Why Has Islamic Microfinance Not Reached Scale Yet?

If there are so many poor Muslims in the world, and if the overwhelming majority of those Muslims do not have access to financial services, and if two thirds of these either insist or prefer having financial products that comply with Sharia, and if there are MFIs that are providing Islamic microfinance services, then what went wrong? How come in a country like Bangladesh, the largest MFI or bank providing products complying with Sharia reach only 100,000 active borrowers compared to the 22 million active borrowers reached by Grameen Bank, BRAC, and ASA, all of which are providing conventional products? The Arab World is no different. While we have conventional MFIs reaching tens and hundreds of thousands of active borrowers, Islamic MFIs have stagnated below 10,000 thousand active borrowers and in most of the cases only have 2-3 thousand active borrowers. Why hasn’t microfinance succeeded in reaching as many clients as conventional microfinance?

Islamic Financing Instruments: In addition to Al-Qard Al-Hassan (the benevolent loan), the loan with zero return, the literature separates the other Islamic financing instruments into two main categories:

1) Debt like financing (non profit and lost sharing) such as: Murabaha (cost plus mark up), Ijara waqtina’ (leasing), bai’ salam (forward contracts) and bai’ mua’jjal (spot sale), etc.

2) Investment Financing (profit and lost sharing) such as: Mudaraba (Trustee Financing), Musharaka (Equity Participation), Musaqat (Orchard Financing), Muzar’ah (Share of Harvest) and Direct Investment.

For more on Islamic financing instruments, click here.

So far, the focus for Islamic microfinance practitioners has been on debt financing instruments that closely resemble conventional microfinance. The most widely offered Sharia-compliant contract is Murabaha (cost plus markup sale contract), an asset-based sale transaction used to finance goods needed as working capital. Typically, the client requests a specific commodity for purchase, which the financier procures directly from the market and subsequently resells to the client, after adding a fixed “mark-up” for the service provided.

According to the 2008 CGAP focus note on Islamic Microfinance:                                                                                                                                                                              
“Although there is ample evidence of demand for Islamic microfinance products, this demand can only be met if low-income clients are convinced that the products offered are authentically Islamic. Critics of Islamic finance products suggest that the pricing of some products offered as Sharia-compliant too closely parallels (or even exceeds) the pricing of conventional products. For example, some institutions offering Murabaha, seem to disguise interest as a cost markup or administration fee.”

The cost of Murabaha involves more than simply giving the money to a borrower so he/she can go and buy the items needed for their enterprise. Costs are elevated by the additional staffing costs incurred when staff members accompany clients to buy the goods/materials/equipment covered by the loan — on top of all of the transactions completed in conventional lending. To minimize this cost, in most cases, MFIs try to minimize the number of loans by giving larger loans to a smaller number of borrowers. As a result, they either serve less impoverished clients, clients who were not impoverished, or they serve a poor client with a loan larger than his/her capacity to pay.

In addition, in most cases, Murabaha does not allow a late payment fee, and MFIs seems to take that into consideration when they price their product. Murabaha also tends to be less flexible, and does not allow borrowers to get cash they need to pay other expenses, such as utilities. Some MFIs even began to use what is called Alwakala Alnaqdeyyah, according to which, instead of giving the cash to the client as in the conventional lending or buying the goods/materials/equipment, the MFI gives the cash to the guarantor of the borrower after having the second signing a wakala which authorizes the guarantor to buy things for the borrower. All of these factors could be behind the limited outreach of MFIs offering Murabaha, as compared to MFIs using conventional microfinance. It seems to me that what was done so far is copying and pasting from conventional microfinance.

Many practitioners simply added another product instead of devising a new business model. When the conventional microcredit/microfinance movement began in the late 70s, the pioneers at that time thought outside the box of the conventional banking and its business models and came up with new models which proved over the years that the poor are credit worthy and can take loans and pay them back without the need for the collaterals conventional banks ask for and can pay high enough interest rate to cover the cost of the operations and to allow the MFI/bank to make some profit. We need to think outside the box of conventional microfinance and its business models and come up with new models that comply with the Sharia on the one hand, and that can reach millions of poor Muslims with financial services on a sustainable basis.

Those MFIs that focused on Al Qard Hassan products with no fees or a small fee were unable to cover operational costs and remained dependent on subsidies which prevented a wide outreach. The other MFIs used Murabaha which is the closest to the conventional microcredit and raised suspicions about their compliance with Sharia law. To be sustainable, MFIs charged rates and fees that were equal or higher than the rates of conventional loans making clients wary because of the high cost of services.

Moreover, low-income populations, who often rely on local religious leaders to address religious issues, These leaders seem to perceive the Murabaha as if it is simply a “rebranding” of conventional finance and not truly reflective of Islamic principles. More efforts should be invested in convincing those local leaders and the poor clients, with the authenticity of the Islamic financial products if Islamic microfinance is to reach its full potential.

The Islamic Microfinance Challenge 2010 was organized to encourage thinking outside the box and the design of new business models.


07 September 2012 Submitted by Alhassan Ali Abidin (not verified)

I think that the very problem that inhibits IMFIs to get to full scale is the lack of understanding of the generic sharia models by clients and policy makers especially in sub saharan Africa. It seems that islamic microfinance is an entirely “new” model and it needs constant education and orientation before there can be a head way. The other issue has to deal with the lack of support and willingness by potential partners and sponsors to put into action, the “new” concept of islamic microfinance so as to lead the way both in equity financing and in marketing it. I personally think that there is huge potential in the inslamic microfinance market niche, but for now we have to deal with the orientation and marketing so as to make those models widely acceptable.

07 September 2012 Submitted by Abdi Abokor Yusuf (not verified)

One important issue that is fundamental for for Sharia compliant products is that risk should be shared by the different partners. In the conventional microfinance, the client bears the risks and the bank always relies on its principal plus the profit. Therefore, in order to implement sharia compliant products a substantial orientation, and putting into action the equity financing methods will be a better option rather than spending much effort into the suspicious rebranded conventional methods.

07 September 2012 Submitted by Ammar Al-waeel (not verified)

There are many reasons but two important thing I believe are affecting:

Firstly, the leak of funders for Islamic Microfinance institutions, there are many funders for conventional MFIs but how many are there supporting Islamic MFIs. Founders or donors are the biggest player in the Microfinance sector so those funders are missing in the Islamic microfinance.
Some MFIs try to provide Shariah-compliant product and services to their clients but they need to take conventional loans themselves from funders to found their liquidity and portfolio requirements, and that do not allow the MIFs to be Islamic Microfinance.
we need Donors and founders specifically for Islamic Microfinance institutions. The Islamic bank for development should take a leading role on this.

Secondly, There are no academic institutions specialized in Microfinance Research, which will support researchers and encourage them to do research on this critical issue. Because MFIs do not have enough budget to create unique Shariah-compliant product , so they just copy other’s available products.
This blog and or website is the only place where somebody can find information about Islamic Microfinance, which is not enough to develop an industry.

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