As the global coronavirus pandemic threatens the livelihoods of millions around the world, our mission to give people the financial tools they need is more urgent than ever. The populations we serve are particularly vulnerable right now, without access to affordable healthcare, savings, or loans to stay solvent in a crisis. As the whole world faces this challenge, we have an opportunity to learn from each other and improve how we offer inclusive financial services to those who need them. We’re committed to sharing the knowledge we have to help our global community remain resilient.

While we aggregate and share resources across the globe, we’ve been working closely with two of our partners in China, Grassland Finance Limited and CD Finance, and learning from their experience. Before the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, it hit China, devastating some areas and creating challenges for small businesses everywhere. After a two-month nationwide lockdown to contain the virus, businesses have reopened across China. Though China is very unique in many aspects, as other nations are facing this same contagion, we can learn from China’s experience.

We recently hosted a webinar for our partners with Ms. Hooi Koon Seah, COO of Grassland Finance Limited, and Mr. Dongwen Liu, CEO of CD Finance, and they shared their top lessons learned from navigating this crisis:

Protect the wellbeing of staff and clients

Above all else, prioritize the safety of employees and clients. By taking the virus seriously and taking immediate action, organizations can protect both their business and their clients. Institutions must comply with all official quarantine requirements and health protocols to protect employees and customers. Grassland and CD Finance adjusted their budgets as needed to increase the number of protective masks and cleaning supplies available to staff in regions that were hit harder by the virus. “Most of all, we want our staff to know that they belong and that the company holds their wellbeing as the highest priority,” said Ms. Seah.

Communication is critical

While in-person contact is restricted, maintaining a close connection with employees through other communication channels ensures that they feel secure and supported. Good communication channels should be in place for both employees and clients to stay connected while working remotely. In China, the top digital communication platforms were already widely adopted and became critical for both employees and clients to stay in touch. Our partners in China found that using these existing platforms helped them stay connected to clients. Mr. Liu notes, “It’s really important for our clients to recover their business in the coming days. What we can do is to have a close connection with them and ask what kind of support we can give to them and help them to recover their abilities gradually.”

Develop and execute emergency plans immediately

Companies need to identify possible worst-case situations and determine how they will respond. Now is the time for the financial services industry to take this crisis seriously and make every effort to support their staff and clients. The crisis moves fast, and its effects are far-reaching. By being prepared in advance and unafraid to act quickly and boldly, financial service providers can help their customers stay afloat through an unprecedented challenge.

Evaluate risk by sector and develop segment-specific response plans

Due to dramatically reduced cash flow during and after the lockdown, overdue loan payments increased greatly. Grassland learned in an impact assessment conducted with support from Accion that the crisis hit certain sectors harder than others and required a differentiated strategy for each. Depending on the sector and market, Grassland Finance prolonged the payment period, granted additional loans, or deferred loan repayments.

The agricultural sector faced unique challenges during the lockdown, which occurred during the planting season. Farmers faced challenges in securing the agricultural inputs they needed, like fertilizers. CD Finance was able to disburse $5 million USD in loans for farmers to buy fertilizers through a partnership with an agricultural inputs company.

Focus on building digital capacity

As this crisis unfolded, China had several factors working in its favor for business to continue. Digital payment and e-commerce platforms like WeChat Pay and Alipay are widely adopted, reducing the need for cash. With good infrastructure in place, including electricity, telecommunications networks, and internet access, many employees were already equipped to work remotely.

During the national lockdown, loan officers were unable to visit clients, and clients were unable to visit banks. Mobile communications and digital payment options were critical. Educating customers about digital payment platforms reduces dependence on cash. CD Finance relied on their existing digital platform to manage payments. Based on previous loan history and credit assessments, they were able to make quick determinations on whether or not to offer credit and loan extensions through this digital channel.

Every market will face unique difficulties and China has some aspects that enable it to act faster and more effectively than other countries. Yet, these insights can help as financial service providers guide their clients through this hard time. As we continue to face daunting challenges, know that there will be a time for recovery. “Although the disaster remains a serious challenge for both financial institutions and small businesses, we should stay remain optimistic. We believe that things are slowly getting better in China, and it will be in the rest of the world as well. This can be an opportunity where we show our worth and commitment to our mission,” says Ms. Seah. We know that Accion’s mission is more urgent than ever, and we will continue to share as many resources as we can to help underserved populations to endure the pandemic.

View Accion’s recommendations for financial service providers on protecting customers, employees, and business operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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