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“Microfinance is the provision of financial services to low-income clients or solidarity lending groups including consumers and the self-employed, who traditionally lack access to banking and related services.”

Microfinance is not just about giving micro credit to the poor rather it is an economic development tool whose objective is to assist poor to work their way out of poverty. It covers a wide range of services like credit, savings, insurance, remittance and also non-financial services like training, counseling etc.

Salient features of Microfinance:

  • Borrowers are from the low income group
  • Loans are of small amount – micro loans
  • Short duration loans
  • Short duration loans
  • High frequency of repayment
  • Loans are generally taken for income generation purpose

Microfinance sector has grown rapidly over the past few decades. Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus is credited with laying the foundation of the modern MFIs with establishment of Grameen Bank, Bangladesh in 1976. Today it has evolved into a vibrant industry exhibiting a variety of business models. Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) in India exist as NGOs (registered as societies or trusts), Section 25 companies and Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs). Commercial Banks, Regional Rural Banks (RRBs), cooperative societies and other large lenders have played an important role in providing refinance facility to MFIs. Banks have also leveraged the Self-Help Group (SHGs) channel to provide direct credit to group borrowers.With financial inclusion emerging as a major policy objective in the country, Microfinance has occupied centre stage as a promising conduit for extending financial services to unbanked sections of population. At the same time, practices followed by certain lenders have subjected the sector to greater scrutiny and need for stricter regulation.

Although the microfinance sector is having a healthy growth rate, there have been a number of concerns related to the sector, like grey areas in regulation, transparent pricing, low financial literacy etc. In addition to these concerns there are a few emerging concerns like cluster formation, insufficient funds, multiple lending and over-indebtedness which are arising because of the increasing competition among the MFIs. On a national level there has been a spate of actions taken to strengthen the regulation of MF sector including, enactment of microfinance regulation bill by the Government of Andhra Pradesh, implementation of sector-specific regulation by Reserve Bank of India and most recently, release of Draft Microfinance Institutions (development and regulation) Bill, 2011 for comments.

Based on the research work, a few major recommendations made in the report include field supervision of MFIs to check ground realities and the operational efficiency of such institutions. Offer incentives to MFIs for opening branches in unbanked villages, so as to increase rural penetration. Also MFIs be encouraged to offer complete range of products to their clients. Transparent pricing and technology implementation to maintain uniformity and efficiency are among the others which these institutions should adopt. Inability of MFIs in getting sufficient funds is a major hindrance in the microfinance growth and so these institutions should look for alternative sources of funds. Some of the alternative fund sources include outside equity investment, portfolio buyouts and securitization of loans which only a few large MFIs are currently availing.

According to the latest research done by the World Bank, India is home to almost one third of the world’s poor (surviving on an equivalent of one dollar a day). Though many central government and state government poverty alleviation programs are currently active in India, microfinance plays a major contributor to financial inclusion. In the past few decades it has helped out remarkably in eradicating poverty. Reports show that people who have taken microfinance have been able to increase their income and hence the standard of living.About half of the Indian population still doesn’t have a savings bank account and they are deprived of all banking services. Poor also need financial services to fulfill their needs like consumption, building of assets and protection against risk. Microfinance institutions serve as a supplement to banks and in some sense a better one too. These institutions not only offer micro credit but they also provide other financial services like savings, insurance, remittance and non-financial services like individual counseling, training and support to start own business and the most importantly in a convenient way. The borrower receives all these services at her/his door step and in most cases with a repayment schedule of borrower’s convenience. But all this comes at a cost and the interest rates charged by these institutions are higher than commercial banks and vary widely from 10 to 30 percent. Some claim that the interest rates charged by some of these institutions are very high while others feel that considering the cost of capital and the cost incurred in giving the service, the high interest rates are justified.