Aurélie Feld moved from the corporate world two years ago to become the Deputy Managing Director of a growing microfinance NGO, PlaNet Finance. While the two environments have quite a lot in common, there is something about microfinance that makes professionals surpass their field expertise and delve into issues such as education, environment or health.
What made you transfer from working for a management consulting firm to an NGO?
PlaNet Finance was my pro bono client when I was a project manager at McKinsey. I led a team of consultants working on PlaNet Finance’s strategic planning in 2008, and kept in touch with the management team thereafter. Early 2010, as I was deciding to leave McKinsey, I helped PlaNet Finance put together a transformation plan, to further professionalize and structure the NGO. Eventually, they asked me to come on board to implement it as Deputy CEO, and I accepted. The rest, as they say, is history…
What is your experience of the differences between these two work environments?
The development world has professionalized a lot lately, in line with the development of more professional Social Responsibility within private funders and the stronger focus of public funders on aid efficacy & efficiency. Moreover, since PlaNet Finance is a consulting & finance-oriented NGO, probably has a bit of a different DNA & work environment than other NGOs…
In short, there is not that much of a difference in terms of work environment between McKinsey & PlaNet Finance, as strange as it may seem. Both places have teams of incredibly driven professionals who are fully dedicated to impact – even if the nature of the impact greatly differs. McKinsey might be a bit more of a well-oiled machine & PlaNet Finance has a bit of an “artisan” touch, but part of that difference could be age (PlaNet Finance is only 13 years old), and not only means…
Both organizations have a rather young age average, are very diverse in terms of the cultures, nationalities, backgrounds, languages, etc... Both organizations have an international footprint (even if PlaNet Finance’s network is smaller and mostly in the developing world). If I had to pinpoint a strong difference, the only thing that comes to mind is the dress code, and that’s not exactly major.
In what ways does PlaNet Finance carry out its mission of “alleviating poverty around the world by enabling the access to financial services to those who are excluded therefrom”?
PlaNet Finance has two main activities:
(1) Microfinance+ targets micro-entrepreneurs more directly, in order to help them start & grow their revenue-generating activity. We provide micro entrepreneurs with the necessary tools, including training & access to finance. We also help them organize in groups, cooperatives, so as to enable them to share best practices. We structure value chains, such as the Shea butter value chain in Ghana, so as to enable the initial producers to maximize their share of the value chain revenues.
(2) Microfinance & Consulting advises the entire microfinance ecosystem (microfinance institutions, banks, governments, funders, etc…). We help build capacity in microfinance institutions so as to enable them to better serve more clients, especially in rural areas. We use technology (mobile, geolocation) to increase financial inclusion, and give poor unbanked people access to financial products & services.
How does microfinance play a role in areas such as health, education and environmental protection?
In access to health, microfinance plays a dual role. First, through microinsurance, it is possible to offer affordable health insurance schemes to the bottom of the pyramid, even if adoption is still problematic today. Second, people with diseases also need access to finance, and specific loan & other financial products that are compatible with their affliction/their risk profile. For example, PlaNet Finance is involved in a project in Niger, which aims at enabling people with sickle cell disease to create & grow their revenue-generating activity. We also work with people with AIDS in Senegal & Benin.
Education: in developing countries, a lot of youth, especially females don’t have access to education, which in turn makes it difficult for them to gain employment opportunities. Their only chance at a better future is to create and grow their own revenue-generating activity. We give them trainings in accounting/business development services, and, in partnership with other NGOs/vocational schools, technical training. We accompany them in the creation of their activity and in gaining access to finance through partner microfinance institutions.
Environmental protection: the bottom of the pyramid also needs access to energy, clean/renewable energy if possible. In partnership with microfinance institutions and clean energy solutions manufacturers, PlaNet Finance develops programs that substitute solar panels, solar ovens, energy-efficient ovens, etc… to fossil fuels. Usually, the loan product is structured as follows: monthly repayment = monthly fossil fuel bill, which means that once the loan is paid back, the family or the business saves the equivalent. For example, a recent project, Rendev, which won an EU prize in 2009, aimed at equipping rural villages with solar panels, thus enabling children to study and women to have a revenue-generating activity at home after sunset. It also created microenterprises (assembly, installation & maintenance of solar panels), and extra revenue for small local shops (energy-efficient light bulbs).
Which of the projects you work on are you the most passionate about?
I am passionate about PlaNet Finance in general, but if I had to choose three projects, they would be the following:
Internally, professionalizing the NGO and growing its people, which was my initial mandate when I joined. I strongly believe it is our duty as an NGO to be as efficient and professional as possible in using the funds that are granted to us, towards maximum impact.
In our project portfolio, I would mention two emblematic projects.
First, financial transparency: this is one of the themes that we are pushing in our Microfinance & Consulting activity, for which we recently published a best practice guide. It all started with a project in 4 countries in West Africa on which we worked with 10 microfinance institutions. It aimed at enabling them to produce good quality financial statements, periodic reports & dashboards, leverage them in their decision-making, etc... We will replicate it in Cape Verde soon and hopefully in other countries.
Second, the Star Shea network: this is a project that we started with our partner SAP, in rural areas in Northern Ghana. The objective is to structure the Shea value chain to maximize revenue for women gatherers. We started with production & drying techniques, added price transparency to enable women to negotiate at arm’s length with intermediaries. The next step was to deal with seasonality of prices, which are low when the women need the revenue in April and much higher in September. A microfinance institution now grants a loan to the women in April, which they pay back in September when they actually sell their Shea production. The next step, which is access to international markets, is the one we are currently adding to the project through the creation of a social business – a commercialization platform. The final step, which we’ll get to next, will involve helping the women equip themselves with machines that transform the nuts into Shea butter, thus adding the transformation premium to their share of revenues.