Many uncertainties surround the COVID-19 pandemic, but one thing is clear: this crisis affects all people, no matter their nationality, race, age, gender, or socioeconomic status. We want to help our partners prepare and adapt to disruptions in their communities so they can continue to serve the people who need help the most. ​One way we’re doing that is by connecting with our colleagues from different countries, business models, and levels of digital capacity to learn from the ways they’re navigating this crisis.

This week, we convened partners from across the globe to hear their experiences, challenges, and recommendations in a webinar. Kurt Koenigsfest, CEO of BancoSol in Bolivia, Neil Welman, CTO & Co-Founder of Lulalend in South Africa, and Dibyajyoti Pattanaik, Executive Director of Annapurna Finance in India, joined us to share how they’re adapting in this uncertain time.

A commercial bank is bridging the digital divide in Bolivia

When Bolivia enacted a country-wide lockdown to stave off the spread of the new coronavirus, it mandated three types of businesses to remain in operation: grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks. BancoSol, a 30-year-old commercial bank with a microfinance focus, needed to take swift action to empower branch workers and continue serving clients safely. BancoSol’s business model relies on daily human interaction at brick-and-mortar branches. To continue their service during the pandemic, BancoSol’s crisis committee is prioritizing the safety of front office staff by taking proper sanitization, social distancing, and protective measures within their open branches.

Before the virus outbreak began, BancoSol had digital banking options in place, but most clients had not fully adopted them. Now, about half of their transactions are digital, but the rest are still in person. BancoSol CEO Kurt Koenigsfest expects the percentage of digital transactions to continuously rise during and after the pandemic.

When the bank launched its network of ATMs throughout Bolivia ten years ago, employees found that they needed to take each client to ATMs to teach them how to use the machine. Today, the vast majority of BancoSol’s clients already have smartphones and are generally more prepared to adapt to new digital services. Younger clients in urban areas have adopted BancoSol’s banking apps quickly, but older clients in rural areas often find digital services more challenging. To bridge the digital divide for these clients, BancoSol has quickly increased phone-based support for clients that need help setting up digital accounts. They’re even meeting clients where they already are — virtually — by providing online tutorials through social media platforms for those who are online but uncomfortable with digital financial services.

A digitally native fintech in South Africa moves staff fully online

Even digital-based companies need to take quick steps to move their businesses online and maintain operations seamlessly, as our partner Lulalend found. The fintech startup in South Africa provides working capital for small and medium-sized businesses. Early on, Lulalend’s managing group prioritized the safety of their employees. Though they’re a digital-based company, most staff worked from the Lulalend office until the pandemic hit. Because South Africa is experiencing some issues with the electricity supply, Lulalend supplied its now-remote employees with USP battery backups to their employees in case of power outages at home.

CTO & Co-Founder Neil Welman has focused on maintaining staff morale during this challenging time. Lulalend implemented measures to engage staff, encouraging them to communicate with others virtually every day and share interests from outside of work with the team. Neil reminds staff to keep in touch with each other daily, “Even if there’s nothing to communicate, still communicate.” The team is still holding monthly staff meetings and staff social hours by video. Full-time remote work is a big adjustment for many and small interventions can help to keep staff engaged and raise morale.

This crisis presents an acute challenge for the entrepreneurs that Lulalend serves. The fintech company proactively reached out to all of its clients early on in the crisis. “We got the message across to our clients that we are taking this seriously and looking at ways to support them through this,” said Neil. Lulalend is addressing client concerns on a case-by-case basis, restructuring loans and extending payment terms as needed. Lulalend also set up a Facebook page for their clients to connect to other struggling business owners and share their experiences. While the ongoing liquidity issues will cause great challenges for both Lulalend and their clients in South Africa, these proactive measures and existing digital capacity will help them to provide relief for businesses in crisis.

A high-touch model adjusts to a no-touch reality in India’s lockdown

Annapurna Finance is a microfinance institution in India with a high-touch model requiring in-person visits for administering loans to clients — now on pause due to India’s country-wide lockdown. Cultural norms in India have made fully digitizing operations difficult. Before the lockdown went into effect, Dibyajyoti Pattanaik, Executive Director at Annapurna Finance, and the operations team quickly devised a plan so that business operations could continue despite the restrictions. Annapurna acted swiftly in anticipation of the lockdown, setting up infrastructure within employees’ homes to allow them to continue critical operations remotely.

Knowing that communication would be crucial during this situation, staff reached out to their clients using Annapurna Finance’s existing telecommunications abilities. They used the capacity of their call center to reach out to clients proactively and ask what they need. Many of their more than 1.6 million clients have requested emergency loans to help them overcome the dire liquidity strains they are facing. Non-essential companies in India are facing a huge cash crunch and will need time to restart their businesses, even after the 21-day lockdown is lifted. Annapurna has carefully segmented their clients to understand the sector risk for both essential and non-essential businesses in India. While Annapurna waits to resume their in-person lending services, they have designed and released educational videos to help businesses through this challenging time.

Working together to find solutions

We know that the foreseeable future will present great challenges for people and small businesses everywhere. Now is the time for us to act to provide relief to those that we know will struggle the most. Experiences vary across cultures and countries, but by sharing what we’re learning as we all adapt to a new reality, we can help each other help the vulnerable populations that we serve.

Accion is working with our partners around the globe to adapt and respond to this challenge and offer solutions that help people stay resilient during this difficult time. We’ll continue to share more content around our COVID-19 response here.

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