The following is part of an Africa Board Fellowship blog series spotlighting the experiences of participants and reflections from industry experts.
In the previous blog in this series, we reframed external challenges as a “normal” part of doing business for financial service providers (FSPs) targeting the base of the pyramid. And based on insights from Africa Board Fellows, we looked at specific ways board members can anticipate and even shape the challenging aspects of their operating environment. However, while most boards have more potential for external influence than they often exercise, there are always external factors that cannot be controlled. Boards must also continually focus on reducing the FSP’s vulnerability and enhancing its resilience
Beyond external awareness and efforts to shape the operating environment, boards can direct their institutions to take internal steps to minimize exposure to external shocks and increase the FSP’s ability to withstand changes in the operating environment. These steps aim to secure adequate financial cushions and human resources to cope with shocks.
- Strategic Planning: As part of strategic planning, the board should review external factors, including client demand, current and future market penetration of its own institution and competitors, and market saturation by area. The strategic plan should include multiple scenarios (e.g., conservative, base case, and optimistic) as well as short, medium and long-term targets. The plan should be reviewed and revised on a regular basis.
- Capital Adequacy: Board members bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the institution’s capital and liquidity are adequate to surmount whatever disruptions can reasonably be anticipated, and – just as important – ensuring that management takes quick action to cut costs if capital starts eroding. Improvement in the economic environment is often just around the corner, but it can remain around the corner just long enough for the institution to become insolvent and fail. For regulated institutions, regulators set minimum capital adequacy and liquidity ratios, but this does not absolve directors from the responsibility to determine whether additional capital and liquidity would be prudent. Directors can work with management to evaluate how capital and liquidity will be affected in various scenarios.
- Asset–Liability Management: Like any financial institution, FSPs are exposed to balance sheet mismatches, such as currency mismatches when borrowing in dollars or euros. While avoiding hard currency loans may not always be feasible, CEOs and board members should scrutinize foreign currency exposure carefully and limit it to levels that the institution can absorb if currency devaluation does occur. To prepare for currency fluctuations, Vision Fund Zambia’s board instituted a policy against foreign currency denominated borrowing, as CEO Nkosilathi Moyo describes in this interview. Passing foreign exchange risk on to clients by denominating loans in foreign currency is usually not an effective risk management technique, as most clients are even less able to absorb such risk than the FSP lender.
- Staff Training and Incentives: As part of their fundamental responsibility for the viability of their institution, directors must closely scrutinize how management proposes to train and incentivize staff to ensure that they support strong operational procedures that appropriately retain and encourage staff. Staff knowledge and loyalty can be essential in a crisis situation.
Inevitably, with all the best efforts and preparation, some external events cannot be avoided. But this doesn’t mean they cannot be planned for, even if they may take very different forms. Boards can be better prepared to recover from shocks if they take the following steps:
- Board Composition and Training: Board self-evaluations should be performed on at least an annual basis to ensure the right skills are represented and to identify gaps. Any areas of improvement should be addressed by training, bringing in experts, and field visits to other institutions that have successfully dealt with relevant challenges and opportunities. Proactively taking these steps can help directors be more prepared for the unexpected.
- Executive Committee of the Board: The ability to act quickly can be crucial to responding successfully to external shocks. Many boards have directors in far-flung locations, and it may be hard to assemble a quorum. Even when formal decisions are not required, the CEO and senior management will benefit from the counsel and insights of board members. Many boards designate a small executive committee, usually drawn from in-country directors, authorized to take decisions and provide counsel to management between meetings of the full board.\
- Disaster Planning and Recovery: Board directors should ensure that contingency plans addressing a variety of common challenges are prepared and kept up to date. These will cover matters ranging from “phone trees” indicating who calls who to confirm staff safety and whereabouts in the event of a natural disaster or security threat, to secure offsite data backup and recovery to succession planning in the event of loss of a key manager. As Resi Janssen of FFSL South Sudan notes, the first priority in a serious crisis is to ensure that staff are safe.
FSPs operate in dynamic environments where challenges and opportunities are constantly changing. Board directors with a good understanding of the institution’s strengths and weaknesses and a grasp on the operating environment play a crucial role in helping shape the environment over the medium term, and ensuring that the FSP and its management are resilient and prepared.
CFI is currently recruiting fellows for the next cohort of the Africa Board Fellowship Program. If you or someone you know is a board member or executive at an Africa-based MFI or financial service provider, we recommend considering this opportunity.