The authorities in Côte d’Ivoire have prioritised the expansion of financial inclusion as a mechanism to spread economic growth across a wider share of the population. As of 2015 almost 46% of Ivorians lived on less than CFA750 ($1.29) per day, according to the World Bank. Policymakers have identified limited access to financing mechanisms, for individuals as well as for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as a key obstacle to the distribution of economic prosperity.
In an effort to improve access to financial services, in May 2019 the Ivorian authorities adopted the National Financial Inclusion Strategy 2019-24. Progress towards the roadmap’s aims will be guided by the Agency for the Promotion of Financial Inclusion, which was created in May 2018 to enhance the provision of financial services for low-income populations and SMEs. As well as prioritising the expansion of financial inclusion from 40% of the population to 60%, the blueprint targets improved financial education for businesses and society in general; better promotion of digital financing mechanisms; and the more stringent regulation and supervision of the financial sector.
Côte d’Ivoire’s national development targets for financial services are aligned with regional efforts to boost financial inclusion across the eight member states of UEMOA. One landmark measure towards this end was introduced in 2014, when the Central Bank of West African States (Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, BCEAO) mandated that banks operating within the zone provide a specific set of basic banking services to customers for free, including the opening of bank accounts.
Financial inclusion in the region is on a positive trajectory: banking penetration expanded from 16.4% in 2017 to 19.3% in 2018, according to a July 2019 BCEAO report. Togo had the highest rate among UEMOA members, at 26.8%, followed by Mali (23.3%) and Benin (22.5%). Côte d’Ivoire ranked fourth in the region, with the BCEAO data placing the banking penetration rate at 21.6%. Rates of broader financial penetration that consider additional types of financial services such as mobile money are substantially higher. The overall financial services penetration rate in the region stood at 41.1% in 2018, up from 35.8% in 2017. The best performer was Togo, with 85.4%, followed by Benin (68.7%), Senegal (51.9%) and Burkina Faso (41.3%).
Financial inclusion within UEMOA member countries has been catalysed by a regional 2016-20 strategy that aims to expand access to affordable financial services to 75% of the adult population. This entailed the inauguration of a regional steering committee to manage the execution of the strategy on a regional level, as well as national committees to oversee implementation in each of the eight member countries. The revision of existing banking and microfinance regulations to boost financial inclusion was among the issues discussed at the UEMOA meeting in November 2019, alongside possible strategies to expand financial education. Another accelerator for progress, not only for regional integration but also financial inclusion, will be the establishment of a common payment system to be used across all of the union’s members. The project to develop this solution began in 2017, and 2019 saw consultations between the BCEAO and players within the region to identify the necessary technical parameters, coordinate the design of the new system and plan its rollout. The BCEAO intends to launch an international tender to select a provider to install the payment infrastructure – an operation that the organisation hopes will commence in 2020.
Another stepping stone to greater financial inclusion is the government’s efforts to ease access to credit for the country’s vast network of SMEs. These businesses account for 80% of businesses in Côte d’Ivoire, when defined as companies with fewer than 200 employees and a turnover of no more than CFA1bn ($1.7m). The potential financing needs of SMEs are substantial, estimated to exceed $2.3bn, or 6.8% of GDP, by the International Finance Corporation in early 2020. The financing of SMEs remains a contentious issue between banking institutions and Ivorian businesses. While small companies and entrepreneurs frequently feel overlooked by banks when it comes to the allocation of credit that is essential for growth, lenders find that loan requests often lack the necessary information to measure risk. “Banks are engaged in allocating more credit to SMEs, but in a lot of cases the projects we get offered to finance are not necessarily well structured,” Ismael Fanny, deputy executive director of the Association of Banks and Financial Establishments in Côte d’Ivoire, told OBG. He estimates that 50% of SME loan requests – the total of which he calculates to be less than 5000 – receive a positive response.
As well as specific financing initiatives, Ivorian SMEs look set to benefit from government measures to strengthen the country’s existing credit bureau. These will increase the availability of market information and thereby enable lenders to undertake a more detailed evaluation of risk for Ivorian companies seeking credit.
Alongside mobile banking services, microfinance activities have had a huge impact on deepening financial inclusion. A total of 511 microcredit providers were operating within UEMOA as of September 2019, to service 15.2m beneficiaries at over 4800 distribution points, according to the BCEAO. Total deposits collected by microfinance institutions increased by 8.9% over the year to CFA1.5trn ($2.6m), while the total allocated credit expanded by 12.1% over the period to CFA1.5trn ($2.6m). Microfinance institutions within Côte d’Ivoire have followed regional growth patterns, and have been further buoyed by the country’s steady economic recovery. Between 2012 and 2017 the total value of deposits collected by microfinance providers expanded by 247%, from some CFA72bn ($123.8m) to CFA250bn ($429.8m). Outstanding loans also expanded, from CFA57bn ($98m) to CFA250bn ($429.8m). Although the Ivorian market has encountered financial and governance problems at its biggest microfinance provider, Union Nationale des Coopératives d’Epargne et de Crédit – which led the organisation to be placed under provisional administration in 2012 and restructured – a host of other players are entering the segment. This includes Orange, after the French telecoms operator received BCEAO approval to operate within the zone in July 2019. The need for financial inclusion measures has become even more critical in 2020, as the economy began feeling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Increasing financial inclusion will be key for long-term growth prospects, as it will facilitate the country’s recovery not only across businesses, including those in rural areas, but also wider society. ”The microfinance segment can take advantage of new technologies to promote financial inclusion outside urban areas by forming partnerships with financial technology companies to develop tailor-made, innovative products and services,” Ali Badini, director general at local microfinance player Credit Access, told OBG.