Thursday 5th April 2018
GBA recently welcomed our first member in the former Soviet Union, ACBA-Credit Agricole Bank in Armenia. In December 2016 the bank decided to take on the women-owned/-led SME segment, signing a loan agreement with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). In this interview, Arsen Melkonyan, Head of Development and Marketing, spoke with the Global Banking Alliance for Women about financial inclusion of women in Armenia, the bank’s decision to join the Alliance, its hopes for its Women’s Market program and the role the bank plays in supporting women.
GBA: For our global readership, can you share ACBA-Credit Agricole Bank’s market position in Armenia and how the bank has been differentiating itself so far?
Arsen: We are one of the largest retail banks in Armenia, with a strict focus on the agriculture and SME sectors. Historically we have been in the SME business, and currently a solid part of our loan portfolio is agriculture and SME clients. While we do have some corporate clients and larger businesses, we work mostly with small- and medium-size businesses. Our strategy for the next 3 years is to be the first-choice bank in Armenia for SMEs.
GBA: Why has ACBA made the strategic choice to have a dedicated strategy for women’s SMEs?
Arsen: Three to 4 years ago we had an agreement with IFC, through which we learned about the case of BLC Bank in Lebanon. We became very interested in the Women’s Market after that, and we started working with EBRD to develop a program. We think that we can have strong results like BLC Bank has had in Lebanon in Armenia.
GBA: How do you define a woman’s SME?
Arsen: We count any SME in which a woman is either an owner or a director/decision-maker as a woman’s SME. We define it this way because we found many businesses that actually are run by women even though their names are not anywhere in the ownership documents.
GBA: Have you been able to establish a baseline of how many women’s SMEs you currently serve?
Arsen: We do have a baseline. About 31 percent of our current SME clients are women. This is where we are starting from, as we have not yet formally launched our program.
GBA: Can you give us an overview of the challenges women-led/women-owned SMEs face in growing their businesses and what you are doing now and intend to do in the future to address them?
Arsen: While we don’t have some of the legal restrictions on women’s business activity or account ownership we see in some other countries, in Armenia we see that women may have some psychological barriers to entrepreneurship. We are trying to use trainings to change their mind-sets and marketing to present our products in a way that they feel is relevant to their lives.
We have had non-financial services – training courses – in place for 3-4 years, and we are planning to offer some specifically targeting women. We also may develop special products that address both women’s financial and non-financial needs.
GBA: Regarding non-financial services, what does ACBA see as the value it can offer women in business?
Arsen: We definitely see the value in offering non-financial services to women in business – especially in combating some of the prejudices women can have about their own ability to own or run a business. The reality is men and women are both capable of running successful businesses. We see our role as being able to encourage women to start businesses and become financially independent, and showing them that we can support them in doing that.
GBA: How do you plan to begin to change women’s mind-sets about their capabilities?
Arsen: The trainings we have will be a key component in boosting their confidence, as will creating opportunities for them to use their new knowledge. We are also helping them to see that they can be successful in business by showcasing existing successful women entrepreneurs in trainings and on our website. This is just a first step – later we plan to go deeper, with more trainings and additional assistance to help women start businesses.
GBA: What are the main challenges you face as you build out the non-financial services value proposition for women’s SMEs?
Arsen: We started offering trainings about 4 years ago and have since solved most of the challenges we faced there – namely that people thought there would be some “catch” in a free training offered by a bank. Now our main challenge is in making the trainings more sophisticated and particularly relevant to women. We are working on this, and in a recent training 90 percent of the attendees were women.
GBA: Have you had any challenges regarding staff buy-in for the Women’s Market program and if so, how are you overcoming them?
Arsen: Our CEO, all the stakeholders and all the units in the bank that are engaged with the program understand the opportunity and are completely onboard, so we have internal buy-in already. There really has not been any resistance so far.
GBA: Why did you join the GBA, and what do you hope to get out of membership?
Arsen: We hope to gain the support of the network as we implement our program and get ideas from banks in other countries that may be relevant for Armenia. We see that in the GBA network there are banks that are implementing programs quite successfully. We want to learn from them so that we can be the bank of choice for women in Armenia as many other GBA members are bank of choice for women in their home markets.