Goodbye…and Viva Accion!

Elisabeth Rhyne is retiring. On this occasion, she reflects on “Aha!” moments that revealed the future for Accion and CFI.

The original CFI staff at a launch event in 2008.

Today, after 18 years with Accion, including 11 as Managing Director of the Center for Financial Inclusion, I’m saying goodbye.

It’s hard to know where to begin to say farewell, but to start at the real beginning for me, I go back to a USAID conference 1986 when I heard Jeff Ashe, then one of Accion’s senior staff members, describe the dramatic success Accion was having with solidarity group lending to tricicleros in the Dominican Republic. He announced that Accion was reaching many hundreds, if not thousands (!) of clients, having them all pay their loans back (!!), and covering the costs of lending (!!!).

“There’s gotta be a catch,” I thought, as did others at the conference. “He’s a snake oil salesman. It’s too good to be true.” None of the small business loan programs I knew in the international development arena came anywhere close to those achievements. Actually, Jeff is an extremely persuasive salesman. But he was not inflating those results. Accion was onto something, and it grew from there.

I’ve been a fan of Accion ever since: for its social mission (to give people the tools to work their way out of poverty), its philosophy (marrying social purpose with private sector principles), its skill (both technical know-how and ability to make good decisions) and its mistica (the shared spirit that turns staff and supporters into a family of Accionistas). For over three decades I have watched Accion create breakthrough after breakthrough, and for the past two decades I have been fortunate enough to contribute to some of them.

That speech of Jeff’s was my first Accion-linked “Aha!” moment, but many others followed:

  • Maria Otero coming into my office at USAID in 1991, brimming with the exciting news that Accion’s affiliate in Bolivia, Prodem, was going to become a commercial bank. Imagine, an NGO could become BancoSol.
  • Sitting next to Senator Ted Kennedy at the White House while President Clinton presented former Accion CEO Bill Burrus with an award for its work in the U.S. In my excitement, I elbowed the Senator and told him that Accion’s home base was in Massachusetts. He received the news politely.
  • Waiting for an official in Abuja to petition for a license to open Accion Microfinance Bank Nigeria. After greeting us, the man stepped out. “Just a moment. I’ll be right back.” Six hours later, despite many assurances, he had not returned, and we left to catch our flight back to Lagos.
  • The investor meeting for the formation of Accion Investments, on the morning after an enormous snowstorm in Washington. The Europeans wore suits, ties and dress shoes. The American from IFC wore a sweatshirt and unlaced rubber boots.
  • A senior staff meeting in which the shocking realization began to dawn on us all that the Compartamos IPO could increase Accion’s balance sheet by as much as $45 million, turning a scrappy technical assistance provider and fledgling investor into a social impact investing powerhouse. We were elated to think we could receive $45 million. In the event, the IPO contributed over $300 million.
  • Meeting a ponytailed Brian Kuwik at the doughnut shop at Shoprite supermarket in Koomatiport, South Africa, and offering him a job.
  • Lighting a lamp to ceremonially launch our first India office in Bangalore.

Most of these memories represent “Aha!” moments when the possibilities came into focus for a bigger and bolder future for both Accion and the microfinance/financial inclusion movement. And in each case, the vision that these moments created became reality.

Accion took itself, its partners and the field where they didn’t know they could go: solidarity group lending, transforming NGOs into financial institutions, cracking the capital markets with guarantee and equity funds, breaking out of Latin America to become a global organization, and leading the way in fintech for the underserved. I have been lucky indeed to be along for that rollicking journey.

And then, CFI

CFI is part of a generous spirit that has been with Accion from the early days: the intent to share learning with and among the other participants in the sector. It is also part of Accion’s ambition to create a financially inclusive world, not just a financially inclusive project.

CFI began when the commercial model of microfinance had swept through the sector and the concept of financial inclusion was starting to emerge. With an increasing commercial and investor voices animating the sector, and with new players who had not shared in the microfinance experience, it became CFI’s role to hold the sector to the high standards implied by the social mission, and especially to urge it to do right by clients.

There have been “Aha!” moments for me at CFI, too, like listening to a veteran political campaign strategist talk and realizing that we could use similar campaign techniques to make a difference in protecting clients – resulting in the Smart Campaign. Or realizing that the board members of microfinance institutions are highly important to the success of the sector but were woefully un-supported in their work – leading to the Africa Board Fellowship Program. Or hearing Jennifer Tescher talk about financial health – and deciding to see how it could apply in the developing world. Or looking at the demographic data that our Credit Suisse global fellow showed us and realizing that aging is a fast-rising issue in some of our geographies, not just the OECD. Or calling for full financial inclusion in 2020 and hearing the World Bank take up the rallying cry.

In all these efforts, CFI has tried to speak the truths the sector needs to hear, in a constructive way. I am confident that, under the energetic leadership of Mayada El-Zoghbi, it will continue that tradition.

CFI has tried to speak the truths the sector needs to hear, in a constructive way.

But as I clean out my files and transfer my electronic life, what’s on my mind most are the friends and colleagues I will no longer chat with in the kitchen or find waiting at the end of a long plane ride or the other end of a video call. I would love to give a shout out to each of you, including many CFI-ers and Accionistas from both the present and the past. I have mostly been a cheerleader urging you on while you did the work. I will miss you greatly, though I intend to stay in touch. Accion does have a mistica that ties past and present Accionistas together, and I hope it will keep nurturing that spirit as it pursues the new breakthroughs it is bound to discover.

A very fond goodbye, and viva la mistica!

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