Interview with Samit Ghosh, Microfinance Innovator

February 1, 2010 Posted by Update

Ujjivan, a Unitus partner since 2006, is an MFI providing financial services to the economically active urban and semi-urban poor in India. Since their launch in November 2005, they’ve reached more than 550,000 clients with a diverse range of financial products and services. In October 2009, Unitus sat down with Mr. Samit Ghosh, founder and CEO of Ujjivan, to talk about his background in financial services, efforts to reach the urban poor, and what he sees as the next big thing in microfinance.

Q: You come from a strong banking background and are well known for your work in pioneering consumer banking in India. What made you enter microfinance?

A: My career started in 1975 with Citibank. I went through operations, corporate and investment banking—the normal route which any management trainee took. Quite by accident, I got into consumer banking because I came back to India to head the investment bank with Citibank in 1985. But by the time I reached India, Citibank had reorganized and put the investment bank as a part of treasury, a change I was uncomfortable with. As I was figuring out what to do, a friend of mine, Jerry Rao, who was starting the consumer bank for Citibank in India focused on the middle class, asked me to join him. Consumer banking was new to me and I thought I’d give it a shot. So that’s how I got into consumer banking and became fascinated by it.

You must understand that the middle class in India, at that stage in 1985, really didn’t have any access to financial services other than a savings account and time deposits (similar to a CD in the US banking system) with banks. There were no consumer loan products. If my father, a government doctor, wanted to build a house at that time, he would have to retire, get all his end-of-service benefits, and use that money to build a house. There was no other option. But today, anyone who works for five years can get a loan to buy a house or an apartment or a car or a two-wheeler. There were no loans available before 1985.

It took about 20 years, from 1985 to 2005, for the 200 million middle class in India to get access to the full range of financial services. As a consequence, the demand for goods and services within the country became enormous. The housing industry experienced a boom. You didn’t have to wait to retire to buy a house anymore. And the automotive industry took off. Prior to the 1980’s, India had only two cars available: the Fiat and the Ambassador. Demand was very low because you had to save up the entire amount to buy it. Today, India is the largest producer of two-wheeler vehicles in the world. This had a big impact for the country’s economy. India’s GDP used to grow from the time of Independence in 1947 at one to two percent every year. Post 1985, GDP started growing eight to ten percent and suddenly India and China were the stars of the world economic horizon.

There was phenomenal impact and today there is talk about India growing at ten or twelve percent per year, a major part of the reason is the financial access for the 200 million middle class. However this market has now become saturated.

India can progress further only if we also provide financial access to the 600 million poor. The poor however need much more than financial services. The middle class can survive because the middle class has access to education, healthcare, etc. The poor don’t have that. But to start with, we can provide them financial access, and then you can try and provide them other essential services like healthcare, vocational training, education, and community development.

It took twenty years for the 200 million people in the middle class to come up. Now with better technology and an open economy, in 30 years and the lives of the 600 million poor can make a similar change. It’s not going to happen overnight—it might take us the next three decades. That’s what motivated me to start Ujjivan. As a financial services professional, this was the last frontier. If I could start an enterprise that could successfully provide financial services to the poor, this would help start an industry which would go on to serve this huge market and propel the country to the ‘India Shining’ we aspire to be.

Q: Tell us about your vision for Ujjivan.

A: In India, much of the focus for poverty alleviation programs have been for the rural poor. If you look at the poor in India, there are about 600 million people, out of which 500 million are rural. Because the rural poor numbers are so large, the focus has always been on them. But there’s still around 100 million urban and semi-urban poor. And this segment is one of the fastest growing populations in India, as many rural poor migrate into the cities and towns. So when we started in November 2005, we decided to target the urban and semi-urban poor.

Also, it was a challenge because no one else had reached the urban poor on scale. When we started our 18 month pilot, everyone else—all the major MFIs—were watching us. When we finished the pilot successfully, having made a number of changes in the standard microfinance model to adopt it to an urban environment, everyone jumped in after us. Right now, the urban microfinance market is highly competitive. But we feel happy because we started a trend and at least the urban poor are now being taken care of. To us that was a challenge—to serve these urban and semi-urban poor, to do something new, and to be the first to do it at scale.

Q: What would you consider your biggest achievements?

A: From Ujjivan’s point of view, I think reaching the urban poor, which nobody else had done, and making it a success. Now the 100 million urban poor, who didn’t have access before, have numerous opportunities for financial services. So that’s one big achievement.

I also think there’s no other MFI in India which has achieved the success we’ve seen in less than four years—reaching half a million customers and opening 216 branches in 12 states spread across the country. In fact, if you take the 18-month pilot out, because at that time we were only in Bangalore, our expansion of 190 branches outside that area has been in less than two and a half years. So that’s quite an incredible achievement that we’re very proud of.

Third, we have always believed in providing excellent service to our customers and our staff. We have quite a lot of mechanisms for client and customer feedback in place. Though quite intense, it helps us develop and modify our products and services. And I want our staff to be very proud and happy to work for Ujjivan—that’s always been our goal. We’ve worked to make Ujjivan a great place to work and last year we won and currently are number one in terms of being the best place to work in the microfinance industry. So that’s another huge achievement.

Q: What do you see as the next big thing in microfinance?

A: One of the big goals in microfinance is impact. We’ve done an initial pilot on Social Performance Management to give us an indication of the impact of microfinance on poverty alleviation. Poverty is very complex; it’s not a simple thing. There are many factors which keep people poor: education, healthcare, community, the water they’re drinking, etc. Financial services is only one aspect of that. In our pilot, we saw some positive impact, but to say that microfinance by itself will solely remove poverty is highly pretentious.

As MFIs, we really need to work hard not only on providing microfinance but also collaborating to provide access to healthcare, education, vocational training, and community development for the customers. The impact is going to be more significant when we tackle these issues which affect the lives of the poor along with microfinance.

One month after this interview, Ujjivan came onboard as the first partner in Unitus’s Social Performance Management Implementation Project (SMP IP).

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