H.M. Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development (UNSGSA), provided a virtual video address on the role of financial inclusion in global efforts to mitigate climate risk for the EU Sustainable Investment Summit held on 7 October 2021.
President von der Leyen, Secretary-General Guterres, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The adverse effects of climate change are impacting everyone’s way of life. But some people are dramatically more at risk than others.
Think of a farmer in Kenya. He harvests maize and cowpeas to support his family, reliant on the “long rains” of March to May to cultivate his crops. However, these “long rains” have become shorter each passing year, making it insufficient and inflicting grave harm to his harvest.
The effects on his family are disastrous. They are forced to skip meals, while the children stop attending school to work and help the family income.
This is not a story of one, but rather a story of many.
Today, across Kenya, drought badly affects harvests, putting 2.1 million people at risk of starvation. In low-income countries, 25% of crops grown by smallholder farmers are projected to fail because of climate change. And all over the world, dire scenes unfold due to climate events, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable groups — including farmers, small enterprises, women and the youth.
These people are more imperiled because they are more likely to rely upon their physical environments to sustain their livelihoods and nourish their families. They often depend on regular rainfall, live close to flood areas so they can access water, and lack capital to invest in adapting to this situation, like irrigation systems, better seeds or better housing.
We cannot wait any longer to rectify this problem. Livelihoods and futures of millions are at stake.
For over a decade, I have served as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development. In this role, I have witnessed the transformational power that access to and usage of quality financial services can have for vulnerable groups. Inclusive finance helps them better manage disasters and recover from crises.
Formal savings accounts, for example, are linked with greater food security. Farmers with insurance are more likely to invest in their businesses and more able to mitigate climate risks. When women-led households adopt mobile money, increased savings and reduced extreme poverty has been observed. And, as small enterprises utilize digital payments, sales revenue can rise, along with increased access to affordable credit. This is all evidence that financial inclusion helps people weather risks; it makes them more resilient.
Yet, the groups most vulnerable to climate risks are also most likely to be underserved or excluded from the formal financial system.
So, how do we provide underserved groups with the tools to smoothly manage their current financial obligations? And how do we help them have confidence in their financial futures and support them to better cope with disasters? In other words, how do we help them build financial health and resilience?
Part of the solution is tapping into the power of tech-enabled innovations that are customer-centric.
This means it is crucial for providers to truly understand the wants, needs and experiences of customers. And here, of course, big data can offer some of the insights needed to better design user-friendly services and apps.
There is enormous potential in inclusive financial technology — also known as fintech. Tech-enabled innovations can serve a range of functions to help people build climate resilience.
Some of these potential solutions can help vulnerable groups better understand the risks they face and how best to mitigate them.
For example, a Brazilian fintech — called “A de Agro” — gives farmers detailed weather information and alerts based on satellite images and AI analytics. This includes when to plant, what to plant, how crops are doing, and even when to harvest. And based on a farmer’s digital transactions and other information, they can offer customized and affordable credit products.
Other solutions support access to needed services, such as electricity, while mitigating their climate impact.
For example, M-KOPA is a fintech in Uganda and Kenya. It helps provide solar home electricity systems to off-grid households. By leveraging mobile money and remote sensors via a pay-as-you-go model, households can purchase a home solar kit by making make small monthly digital payments. So the same money customers used to buy their daily jerrycan of kerosene is now used to have a clean alternative and by the end of the third month they own this asset.
And then there are other solutions that help these vulnerable groups access climate resistant seeds, proper irrigation, and water management systems.
For instance, “myAgro” is a fintech operating in Tanzania, Mali, and Senegal. It enables farmers to purchase climate resilient products — including drought resistant seeds — by saving small amounts over time. Farmers purchase scratch cards at mobile money agents to contribute to their digital savings, which they can start long before the planting season. When they reach their savings goals, they automatically get a delivery of the seeds before the first rains begin.
Importantly, this savings style mimics how low-income rural farmers buy scratch cards to top-up their mobile phone credit. It is a system they know, they trust, is flexible and can be used to save for investment in seeds or other climate risk adaptation strategy.
Most importantly, overall financial health and risk mitigation should be tackled.
For example, an innovative partnership between Mercy Corps and Coop Bank in Nepal, enables rural communities to save a portion of remittances into a pooled reserve fund. This is then reserved to help them better cope with a climate event, such as a drought or flood. This hybrid savings/insurance tool supports rural households from falling back into poverty when harvests fail.
Now this is all very promising.
Yet, there is still a challenge for fintech innovators to design products that meet the needs of vulnerable groups.
Many solutions are expensive and specialized. As a result, they remain as pilots and out of reach for most rural households. In addition, solutions are often created without taking into proper account the limited digital and financial literacy of customers.
Basic awareness of fintech solutions is usually low and needs to be built. You know changing long-held behaviors can be difficult, particularly if a person has limited financial buffers to take risks.
Finally, if we want inclusive fintech to help build climate resilience, the right infrastructure needs to be in place.
This is why we need digital public goods. Some of these are critical for enabling access, such as connectivity, mobile phones, and agent networks available in even the most remote areas. Others make markets work better for customers, including fair competition and interoperable payment systems. And some give protection to users and businesses, such as responsible data sharing and privacy. Also, cybersecurity, consumer protection, and digital and financial literacy.
As a set of enablers, these key prerequisites help make inclusive fintech services more accessible, appropriate and affordable. They can help reach far away areas and groups with limited data footprints. And they can reduce the operational and transactional costs to make products more affordable.
I realize all my examples come from emerging economies and they were mostly focused on farmers. But this goes for developed countries just as much. If people, SMEs and households do not have the right financial tools and have financial health, they will not be able to make the investments in sustainability we are all hoping for.
All of us have a stake in these efforts. Policymakers, innovators, providers, international organizations and civil society — each one of us has a role to play to ensure that finance is inclusive; to ensure that it provides the required tools and means to create a more resilient and sustainable future for everyone.