Monday 13th April 2015
Our first member in Bolivia, Banco Económico, is a leader in the micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) segment in the country. Since its opening in 1991, the bank has grown exponentially to a portfolio of more than $700 million. Sergio Asbún Saba, General Manager of Banco Económico, spoke with the Global Banking Alliance for Women about the bank’s decision to join the Alliance, its hopes for the planned Women’s Market program, and the role the bank plays in supporting women.
GBA: How would you describe the current state of financial services for women in Bolivia? Are there any differences in access, quality or customer experience from that of men?
SAS: The financial services sector in Bolivia can be divided in two parts: the traditional banking sector and the more specialized microfinance sector. The microfinance sector has provided significantly more financial access to women than traditional banks, and women remain an important part of the portfolio of the institutions serving this segment. This is due to the economic realities that women face in Bolivia. There are many women-headed households where women are starting new businesses in order to survive.
As a commercial bank that serves all segments of the population, we observe similar trends in our portfolio. More than 40 percent of our over $300 million microfinance portfolio is comprised of women. Like most financial institutions in the country, we have been able to achieve this without a specialized product for women. We believe that if we create products and services that better target the needs of women microentrepreneurs, we will be able to strengthen our presence in this segment even more.
GBA: You are also developing a value proposition for women with larger businesses, SME owners. Tell us your rationale for that.
SAS: In 2005, we developed a product called “Mi Socio,” a credit product that provides tailored financial solutions for SMEs. Although the product has been incredibly successful in the market, we have a lower percent of women in that portfolio than in our microfinance portfolio. While some of this certainly reflects market reality, we realized that we needed to adjust our approach to be able to better serve women.
GBA: Can you tell us a bit more about your plans for your Women’s Market program and how you have gone about developing it?
SAS: We realized that to be able to reach more women, a different approach was necessary. We are currently conducting market research for the program, and we hope to make adjustments to some of our products based on the research. We also realized that we needed to provide more comprehensive services that go beyond credit. This includes providing other kinds of financial products like savings, but also offering other value-add services for women like training and capacity-building workshops.
We hope to increase our total MSME portfolio of women customers from 35 percent to 45 percent. However, our strategy is not just about increasing our customer base — it is also about building long-term relationships with them. We believe that by targeting women with the products and services that they need, we will be able to do exactly that. Finally, our bank has a very strong focus on social responsibility, and we hope that this program will help to improve the economic condition of women in Bolivia.
GBA: What barriers do women face in accessing capital in Bolivia? What kinds of modifications, if any, do you expect to make to your products and services?
SAS: We don’t believe that women explicitly face barriers to accessing the financial system. What we see are social and cultural norms that impact women’s views of the formal financial system. Although at the bank, we treat all customers equally regardless of gender, religion, age, race, etc., many women are afraid of banks. What we need to do is break down these cultural and social barriers so that women feel more comfortable getting close to a bank. To do that, we must develop friendlier products that are more specialized and tailored to meet the needs of women.
GBA: What other inputs do you think you will provide to support women with small but growing businesses?
SAS: We are looking to expand our branch coverage in rural areas where women are usually heads of households and of businesses. We also want to increase our coverage in the poorer neighborhoods of cities, where we find a significant number of women whose needs are not being met. We are developing specialized business units within branches that have specific areas for women that are more comfortable and friendlier. We also hope to make our communications simpler and easier to understand.
GBA: What persuaded you to take the Women’s Market on? What was the market signal that convinced you that this was a good business opportunity?
SAS: What convinced me to take this market on was my participation last year in the GBA Summit in Washington, D.C. When I saw the experiences and successes of other banks, it motivated me to come back and develop something here. After that trip, I met with my board and explained the market opportunity. The potential of this market was very evident to them, and they also understood the importance of serving an untapped market. We are a relatively small bank, and gaining a competitive advantage in an untapped market is very important. Our bank also has very deep social responsibility values, and using this opportunity to leave a mark on society for women was very important to us.
GBA: More than 50 percent of your workforce is made up of women. What is your vision for having more women in leadership?
SAS: As with our clients, we do not have a specific gender focus in our hiring policies. Our hiring practices are gender blind and are based on skills and competencies required for the position. Due to these non-discriminatory practices, our staffing levels naturally moved to reflect the population — 50 percent women and 50 percent men.
We see a great proportion of women in our middle management levels. Where we need to do more work is in senior levels of management, where we do see a greater proportion of men.
GBA: How did you find out about the Global Banking Alliance for Women? What inspired you to join?
SAS: We found out about the GBA from the IDB. We thought it was an interesting proposition, but the final decision to join the GBA was made after my participation in the GBA Summit last year. It was very interesting to see the growth that banks have experienced in this market, and how relatively small adjustments to products or services that better serve the Women’s Market could yield incredible results.
GBA: What specifically are your hopes for your new membership in the Alliance?
SAS: We hope to receive experiences and ideas, as well as share our own experiences with other banks. This is a journey that we can take together. There are other banks that have had these experiences already. If we listen to them we can shorten our learning curve, make fewer mistakes, and develop better products and services for our women customers.
AT A GLANCE
# of employees: 1,289
% female employees: 51%
# of full service branches: 44
# of clients: 145,747
% of female clients: 45%
USD value of outstanding loan portfolio: $574 million
USD value of deposits: $99.9 million
*(as of December 31, 2013)