The quest for financial inclusion in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

The quest for financial inclusion in Sri Lanka

25 October, 2020
Though 83 percent of all Lankan adults have bank accounts and over 80 percent of adult women have savings accounts, financial inclusion is not satisfactory in Sri Lanka.
Though 83 percent of all Lankan adults have bank accounts and over 80 percent of adult women have savings accounts, financial inclusion is not satisfactory in Sri Lanka.

Financial Inclusion is essential for continuous and sustainable economic development, according to the IFC (International Finance Corporation). This is no exception for Sri Lanka despite showing strong numbers in bank penetration.

According to the World Bank Group’s (WBG) Global Findex for 2017, nearly 74 percent of the population in Sri Lanka have accounts at a financial institution, higher than the regional average in South Asia of 70 percent (36 percent, excluding India). Sri Lanka also enjoys high levels of bank branch penetration, with bank branch density of 16.5 per 100,000 adults as of December 2018 (CBSL).

Sri Lanka, therefore, has a high penetration rate but achieving the zenith - stronger financial inclusion - is fraught with constraints. Though 83 percent of all Lankan adults have bank accounts and over 80 percent of adult women have savings accounts, financial inclusion is not satisfactory in Sri Lanka. Realising this, Sri Lanka began work to improve financial inclusion.

NFIS

The Central Bank’s work on Sri Lanka’s first National Financial Inclusion Strategy (NFIS) was expected to be implemented in early 2020 with other relevant authorities. The Bank receives technical assistance from the IFC.

The NFIS was conducted to “increase financial accessibility for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), done under four policy pillars; digital finance and payments, MSME finance, consumer protection and financial literacy and capacity building,” according to former Governor Indrajit Coomarasswamy (October 2019).

According to Coomaraswamy, over 75 percent of businesses in Sri Lanka (over 1 million) are MSMEs, providing employment for 45 percent of the labour force (3.2 million persons) and generating 52 percent of gross domestic product, and thus are vital for the country’s economic growth. However, most MSMEs suffer from a lack of access to the formal financial ecosystem.

High interest rates, the need for collateral and lack of formal documentation are the most frequently cited constraints for MSMEs to access finance in Sri Lanka, and many are forced to deal with informal financial institutions which charge even higher interest rates.

MSMEs need rationalized structures for financial inclusiveness. Interestingly, though ‘banks’ have been mentioned as having ‘some programs which provide refinance and credit guarantee schemes and interest subsidies for MSMEs’, one of the most powerful mechanisms that can access MSMEs for their financial inclusion are not mentioned at all - the Non-Banking Financial Sector (NBFI), and specifically the Licensed Finance Companies (LFCs) within the NBFIs.

Licensed Finance Companies

If Financial Inclusion (FI) is defined as creating first time lenders and borrowers – including MSMEs - into mainstream finance, the NBFI is a key Financial Inclusion driver in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the NBFI sector bridges the formal and informal financing sectors by linking 60% of the workforce to secure financing - the formal financing sector. The result is that NBFI rescues the struggling MSMEs from the most informal mechanisms such as loan-sharks and money lenders.

NBFIs, especially the LFCs take the risk of becoming the intuitional link for the MSMEs. As I recently described in a public forum on financial inclusion, the predominant role of NBFIs, especially LFCs, is that it is a potent mechanism to reach the low income, BoP market.

Around 50% of BoP funding takes place through NBFIs, creating a massive stake in employment. Sri Lankan microfinancing market is totally (100%) financed by the NBFIs. They provide services to more than 3 million depositors in Sri Lanka with a total deposit base of Rs. 750 bn. In addition, 55% of the CRIB reports are accessed by the NBFI sector which bears testimony to the high impact of NBFIs despite having only 10% of the loan portfolio of the banking and finance industry.

Also 90% of three-wheeler market, 70% of private bus passenger transport, 75% tractors and agricultural equipment, and 70% of small transport vehicles such as light trucks are NBFI funded!

NBFIs fund BoP market

Though NBFIs are only around 8-10% of the entire financial sector, 55% of CRIB reports are obtained by NBFIs. With a deposit base totaling Rs 760 billion, NBFIs sector is therefore critical for the economy. 70 percent of its loan portfolio is funded by public deposits.

What is important in these numbers is that the MSMEs, the backbone of Lankan economy, predominantly depend on NBFI to meet their funding needs.

Even though commercial banking sector’s assets are eight times larger than NBFIs’, NBFIs, unlike the formal banking sector, reach the very Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) that is out of reach for banks. Such access to BoP - a large section of the society - helps the budding entrepreneurs to grow - a key step forward in developing the economy.

If this portrayal does not convince anyone of the importance of LFC in Sri Lanka’s Financial Inclusion quest, then perhaps nothing else will. That is because no other regulated institutional financing mechanism in the country has the immediacy to the Bottom of the Pyramid that LFCs have. Any national Financial Inclusion effort that misses this point should be seriously reconsidered. -

The writer is the Immediate Past Chairman of the FHA.

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