her children’s education—and is providing better service to her community.

Inclusive growth over the long term is our goal, which is why we are placing equal emphasis on also providing these business owners with training on how to manage their finances and inventory, as well as giving them the marketing skills and techniques to attract customers and drive sales.

We want other companies and private sector leaders to join us in this collaborative approach to inclusive growth—and create a true network effect that will bring about change. This is not about philanthropy. The ideas of doing well and doing good are not mutually exclusive. Companies need to understand that there is a strong business case for working together to put people on a path to prosperity.

Many societal challenges—such as the management of utilities, transportation, agriculture, schools, tourism, and health care—can be tackled successfully through the right partnerships. We need to work together to ensure no one is left behind.

Ajay Banga is the president and CEO of Mastercard. Paul Polman is the CEO of Unilever.

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