Tuesday 28th September 2021
This month we are very happy to welcome Banco LAFISE Honduras to the Alliance. Part of the LAFISE Group, which was founded more than 36 years ago with a presence in 11 countries, Banco LAFISE in Honduras serves personal, business and corporate segments with a variety of products and services. We spoke with General Manager Lizzeth Villatoro about the bank’s strategic vision, her personal commitment to the women of Honduras, and her determination to develop a strategy focused on women.
Alliance: To give our global readers some context, can you tell us about Banco LAFISE’s market position in Honduras and Central America, and the organization’s overall strategic vision?
LV: We are a regional financial group with presence in 11 countries, providing services to more than 550,000 customers through almost 200 branches and more than 4,000 staff, which allows us to position ourselves as the regional financial leader.
Our strategic vision is to contribute to the economic and social development of the communities in which we work as well as to the well-being of our staff and customers.
By actively listening to our customers and advancing by leaps and bounds in terms of digital transformation, we aim to generate memorable experiences based on a four-pillar approach:
Alliance: With over 15 banks and financial institutions in Honduras, how does Banco LAFISE differentiate itself in the market? Is the women’s segment part of this differentiation strategy?
LV: We are known for providing a comprehensive offering designed for each of the sectors we work in by focusing on customization, innovation, security and support at every step and process. In recent years our focus on certain niche has allowed us to position ourselves as a leader in areas such as managing and administering trusts and the providing credit to the agriculture sector to support its economic re-development.
As a result of the success in these niche focus areas and our emphasis on financial and gender inclusion, LAFISE has challenged ourselves to become recognized as the bank of SMEs and women-owned SMEs in particular. We are in the process of developing a commercial strategy, through a consultancy with the IFC, which seeks to tap into the business opportunity that women SMEs represent through personalized service models, workshops on gender intelligence and the development of a financial and non-financial value proposition.
Alliance: Honduras ranks 67th out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report and 52nd in terms of economic participation and opportunity. What are the main problems women face in participating fully in the Honduran economy?
LV: As part of the consultancy with the IFC, we conducted a comprehensive market study to identify the opportunities and challenges for women in Honduras. Although Honduras’ position in the World Economic Forum report is not low, we realized that there is still a lot of work to be done.
In particular, we saw that Honduras lags behind the rest of Central America in legal aspects, in terms of compensation incentives, parental benefits and retirement, according to the Women, Business and the Law 2021 report. This is the structure that we are building on and a weak regulatory environment is detrimental to women’s full participation in the country’s economy.
Alliance: When it comes to accessing financial services in Honduras, what are the main barriers that women face? What are the sectors with the largest gaps?
LV: Through various studies we have identified that around 66 percent of formal SMEs have difficulty accessing credit. Women across the region also face higher barriers to accessing formal financial services, as they tend to be less familiar with financial products and services than men, which limits their usage. Women find it particularly difficult to access to credit due to perceived high costs, excessive requirements and cumbersome processes. Women also tend to distrust banks and perceive that banks discriminate them.
We also found that this lack of knowledge and outreach results in women seeking more expensive but theoretically more accessible financing, such as family loans, informal lenders, and financing through personal credit cards, among others, which limits their opportunities for growth.
In our studies, we were very surprised to find that while 70 percent of economically active women are single, there are few promotions or solutions that serve single, salaried women.
Alliance: Why did you decide to launch a strategy that specifically targets women? What are your plans for doing so?
LV: This initiative has been a personal dream of mine since I assumed the position of General Manager. When you are in a leadership position you must identify opportunities to support women around you. But the road was not an easy one and it has taken a lot of grit and determination. One of the challenges was how to “sell” a gender initiative to the Board of Directors and we considered several different schemes. We presented to the Board three times, but it wasn’t until January 2020 that we had the opportunity to participate in person at the All-Stars Academy in Ecuador, where we found networking and best practices. When we participated in the pitch competition at the Academy, I realized that I didn’t have all the arguments to present a solid business case. I also learned that I needed to connect the gender vision with the organization’s strategic vision and we realized that we could leverage proven models worldwide and implement them here. We went back and took this approach, which turned out even better than expected—the proposal we presented for Honduras was expanded into a regional project.
Based on the research conducted with IFC, we have decided to strengthen the foundation of our SME business model, including women-led SMEs. This will be achieved by improving the business management approach and lending processes for SMEs as well as implementing gender intelligence awareness training for the bank’s commercial staff and developing a value proposition for women’s sub-segments.
Finally, committing to gender initiatives also allows us to contribute to issues of financial inclusion and education.
Alliance: Sex-disaggregated data is vital to establish a baseline for a women-focused strategy, monitor performance and strengthen the business case. Have you started to process sex-disaggregated data internally yet? Did you face any challenges?
LV: Part of the IFC consultancy has certainly included an exhaustive analysis of our internal portfolio. And there we realized that we have a lot of data but we had never looked at it with a gender or inclusion lens. It has been a challenge to organize and analyze the data as we did not have a gender driver in our database.
The analysis helped us to confirm all the hypotheses we had presented to our committee. We found very interesting results and were able to analyze different dimensions of our clients, what financial products are used and who uses them, and how women’s financial needs and preferences differ from those of men.
Here I would like to share an essential learning with your global audience which is that data is very important…but so is perseverance, because it takes time.
Alliance: LAFISE is one of the only financial institutions in Honduras that is run by a woman. How is diversity and gender inclusion seen in the rest of the bank? Why is it important to you?
LV: Of the 15 banks in the financial sector, three of them are led by women. The other two are extraordinary women whom I admire very much. We are fortunate that the regulator is also led by a woman and has focused on this issue as well, especially on gender data collection. And the national development bank is also led by a woman.
It is clear to all of us that we have a legacy of responsibility in this area. As women in the financial industry, we must be enthusiastic leaders. The market is so broad that there is something for everyone. It’s not an industry secret. As long as someone takes the lead, I’m sure the competition will follow. And this will result in commercial products that impact the development of the country.
At LAFISE, focusing on Diversity and Inclusion allows us, among other things, to improve the work environment by understanding the differences in behavior between women and men and promoting steps forward. We also know that this implies a cultural change within the institution. Within the project we are working on a gender intelligence approach both horizontally and vertically.
Alliance: You participated in the All-Stars Academy America in 2019 and also sent a team to the All-Stars Academy in Spanish online earlier this year. What were the most important aspects learned during the Academy? How did your participation help you refine your strategy?
LV: I have participated in many forums, but I can say that the All-Stars marked my life. The atmosphere of openness and willingness to share was really impressive. This is the attitude we need to have an impact in the world.
My team also participated in the online learning of the All-Stars Academy online, which was very important. Among the most important aspects the team learned were the importance of active listening, the importance of leveraging key indicators with a common purpose, speaking the customer’s language, understanding women’s distinct financial needs and preferences, building a culture that enables the bank to meet women’s needs, and the importance of being a gender ambassador at the top, as the awareness will cascade down throughout the organization.
Alliance: How did you first hear about the Financial Alliance for Women and why did you decide to join?
LV: We learned about the Alliance through our relationship with IFC when we were searching for models to develop gender strategies. It was an exciting invitation and it has exceeded all of our expectations.
We believe that your actions should reflect who you are; we believe that the actions developed by the Alliance and being part of it raises us to a level of commitment as active members and participants. We are confident that as a united community we can motivate more organizations to join us and become a platform that supports more and more women to become economically active and take a leading role in their lives.