Sona Gandhi has built a career in delivering responsible financial services to low-income communities. She began her microfinance work in India and Malawi, and has been with FINCA since 2005, assuming leadership positions in the U.S. and Jordan. Since 2015, Sona has served as the CEO of FINCA Guatemala. Under her inspired leadership, FINCA has introduced innovative health and life insurance products now benefiting 30,000 Guatemalans.
In this continuing series of interviews with FINCA’s global leaders, Sona shares her thoughts on responsible financial services, women’s empowerment, and the role of innovation and technology in expanding financial inclusion.
1. Why is the delivery of financial services important for low-income people in Guatemala?
Guatemala is unique in that financial services are readily available to most segments of the country. However, the issue is a crisis of over-indebtedness. Many banks are lending solely with profit in mind, failing to provide client-centric products that benefit “bottom of the pyramid” populations.
For this reason, FINCA stresses responsible banking and trust in the delivery of its financial services. We take the time to visit the homes and businesses of our clients, to get to know them and their families. In doing so, we ensure that we are not going to over-indebt our clients, and that we are going to help them achieve their goals both in the short and long term.
2. Eighty percent of FINCA clients in Guatemala are women. Why is your team focused on providing Guatemalan women with access to financial services?
There is a great need to address income inequality in Guatemala, not only between urban and rural populations, but also between men and women. We know that if we focus on the health, well-being and financial success of a mother, it will result in benefits to her entire family.
For example, malnutrition in Guatemala is among the highest in the world for children.
Empowering mothers with access to financial services can build pathways to a brighter future for themselves and their children. This is the ripple effect made possible by FINCA loans, helping to alleviate poverty – one woman, one family, one community at time.
3. Sixty percent of FINCA clients in Guatemala are members of a Village Bank, community-based groups that facilitate saving and lending. What unique role do FINCA Village Banks play in promoting financial inclusion?
Village Banks offer low-income clients a safe place to borrow money and participate in the financial well-being of their communities. But they also – and just as importantly – offer a sense of social and community support that in many villages may not necessarily be present.
In essence, Village Banks offer a place where rural women can draw strength from each other. Women’s empowerment has been and remains a core tenant of FINCA social performance and impact measurement and Village Banks offer Guatemalan women a unique way of tackling life’s challenges.
4. How will your team leverage innovation and digital technology to further expand access to basic and necessary services?
There are a number of innovations currently at work for FINCA Guatemala. The first thing I am particularly excited about is our insurance products. In Guatemala, the healthcare system has failed to deliver necessary and affordable medical services to citizens, particularly in rural areas. It’s not just an absence of medical personnel, but an absence of medicines or the right types of medicines, and at a high cost that is often prohibitive to many of the people that FINCA serves.
To help provide solutions, FINCA Guatemala introduced health and life insurance products in late 2016. Initially, this offering was only made available to women who took Village Bank loans. For less than $1/month, a Guatemalan woman could insure herself, or for less than $2/month she could insure herself, her spouse and her children. If she was single, she could elect to insure her parents. This offering suddenly puts general physician, gynecological and pediatric services within financial reach of low-income families. Now, we have expanded the offering so that even those without a FINCA loan can become insured and live healthier, more resilient lives. I am proud to say that today more than 30,000 Guatemalans are now insured who otherwise would not be.
The second thing I am pleased to share is a number of digital innovations. Guatemala is a very diverse country so we are piloting a number of digital initiatives to find out what will work the best for our clients.
We have partnered with Entrepreneurial Finance Lab (EFL), an innovative credit scoring company, to improve the lending experience for our clients using alternative scoring methodologies. This uses psychometric data to determine the willingness of potential clients to repay their loans. Such technology helps keep client wellbeing at the centre of our approach.
Another innovation is in digital field automation, where we are fully digitizing the financial service process from end-to-end. From data intake on tablets to credit decision analysis using in-house applications, our loan officers are now able to quickly determine if a client is eligible for a loan, and do so in a more efficient, cost-effective manner.
5. You represent FINCA’s commitment to diversity and female leadership. What advice would you give other women pursuing their career goals?
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” My advice? Dream big, work hard and never give up.