When Grace Ogunleye saw that children in her community needed more affordable opportunities to get a good education, she decided to open a day school. Her school, called Immaculate Grace Academy, includes a nursery, primary and secondary school, and is located in Agbado Ijaye — a densely-populated suburb in the outskirts of Lagos.

Like educators worldwide, Grace had to close down unexpectedly due to the pandemic. She worried that her students — ages four to 16 years old — risked falling behind. And a months-long school closure meant that, if she couldn’t find a way to make ends meet while school fees were frozen, she could be forced to make difficult decisions with life-changing ramifications for her students and their parents.

After several months, Immaculate Grace Academy reopened in September — only to close again in October due to protests in Nigeria. Grace worked with our partner Accion Microfinance Bank (Accion MfB) to grow her school when she first opened. Now, she’s relying on them for support during a challenging time.

Accion MfB has responded to Grace’s needs — and the needs of all their clients — during the pandemic by adapting loan repayments, accelerating digital support, and offering new resources to build community well-being. Accion MfB’s response has helped ensure the survival of businesses in sectors central to community resilience, including healthcare and education, and helped them continue sustaining local economies.

Adapting lending for a global pandemic

Accion MfB’s clients who have been hit especially hard by the pandemic include industries most impacted by lockdowns and social distancing: travel and logistics, education, imports and exports, and those selling goods in enclosed markets.

Early in the pandemic, Accion MfB put in place moratoriums ranging from 30 days to 180 days to ease the burden on customers whose businesses were disrupted and give them the time they need to pay off their loans. Accion MfB provided an interest rate discount for those customers who could continue repayments on schedule despite the disruptions to business and income. This discount encouraged customers to continue repayments and made Accion MfB’s cash flow more predictable.

Digital is critical to reaching small businesses

Embracing digital platforms and tools is critical for microfinance institutions like Accion MfB and their clients to survive and continue operating through this crisis. In many ways, the pandemic accelerated the shift to digital.

Thankfully, Accion MfB’s digital products and channels were already up and running before the onset of the pandemic, including a mobile app that allows customers to access financial services remotely. Clients can use the app to purchase phone airtime, make transfers, and keep up with their loan repayments. Accion MfB boosted marketing to encourage broader use of their digital channels. Their customers quickly embraced these platforms, and interbank transfers and mobile airtime purchases made through the app have increased far beyond pre-pandemic levels.

For customers who couldn’t access digital channels or safely visit a branch, Accion MfB sent agents who could support them. They’re now working on expanding their agent network even further to bring financial services for customers in hard-to-reach locations.

Building community well-being in a difficult time

Accion MfB has also leveraged its digital tools and channels to provide supplementary resources for communities that need support. They hosted a series of free webinars to address a wide range of their clients’ concerns, including those related to health care, economics, business management strategies, mental health, and more.

The webinars have been well attended, with the most recent about supporting mental health during the pandemic drawing more than 900 participants. They’ve also organized one-on-one sessions between a doctor and Accion MfB’s customers to provide them with individualized advice for the variety of challenges they face.

Accion MfB has taken a multifaceted and flexible approach to support families, businesses, and communities coping with a surge of unprecedented challenges. When small businesses owners like Grace Ogunleye receive the help they need to stay resilient during crisis, their communities also benefit. According to Chief Commercial Officer Ndubuisi Onuoha, “Empowerment is not just about providing financial support. It also entails providing relevant and appropriate resources for customers to thrive.”

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