Nate Gonzalez

The Great Equalizer: How advances in “big data” allow tech-savvy start-ups to compete with the major players in East Africa

In this age of “big data,” technology has begun to drive strategy formation, and this shift could have big implications for traditional businesses and social enterprises alike. In a thoughtful and engaging presentation (below), Philip Evans, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, explains why. Most traditional businesses, he says, operate in a value chain, where transaction costs are the “glue” that holds the chain together. Large corporations (such as banks) have been able to fend off competition by sufficiently reducing transaction costs through economies of scale. However, as the accessibility and flow of information has become cheaper and faster, the transaction costs traditionally associated with accessing the information needed to make key business decisions (e.g., extending a loan) have plummeted.

Plummeting transaction costs create space for new entrants to come in and completely disrupt traditional value chains and corporate structures. In his presentation, Evans lays out the case that lies at the foundation of the investment thesis behind Accion Venture Lab (where I am an investment officer): Start-ups with technology-enabled models can create scaled products and innovate much faster, smarter, and more cheaply than incumbent institutions.

Here in Nairobi, this is particularly relevant to the small- and medium-enterprise (SME) lending space. Most banks in East Africa view small businesses through a horizontal lens, the prevailing wisdom being, “All SMEs are relatively the same in terms of their risk profile, and thus we need two years of audited financials and 100-125 percent collateral backed by hard assets to issue a loan.” The result is that very few SMEs qualify for funding in this market. Based on data from a McKinsey report on the credit gap for SMEs in sub-Saharan Africa, we estimate that there is a USD $2–5 billion unmet credit need amongst these businesses in East Africa alone.

Microfinance institutions (MFIs) have long sought to address this issue, but it’s well documented that the transaction costs for determining the true risk profile of a small or micro-business (e.g. through group lending models or loan officer visits) are very high. So, you have one group of debt providers (banks) that feels the opportunity costs of more tailored risk assessments for SMEs are too high, and another group (MFIs) that’s willing to lend to this segment on principle, but the high transaction costs associated with their operations and risk-mitigation techniques too often prevent these institutions from scaling.

However, as new pools of alternative data have been made accessible, we’ve seen a number of startup, non-bank financial institutions (NBFCs) come online, and they could be poised to disrupt the status quo of East Africa’s lending industry.

Take GO Finance, a Tanzanian NBFC, as an example. The company leverages various technologies to digitally assess the credit risk of SME merchants. It is integrated into platforms that track historical sales data from the top-level player in a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) value chain (like Airtel or Coca-Cola). This technical integration with the FMCG’s systems allows GO Finance to pull data on its potential SME clients that a traditional lending institution wouldn’t have access to. Once the data is in hand, GO Finance then provides the SMEs with a bundle of previously-inaccessible financial services. GO Finance provides flexible working capital facilities to these clients, allowing them to draw down on a fixed loan amount at the beginning of every week to purchase stock (airtime, mobile-money float, etc.) and pay back the principal, plus interest, at the end of the week, after they have sold their products. The SMEs use these loans in a productive capacity to increase their operational efficiency and sales, which in turn allows them to invest in growth, such more employees, larger coverage zones, and so on.

GO Finance conducts its due diligence and makes subsequent lending decisions by looking at individual SMEs as part of a vertical system – that is, operating inside of a value chain where necessary decision-driving data actually exists, instead of on a standalone basis. So instead of assessing the risk of an SME based on traditional metrics (e.g., financial records, collateral on hand, etc.), GO Finance and other new lenders assess the risk in the context of the SME’s vertical orientation and use digital sources of data (including sales/delivery records from the company on top of the value chain) to better understand the actual risk of the SME in question.

It will be interesting to see whether these new NBFC entrants set forth blueprints for new lending models in East Africa, and whether they shake up the traditional notion that you have to be a large player to win in this game. As Evans mentions in his presentation, “All size does is add overhead.”

Nate Gonzalez is an Investment Officer with Accion Venture Lab

impact investing, microfinance