Our History

Our History

Accion's history

Accion was founded in 1961 to empower the poor with the knowledge and tools to improve their lives. Begun as a grassroots community development initiative in 22 shantytowns in Venezuela, Accion today is a global nonprofit committed to creating a financially inclusive world, with a pioneering legacy in microfinance and fintech impact investing. Accion’s network of partners spans Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the United States, and has helped provide tens of millions of people with the financial tools they need to build better lives. Though Accion’s approach has changed over the years, the driving force behind our mission remains the same.

We still aim to serve hardworking men and women who are left out of, or poorly served by, the formal financial system. It is their courage and ingenuity, and the tremendous power of their dreams, which continue to inspire us in the search for full financial inclusion.

Founded in 1961

Accion's Early Days

Accion was founded in 1961 by a UC Berkeley law student named Joseph Blatchford. A bold and charismatic young man, he was fresh off a goodwill tennis and jazz tour of 30 cities in Latin America when he began to wonder how young Americans might better serve the causes of both global understanding and democracy.

In his travels through the social strata of Latin America, Blatchford had encountered alarming upheaval. Much of Latin America was reeling from a confluence of social and economic changes: faltering paternalistic governments, an end to the traditional feudal system of rural land ownership, and an influx of migrants to urban areas that produced overcrowded, unsanitary, and untenable shantytowns. Violence and unrest were in the air, and much of the ire was directed at the United States.

Reading the works of Alexis de Tocqueville, Aldous Huxley, and Mohandas Gandhi as well as The Ugly American by UC Berkeley professor Eugene Burdick and the classic essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” by William James, Blatchford’s philosophical approach and plan for action began to take shape. Working from James’ main thesis, he believed that Americans needed to find new, non-militaristic ways to focus their involvement abroad while promoting self-determination and democracy. A volunteer corps dedicated to international cooperation and grassroots development was one such path.

Blatchford recruited two other standout UC Berkeley law students, Jerry Brady and Gary Glenn, to manage volunteer recruitment, publicity, and stateside orientation of volunteers while he continued to cultivate contacts in Latin America and relay his vision to prospective donors in both North and South America.

In the summer of 1961, the first group of 30 Americans was ready to deploy to poor barrios in urban centers around Venezuela.

The nature of Accion’s first projects reflected needs that the communities themselves identified as priorities. The Accion workers spent long days doing everything from digging ditches to building schools to fundraising to managing sensitive negotiations between opposing community leaders. About the range of these early projects, Blatchford reflects, “The project depended on what the community was concerned about. Then the community did it, they created committees and were in charge of the project. They realized they could do it and it changed their lives.”

“They realized they could do it and it changed their lives.”

But for Accion volunteers and staff, the work was never about the projects themselves. Rather, they set out to help disenfranchised communities realize the power they possessed when they worked together. A 1969 annual report explains, “Accion’s projects are a vehicle by which the people of the slums have been able to become full participants in the life of their country.”

Microlending in the 1970s

By the early 1970s, Accion’s leaders were beginning to focus on addressing the major cause of poverty in Latin American cities: lack of economic opportunity. The employment situation in the urban centers was dire. Forced off land they had farmed for generations and drawn by the mirage of industrial employment, tens of thousands of rural migrants were arriving in Latin America’s cities each year. Once there, however, they found jobs scarce. The few that were available often did not pay a living wage. Unable to find work and lacking a social safety net, many of these urban poor started their own small enterprises. They wove belts, banged out pots, and sold potatoes. But they had no way to expand their tiny businesses.

In 1973, Accion staff in Recife, Brazil, began to focus their efforts on helping informal businesses. If these small-scale entrepreneurs could borrow capital at commercial interest rates, they wondered, could they lift themselves out of poverty? An Accion organization in Recife called UNO coined the term “microenterprise” and began issuing small loans. To our knowledge, these were the first loans that launched the field of microcredit.

The experiment in Recife was a success. Within four years, the organization had provided 885 loans, helping to create or stabilize 1,386 new jobs. Accion had found a way to generate new wealth for the working poor of Latin America.

1980s-1990s

Over the next decade, Accion helped start microfinance programs in 14 countries in Latin America. Accion and its partners developed a lending method that met the distinct needs of microenterprises. Small, short-term loans built confidence and a credit record; site visits replaced paperwork.

With a loan repayment rate of 97 percent — a statistic that has held up for decades all around the world — Accion’s clients soon shattered the myth that the poor were bad credit risks. Given access to affordable capital, they could and would improve their lives.

Accion soon found that microlending had another revolutionary quality: it paid for itself. The interest each borrower paid helped cover the cost of lending to another.

The ability to cover costs, augmented by Accion’s new loan guarantee fund, the Bridge Fund, enabled Accion’s partners to connect with the local banking sector and dramatically increase the number of microentrepreneurs they reached. Between 1989 and 1995, the amount of money loaned by Accion’s Latin American Network multiplied more than 20 times. Yet Accion was reaching less than two percent of the microentrepreneurs in need of its services.

Accion remained convinced that microfinance had the potential to transform the economic landscape of Latin America. To do so, however, Accion knew that microfinance institutions (MFIs) would need access to a much larger pool of capital.

Lending in the U.S. launches in 1991

In 1991, concerned about growing economic inequality in the United States, Accion brought its microlending model home by piloting a program in Brooklyn, New York. Accion aimed to help those who didn’t meet requirements for traditional financing (such as bank loans) because their requested amount was too small or because they had limited or damaged credit. Accion partnered with these entrepreneurs to build healthy enterprises, gain economic security, and contribute to their community.

Accion has since worked to further adapt its lending model to the social and economic needs of communities across the United States. We now serve small businesses nationwide through four independent community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and a national office that invests in shared knowledge, innovation, and impact to benefit the entire network.

Since 1991, the members of Accion in the U.S. have provided more than 60,000 loans to enterprising small business owners and disbursed more than $500 million in capital. Additionally, Accion provides business advising and training services — both in person and through online educational resources — to tens of thousands of entrepreneurs each year.

2000 new millennium, new horizons

In October 2000, Accion began working in partnership with microlending organizations in sub-Saharan Africa, marking its first initiative outside the Americas. Recognizing the vital need for microcredit throughout Africa, Accion committed itself to increasing financial inclusion for poor, self-employed Africans throughout the continent. In 2006, Accion launched a landmark partnership with Ecobank, the leading regional bank in West Africa. Pan-African Savings and Loans (then called EB-Accion Savings and Loans) launched operations in Ghana in 2007 and is expanding to neighboring countries.

In 2005, Accion set off on a new venture to reach another vast, underserved group: urban small business owners in India. Since establishing an office in Bangalore, Accion has partnered with local financial institutions in Patna and Mumbai, guiding them in applying individual and group lending and tailored credit scoring, among other microfinance methodologies. In India, as elsewhere, Accion’s work is built on the premise that sustainable, responsible institutions beget empowered clients able to improve their futures for the long term.

Aided by returns from our investment, through the Accion Gateway Fund, in Mexican partner Compartamos Banco, Accion began pursuing new projects, including creating a critical strategic reserve, developing new products and technologies, increasing staff recruitment and training, launching new initiatives around the world, and investing in less-mature MFIs to bring microfinance to even more of the world’s entrepreneurial poor.

Accion establishes the Center for Financial Inclusion

In particular, Accion established the Center for Financial Inclusion (CFI) in 2008, an “action tank” focused on advancing the commercial model of microfinance while upholding the interests and needs of poor clients worldwide.

Today, CFI works with a wide variety of actors — microfinance experts, banks, investors, regulators, technology firms, universities, and others — to address challenges related to financial inclusion. CFI staff members collaborate with experts across industries, many of whom have not yet applied their strengths to microfinance or worked at the same table; to research, develop, and share solutions that enhance the lives of the world’s poor. CFI’s goal is to connect the microfinance community with the major drivers of the global economy — capital markets and technology — and harness their capabilities to address the financial needs of poor people. By bringing these elements together, CFI serves as a bridge between today’s microfinance and a future of economic opportunity for all.

Accion expands in 2009

In 2009 and 2010, Accion continued to expand its reach around the globe. Key milestones included helping to start microfinance institutions in underserved areas of Inner Mongolia, Cameroon, and Brazil to empower the financially underserved in those regions with high-quality, affordable financial services.

In December 2009, Accion inaugurated Accion Microfinance China (AMC) in Chifeng Prefecture, Inner Mongolia; this microfinance institution represented the first wholly-owned foreign microcredit company (MCC), and only the second wholly foreign-owned MCC in the country. Since then, Accion transitioned ownership of AMC to Grassland Finance Ltd., a Hong Kong holding company incorporated in 2011 with a focus on founding or investing in financial services institutions in China that provide loans and other financial services to China’s vast number of medium, small, and micro enterprises (MSMEs). Today, Grassland has grown to more than 15 branches across six provinces.

Accion Venture Lab lanches in 2012

In April 2012, Accion launched Accion Venture Lab, its seed-stage impact investment initiative in fintech for the underserved. Venture Lab invests capital in, and provides support to, innovative fintech start-ups that increase access to, improve the quality of, or reduce the cost of financial services for the underserved at scale. Since launching, Venture Lab has deployed over $10 million across more than 30 startups that work in over 20 countries worldwide.

Accion expands work to Myanmar

Accion expanded its work to yet another country in April 2015 when we partnered with Myanmar’s DAWN, a microfinance institution originally launched in 2002 as a program of Save the Children. After decades of isolation beginning in the 1960s, Myanmar rejoined the world economy with a tremendous need for high-quality, affordable services. Accion has helped DAWN integrate new technologies, triple its loan portfolio, and expand to more branches. We believe that our work with DAWN will have broader, catalytic effects across the entire country and encourage additional investments, innovation, and progress for Myanmar’s financially underserved.

Accion Frontier Inclusion Fund

In March 2017, Accion announced the launch of the first global fintech fund for the underserved: the Accion Frontier Inclusion Fund, managed by Quona Capital. The Fund aims to help the world’s three billion financially underserved people by catalyzing fintech innovations that can radically improve the quality and availability of financial services for the underserved. At its launch, the Fund represented over $141 million in commitments from an array of leading institutional investors; these unprecedented commitments signal fintech’s ability to help the underserved and signaled investors’ eagerness to support these solutions. Accion is the Fund’s sponsor and anchor investor; the Fund’s manager, Quona Capital, is an early growth-stage venture firm focused on financial technology for underserved consumers and businesses in emerging markets.

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