Tuesday, May 23, 2006

ACCRA, Ghana — The sparkling new bank, down the street from Accra’s bustling Makola market, looks like a financial institution anywhere: Six busy teller windows, a new accounts desk, air conditioning holding the steamy heat outside at bay.

But for Ghanaians who have never had access to banking services before, it represents a revolution. After years of seeking small loans from loan sharks, family members and non-profit micro-credit programs, they now have what they never had before: a full-service commercial bank for the poor.

Borrowers — primarily women–can now seek loans for as little as $100 and open savings accounts with even smaller sums. Forms are kept simple, and security guards — accustomed to shooing the poor away from big commercial banks–are trained to be friendly.

“We teach them that these people pay their salaries,” said Benjie Montemayor, who heads Opportunity International’s network of commercial banks in Ghana. “Helping the poor doesn’t mean you need to have poor facilities. Our borrowers are our clients, not our beneficiaries.”

Achieving success

Micro-credit programs, which offer poor borrowers small loans at low interest rates, have been achieving successes for decades in countries throughout the world, including Ghana. But the World Bank estimates that only 2 percent of the world’s poor have access to formal banks that offer a range of financial services.

In Africa, where many people live in rural areas and relatively few have enough savings or income to open an account, the lack of access to financial services is particularly acute. But Chicago-based Opportunity International, one of the world’s largest micro-finance organizations, is now trying to change that by building a network of for-profit commercial banks for the poor in countries from Zambia to Ethiopia.

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Source: Chicago Tribune (link opens in a new window)