Low-income communities around the world are facing extreme economic headwinds today. Rising costs are making it harder to buy everyday essentials. Tangled supply chains are dragging on small businesses. And an uneven recovery from the pandemic is worsening economic divides.

How can we empower vulnerable communities with the financial tools they need to recover and rebuild? What solutions have the most potential to create change? And how can we best harness the power of innovation to make lasting progress?

Earlier this month, more than 60 leaders spanning fintech, microfinance, ecommerce, insurance, regulation, and beyond gathered on the Harvard Business School (HBS) campus for the HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance to discuss these questions. The program provided a unique space for professionals from varying places and backgrounds to engage with renowned thinkers and peers around a common goal: leveraging inclusive financial services and innovation to unlock opportunities for those who’ve been excluded and left out.

I spoke with six participants of this year’s program to hear how they are confronting today’s challenges through their work — and their priorities for rebuilding a more inclusive world.

Creating an enabling ecosystem

For Beth Hurvitz, Senior Vice President for Global Social Impact at Visa, the goal of her team’s efforts in economic inclusion is reaching “full participation.” She explained, “That means people and small businesses can take full advantage of the economy.”

To reach that goal, Beth said, we need to create an ecosystem that enables underserved people to easily gain value from new digital and financial tools. “First, you need access from a technology perspective. But you also need trust, and trust comes with knowledge. It all needs to come together.” For that reason, Beth and her team at Visa are focusing on financial education programs to “meet people where they are,” on their financial and digital journeys — and ensure they can use new tools effectively.

Nadia Boughaba, Senior Project Manager for Products and Data at AXA, an international insurance provider, also emphasized the need for leaders to think beyond access, and focus on creating products that clients need and want to use. “We have to have a compelling value proposition,” she said. “How can we make the protection of insurance more tangible to the customer?”

To encourage more people to start building their financial resilience through insurance, Nadia and her team at AXA are adding service offerings to make insurance more relevant to clients’ needs. “We are seeking to protect against more frequent risks like hospitalization and natural disasters, which help customers better manage their health and their businesses if an event occurs.”

Shayne Rose Bulos, a climate risk insurance and financial inclusion consultant, is working to help rural farmers build resilience to the threats of climate change through crop insurance. But gaps in the ecosystem create challenges. “Right now, in rural areas, majority of farmers haven’t started using mobile money accounts because the ecosystem isn’t ready yet,” she explained. “But if a catastrophe happens, it will limit access to cash. So, it’s important that they have online accounts that they can tap for their immediate needs.”

The promise of innovation

To help bridge the gaps in the ecosystem, Shayne pointed to the promise of data and innovation. “The future of economic inclusion is digital based,” she said, explaining how protecting rural farmers against climate threats requires better data, especially weather data, so that insurers and governments know how and when to provide relief. Moreover, data and analytics can also pave way to access to formal financing during catastrophes. “Leveraging big data will make credit scoring and underwriting efficient, and it reduce the cost of credit and insurance,” she said.

Alejandro Gumucio, National Manager of Innovation and Digital Transformation for BancoSol, the largest microfinance provider in Bolivia, described how digital innovation is essential to support clients who are innovating themselves. “What we’re seeing in our segment is that people are very adaptable to economic change,” he said. “One day they were manufacturing shirts and pants, and the next day they are manufacturing biosecurity suits and masks.”

To ensure BancoSol is equipping their hardworking clients with the tools they need, Alejandro said that “the use of data is the most promising innovation.” He added, “Data is going to give us insights that we didn’t know were there, and we will be able to create products and services more tailored to our customers.”

Juliet Anammah, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chairwoman for Jumia, a major pan-African ecommerce platform, also highlighted a promising use-case of data analytics. “Through a study Jumia conducted with IFC, we discovered that 51 percent of sellers on our platform in Nigeria and Kenya are women,” she said. “But during the pandemic, they didn’t access loan opportunities on our platform as much as men, and they suffered a decline in sales.”

To address this issue revealed by the data, Juliet’s team is working with IFC to design a training program geared for women business owners, which will help them better understand business and financial fundamentals of operating online. “If women knew more, and understood more about the opportunities available to them, they will take advantage of those opportunities and be able to expand their businesses,” said Juliet.

Data innovation can also strengthen the work of regulators and supervisors, according to Mayada El-Zoghbi, Managing Director of the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion. “We see big potential in supervisors using technology-enabled supervisory tools, or ‘suptech’ to monitor market conduct and to improve the likelihood of responsible market development,” she said.

A perfect storm

While vulnerable people are still facing extreme challenges in the wake of the pandemic, we are quickly gaining the insights and tools to needed reach and empower them. Beth Hurvitz said that the unique urgency of this moment has created “a perfect storm,” for those working to advance economic inclusion around the world.

“It’s an amazing time to be doing the work we’re doing,” she said. “The world is seeing the need, and feeling the accountability for that need. And at the same time, technology and innovation is accelerating. We have at our fingertips the chance to reach millions and billions of people that we haven’t reached before.”

But to tackle today’s evolving challenges, working together is essential. “We believe that this unique moment in history requires all actors to do their part,” said Mayada El-Zoghbi. “Providers can only do so much to address the challenges of the pandemic and climate risks.  Policymakers, regulators, investors, and development actors all need to do their part to ensure that innovation is harnessed responsibly, and that it supports the safety and stability of the financial system.”

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