News Column

Doing the maths

June 30, 2014

I don't like the word poverty and I never use it," says Genny Ghanimeh.While Band Aid and the soon to expire United Nations Millennium Development Goals all aimed to make poverty history, Ghanimeh, who is the founder and chief executive of Pi Slice, an online micro-finance platform, believes that condescending terms such as "poverty" have no place in making communities economically self-sufficient.

"I use unemployment, because when people work no one is poor," she explains.

"They have no money and no education. So for me, they are unemployed and what I would want to eradicate through micro-lending is unemployment, not poverty really." Just over a quarter of the 370 million people living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are believed to subsist on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

According to Ghanimeh, even though six million MENA households are eligible for a micro-finance loan, only three million have access.

Motivated by a philanthropic moment on the slopes of Tanzania'sMount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa - with her guide who needed $250 to fund his daughter's schooling, Ghanimeh proposed a business plan upon her return - to create an online micro-lending platform as part of her MBA (Master of Business Administration) projects.

She followed through with her idea and was mentored and coached by a senior partner at UAE-based private equity investor Abraaj Capital.

With seed capital from a former client and an offer of partnership from leading micro-finance organisation PlaNet Finance, Ghanimeh had all the elements in place to start her new venture in March 2013.

Her mission was not only to help micro-entrepreneurs tap into sources of funding that the financial system didn't offer, but also to open up new avenues of corporate social responsibility (CSR) for big firms.

One such principle is called impact investing - investments that are made to not only induce a financial return but also create social and environmental impacts.

"So, micro-finance institutions will be one avenue for example, for them [corporates] to invest," Ghanimeh explains. "Now the problem is that impact investing is still new and comparables are not there, so it's not the same yield on profit that they make on other investments."

Her open funding platform has attracted more than 1,000 lenders so far. The ranks of corporate sponsors filled by firms such as UAE telecoms company du, executive search consultants Stanton Chase International and real estate portal will include yet another 12, adds Ghanimeh.

For now, Pi Slice services customers mostly in the Levant, but the Gulf region is also firmly on its sights.

"It takes us a long time to incorporate a micro-finance institution in a country. It's a three month process of due diligence and training on the ground," Ghanimeh points out.

"So now we are in three countries, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine and we are in the process of incorporating Iraq and Dubai.

"The next step for us will be Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is a big market and we have identified a well reputed Saudi micro-finance institution to work with," she adds.

Ghanimeh visits each of these countries to form partnerships with micro-finance institutions, after which profiles of micro-entrepreneurs are uploaded onto the Pi Slice website.

"It's a relationship through the institution, not directly with the micro-entrepreneur," she says.

A potential individual investor can begin lending to an entrepreneurial initiative through a credit card or a Pay Pal account.

"I pitch big corporations with large numbers of employees or clients or social media followers, and I design their page on Pi Slice with their logo and their branding, so they can promote to their audience, who can then visit the page and lend as a collective part of their CSR campaigning," Ghanimeh explains.

Social entrepreneurship has emerged as a new vehicle to reap gains that go beyond financial.

Some large firms are moving away from the conventional practice of donating money towards social causes, instead choosing to invest seed money into enterprises with specific social objectives.

Though the returns on investment may not be significant, they are tangible, measurable and result in what Ghanimeh says is a crucial reduction in inequality. "We also measure the impact on four layers, it's not only on job creation," she adds. "The second layer is direct family, because the children will be able to go to school, or have proper clothing, a proper lifestyle.

"The third layer - the community around them - will be able to have a product or service that wasn't there before or they will be able to hire friends from their community around them.

"And the last layer, of course, is the government, because it contributes to a better GDP [gross domestic product]."

Social enterprises in the MENA region are also aiming to play a role in healing social rifts that leave communities impoverished in the wake of conflicts.

Ghanimeh points out that in Lebanon micro-finance institutions have been particularly active in helping Palestinian refugees who have stayed in the country for many generations.

To earn revenue, Pi Slice taps into three streams. One is from the commission fee charged for fundraising when partnering with a micro-finance institution. Second is the fee exacted from corporates for designing a lending page. The third stream is from white labelling, which refers to rebranding of a product or service by a reseller. "We can white label the whole technology for a governmental body, so they can also do crowd-funding for other segments that they're interested in," says Ghanimeh.

With unemployment figures for the MENA region among the highest worldwide at 19 per cent, the task at hand for Pi Slice, a year since its establishment, is challenging if not daunting.

Micro-finance institutions have also in the recent past come under scrutiny in South Asia for extorting money from their borrowers.

Though the MENA region has yet to codify strong regulations governing this sector, Ghanimeh believes that an online platform can prove to be a benchmark for transparency.

"People like me have always wanted to help and never had a channel which was transparent. Here, I can see the process, and even my money would come back to me, so in the first layer, it offers the people who really want to help the opportunity of helping in a transparent way while seeing the progress.

"Similar to corporates, who are really into CSR and the culture of giving, not only they can give but they can also track it and see the progress - and they can also engage their community around it," she concludes.

For more stories on investments and markets, please see HispanicBusiness' Finance Channel

Source: Gulf, The (Bahrain)

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