We’re in the middle of a fintech boom that could change the world. As a seed-stage investor in fintech for the underserved, Accion Venture Lab continues to see innovative startups increasing access to, reducing the cost of, or improving the quality of financial services for underserved individuals and small businesses around the world.

As we kick off a new year, we’re particularly excited about seven areas of startup-led innovation.

Digital neobanks

SmartMEI is a digital neobank serving small businesses in Brazil
SmartMEI is a digital neobank serving small businesses in Brazil

In the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of a number of digital neobanks. Neobanks offer a user-friendly digital interface and a platform for financial services without maintaining their own banking licenses. With a focus on user experience and digital applications, neobanks stand to offer faster and better service to the underserved. Moving forward, neobanks will need to provide both a compelling product for a targeted customer segment and a suite of offerings that go beyond basic accounts or credit cards to retain customers and improve unit economics. Innovators in this space include NOW Money, which offers migrant workers in the UAE a platform to more efficiently transfer remittances and access to other products and services over time, and SmartMEI, which offers small businesses in Brazil a free tax tool and access to a broader set of financial services.

Next gen small business finance solutions

Around the world, micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) struggle to access capital. Estimates suggest that 200 to 245 million formal and informal small businesses either don’t have a loan or have one but are still constrained by their access to financing. Startups have been developing creative ways to acquire, underwrite, and fund these businesses. Some of the most innovative models today are embedding themselves into supply chains and working with a partner in that supply chain to identify MSMEs in need of financing and to obtain existing data that can support credit decision-making. These companies include Tienda Pago, which partners with major consumer good distributors in Peru and Mexico to extend short-term working capital to small stores for inventory purchases, and Lidya, which works through partners in Nigeria to provide invoice discounting and supply chain financing to small businesses.

Insurtech for the underserved

Low-income consumers in emerging markets need insurance products to manage and mitigate financial risks, but serving those customers poses significant challenges — from cost-effectively reaching and educating consumers, to accurately assessing and pricing risks, to efficiently managing claims. Startups can play a critical role in solving those challenges with products intended to address specific risks for underserved communities, new distribution channels to reach these populations, and new streams of data to more effectively assess and price risk. Insurtech innovators include Lumkani, which sells a low-cost heat detector bundled with insurance to households in South African informal settlements that protect against loss of life, shelter, and assets, and Togarantido, which serves as an online-based insurance broker focused on the underserved in Brazil.

Financial services for smallholder farmers

Smallholder farmers remain notoriously difficult to reach and are often considered high-risk clients since their incomes are tied to unpredictable harvests. An estimated 270 million smallholder farmers around the world face a financing gap of $170 billion. Innovators addressing this need can provide real value — by helping farmers finance irrigation pumps, combat pests, or address climate risks. Startups in this space include Apollo Agriculture, which leverages satellite imagery, data science, and mobile money to finance fertilizer and seeds needed to increase crop yields, and Pula, which works with large seed and fertilizer suppliers across Africa to bundle crop insurance in with product purchases.

Asset finance

The Paygo team at work on their smart meter for cooking gas
The Paygo team at work on their smart meter for cooking gas

Individuals and small businesses require financing for assets like medical equipment, smartphones, and solar home systems to increase efficiency and improve lives. One promising innovation in this space is pay-as-you-go financing, which allows consumers and business owners to make small upfront payments and regular “top-ups,” usually sent via mobile money. The model has already led to a rapid expansion in solar home systems across emerging markets. Other scalable models for asset financing leverage new distribution and payment approaches like layaway solutions, leasing models, and peer-to-peer transfers. Paygo Energy is a promising company in this space; its pay-as-you-go financing model enables low-income customers in Kenya to pre-pay for cleaner and more affordable cooking gas.

All-digital consumer lending

Recent years have seen digital consumer lenders emerge and scale by using simple apps to collect and analyze customer data to provide access to credit for underserved populations. The speed and accessibility of digital platforms enable credit access for consumers who are underserved by traditional lenders and who might otherwise be too costly to serve. Innovators could add value to the sector with new approaches to credit underwriting and consumer engagement that lower defaults and improve retention — two of the critical challenges to the app-based lending model. SmartCoin offers new engagement tools alongside its mobile lending platform to better understand and serve its customers in India, and Tez provides an all-digital banking platform with a full suite of products to low-income consumers in Pakistan.

Consumer financial health

In 2016, the Federal Reserve revealed a concerning statistic about financial health in the U.S.: 46 percent of Americans said they could not pull together $400 to cover an emergency. Startups are providing solutions that help consumers manage their day-to-day financial lives and rebound from shocks. There is significant potential for innovators to leverage behavioral science to design new solutions such as clever nudges, useful automation, gamification, or bundling across different financial products. Innovators in this space include Lendstreet, which focuses on financial health by providing U.S. consumers a platform to restructure and refinance their distressed debt and rebuild their credit, and Destacame, which empowers users in Mexico and Chile with control of their data to build their financial capabilities and access better financial products.

Each of these areas of start-up-led innovation offers significant potential for both social impact for underserved consumers and financial profit in 2018. We’re excited to see what’s next.