Last year, the 2020 Inclusive Fintech 50 competition recognized 50 fintech startups that were adapting to the COVID pandemic in remarkable ways, continuing to deliver valuable services to excluded communities in a time of acute need.

This year, the 2021 IF50 competition seeks to recognize early-stage, inclusive fintech startups that are continuing to push the frontier of financial inclusion, driving innovation in an era of uncertainty. The competition seeks to spotlight startup teams that are helping low-income customers and micro and small enterprises not just respond to the emergency, but rebound, rebuild, and recover after the past year’s devastation. Managing Director of CFI, Mayada El-Zoghbi, highlighted the timeliness of the theme noting, “As the world continues to wrestle with the challenges presented by the pandemic, fintechs can play an important role in helping those most impacted move towards recovery. For example, by supporting micro and small enterprises, which have been devastated by the pandemic but will be ground zero for eventual economic recoveries across the developing world.”

As the COVID pandemic continues to rage in many parts of the world, fintech startups and services have proven to be an invaluable lifeline for vulnerable people, enabling remittances, G2P payments, and emergency hospicash. Their value has not been limited to emerging markets, digital payments have almost doubled in volume globally, and the use of fintech apps has soared in developed markets. In both developed and emerging markets, we have seen remarkable growth in mobile money uptake, the volume of fintech transactions, and even investment in fintech.

These higher rates of fintech acceptance present new opportunities for startups to deliver effective financial services to underserved people. As Mark Pickens, Senior Director of Social Impact, Visa Inc., a founding sponsor of the competition, noted, “Digital payments are an onramp for financial inclusion, helping people and businesses meet their needs and stay afloat in the current context.”

Not only are more people using fintech solutions more frequently and for more use cases, but their financial needs and habits are also already changing in lasting ways. Savings rates have increased in India, even as unemployment has increased and salaries have decreased. Demand for insurance has also increased, in developed markets like the UK, but also in emerging markets like India and across the continent of Africa.

These changes mean that fintech startups have the opportunity to go beyond short-term fixes, like emergency savings, repayment flexibility, and fee waivers and reductions, which many implemented in response to the pandemic last year. Fintech startups can rise to meet new needs and habits of underserved people, to enable the rebuilding that is needed going forward. Maelis Carraro, Director of Catalyst Fund and an IF50 judge, observed, “Throughout the pandemic, fintech startups demonstrated their ability to adapt to meet their users’ needs and have seized the opportunity to do so. Now more than ever, users need their agility, creativity, and innovation to enable an inclusive recovery.”

To innovate during these difficult times and deliver solutions for recovery and rebuilding, startups will need to shift their focus to longer-term financial health and resilience. Krishna Thacker of Metlife Foundation, co-founding sponsor of IF50 noted that, “At MetLife Foundation, we recognize the ability of tech to reach low-income people further and faster, but we’re also focused on engaging the customer and changing their financial outcomes. Through Inclusive Fintech 50, we want to identify, recognize and support organizations that are going beyond inclusion to build resilience and financial health for low-income customers – a need highlighted by the pandemic.”

Fintech startups are already recognizing this opportunity:

Dinarak, a fintech startup that won the 2019 IF50 competition, helped the Government of Jordan deliver social transfers digitally soon after the pandemic broke out. In doing so, recipients were registered for a Dinarak wallet, and the startup became known as the bank for poor people. With the customer acquisition and trust challenges largely addressed, the startup can now turn its attention to designing products and services that can help these users rebuild their lives and livelihoods.

  • In Ghana, last year’s IF50 winner OZE was able to leverage data from small businesses using their management app to offer them emergency credit precisely when they needed it most.
  • South Africa’s A2Pay was able to make a similar adaptation, offering spazas (informal convenience shops in townships) working capital to stock inventory precisely when they lacked the liquidity to do so.
  • Finally, AwanTunai, a 2019 IF50 winner, has helped hundreds of SMEs digitize payments, invoicing, and purchasing, which has enabled them to survive COVID lockdowns.

However, these opportunities are not guaranteed. Pickens noted that, “Fintechs are key to enhancing access and the benefits of digital adoption for the underserved. Visa is committed to work with the payments ecosystem on initiatives such as Inclusive Fintech 50, to support small and micro business owners to become digitally enabled and rebuild stronger, more competitive and resilient businesses for the recovery of our communities.”

To encourage and spotlight startup efforts that go above and beyond, this year’s IF50 judging panel is looking for startups, like those mentioned above, that are helping to rebuild economies, communities, and households in ways that are more inclusive, resilient, and empowering. El-Zogbhi notes, “As difficult as this crisis has been, it has prompted a surge in fintech innovation and an openness to new ideas, the benefits of which could be applied to other challenges beyond the pandemic. We need to be intentional about how we can use this as a springboard for making advances elsewhere, such as with women’s financial inclusion, the responsible use of data, and in navigating the impacts of climate change.”

The IF50 competition brings together leaders in the inclusive fintech community, including startups, investors, and experts. The judging panel consists of leading investors, startup founders, and other stakeholders, each with a unique ability to identify models, features, and channels that can truly transform people’s lives.

Not only will participating startups benefit from the exposure and networking among the judging panel, but winners of the competition will also be globally recognized as leading the way in inclusive fintech. This year’s winners will be featured along with leading investors and industry experts during Financial Inclusion Week, an annual series of digital events organized by CFI to bring together the inclusive finance community to exchange on the latest developments and key issues facing the sector, in early November. Such exposure and networking improve startup visibility and credibility among investors; 19 winners from the 2019 cohort have since raised $182.5 million. Winners will also be featured in research and insights work at the Center for Financial Inclusion.

Moreover, this year’s award package includes new support tools from Visa. Winners will be able to take advantage of Practical Business Skills, a global digital platform created by Visa to deliver free educational resources to help small and micro business owners make confident, informed decisions to grow their businesses. Winners will be able to customize and co-brand this turn-key solution to support the local recovery efforts of the small and micro-businesses they serve. Winners who are eligible for Fintech Fast Track will be automatically pre-qualified for the program, which provides access to Visa’s ecosystem partners, online licensing and APIs to help fintechs enhance and introduce new and innovative payment experiences. These tools, together with the networking and platform that IF50 provides, serve as an invaluable platform for startups at the earliest stages of their journey.

Inclusive Fintech 50 is sponsored by MetLife Foundation, Visa, and Jersey Overseas Aid & Comic Relief, with support from Accion and IFC. There is no fee to apply, and we encourage all interested fintechs to submit their applications within four weeks of the competition launch on June 28. Applications will be accepted in English, Spanish, and French. The 2021 winners will be announced in October.


Malika Anand

Head of Insights and Learning, Catalyst Fund, BFA

Malika extracts, authors, and packages insights to support the growth of the inclusive fintech sector. She facilitates learning with other fintech accelerators via Catalyst Fund’s XL Labs. Malika also supports Knowledge Management across BFA Global by facilitating a firm-wide learning agenda, and authoring and editing knowledge resources. She has worked in financial inclusion, corporate social responsibility, and user experience at CGAP, The Coca-Cola Company, and various social enterprises. She holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago, and was a Fulbright Fellow in the Dominican Republic.

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