Why blame the MFIs alone?

Microfinance investment vehicles control huge capital and by virtue of that they are often able to channelize cross-border flows significantly. These and related institutions should come under proper regulation, reporting and disclosure requirements

I recently read a book, Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way And Betrayed the Poor” by Hugh Sinclair, (2012) published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.


The book was a very interesting read but the claims made by the author jolted me. Among several other things, the author Sinclair claims that reputed institutions like Grameen Foundation, microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) such as Triple Jump (TJ) which manages several funds (on behalf of ASN Novib, Calvert Foundation, etc) and big global banks like Standard Chartered, Deutsche and Citi—invested in LAPO, a Nigerian MFI—despite knowing that LAPO was: a) involved in (illegal) intermediation of client savings; and b) charging phenomenally high rate of interests (over 100%).

While I will be reviewing the book separately in a later column, here I try and look at some of the claims made in the book:

a)    Illegal Intermediation of Savings:

"Some rating reports of LAPO published by a company called MicroRate had specifically discussed some of these points, including the illegal lending of client savings. MicroRate was surprisingly accurate in its analysis of LAPO, stretching back to 2006, and yet investors had somehow managed to overlook the criticisms raised in their reports." (Page No.93 of Sinclair's book)

"What I hadn't realized at this point was the complicity of the microfinance funds in such practices How much did these guys know about the truth of microfinance? Were they actually deceiving their own investors, or were they simply naïve? Or were they actually working with these extortionate MFIs in the hope that they might reap the huge rewards of a stock market flotation, as the shareholders of Compartamos had?" (Page No.104 of the book)

"By July 2007 most of the truth about LAPO was known by Triple Jump and Grameen Foundation. We hadn't actually discovered much 'new' information that hadn't been included in rating reports written years prior to our trips. We had merely added detail and supporting evidence to such discoveries. Somehow these factors had managed to evade the attention of the funds. Even when information that directly challenged the assumption of massive poverty reduction was known, this did not necessarily dissuade funds from investing in the MFIs. And if the funds were perceived as tolerating such practices, what incentive was there to prevent them?" (Page No.104 of the book)

"Of course, Calvert had no idea it had been deceived. Bruno Molijn, at Oxfam Novib, had remained suspiciously quiet during this entire process, although he had seen the entire situation emerge. What about the other investors in LAPO? Deutsche Bank might find this result interesting, as could Citibank and Standard Chartered. Muhammad Yunus was lecturing the world about the evils of extortionate interest rates, and yet Grameen Foundation was one of the largest investors and guarantors of LAPO. How could they square interest rates of 126% at LAPO with his usual speeches? " (Page No.133 of the book)

"MicroRate went on to discuss the practice of capturing savings: "Client savings intermediation without a license… Approximately one-third of the funding is provided by client deposits even though as an NGO, LAPO is not licensed to mobilize savings…. In MicroRate's opinion, this policy bears a serious risk…. LAPO is neither authorized nor adequately equipped to mobilize savings from the public… LAPO's present policy of using savings deposits to fund its operations-besides being illegal - exposes its clients to risks of which they are unaware… intermediating savings on a large scale without the proper authorization must be considered unacceptable" (emphasis added). A fund manager who failed to get the hint here should possibly not be managing a fund." (Page No.139 of the book)
"A number of lesser critiques appear in the reports, but there was little doubt that two consistent reports written by a reputable ratings agency had highlighted extremely dangerous, inappropriate behaviour. And yet such factors, written clearly in publicly available documents read by most microfinance funds, had not deterred the investors, who were also listed in the report.  These now included Triple Jump and ASN-Novib, Deutsche Bank, Citibank, Calvert Foundation (invested via Triple Jump), Kiva, and Grameen Foundation USA, somewhat in contradiction to Muhammad Yunus' usual stance on high interest rates." (Page No.139 of the book)
"For any of these funds to deny knowledge of LAPO's true nature was a double-edged sword-had their analysis not extended to reading a rating report? This would suggest unimpressive due diligence, one of the few functions of a passive fund manager. But to admit knowledge of these issues was akin to condoning it. "We knew about these issues and invested regardless" is an even more alarming response. The best course of action was to say nothing, which is precisely what the funds collectively did. If asked, drab comments such as "we are aware of the issues and are working with LAPO to resolve them blah blah" would suffice."  (Page No.139 of the book)

b)    Loan Product, Interest Rates and Savings:

"The next problem was that LAPO claimed to be charging clients 3% interest per month in interest for eight-month loans, or 24%. The actual number of weeks was 31-which is not eight months, but 7.15 months. The interest charged was 24% regardless of the fact that the client did not receive the loan for eight months. Thus the rate was not 3% per month, but 3.35% per actual month, or 40.26% per year. Clients were simply paying more interest on their loans than they should, while receiving less interest than they should on their savings. If 31 weeks was eight months, LAPO was implying that the year was only 46.5 weeks long, which appeared to be at odds with accepted wisdom… In addition to this, endless fees and commissions were charged to clients, and they were forced to make a 20% cash deposit in order to obtain a loan: more forced savings." (Page No.92 of the book)

"Most institutions using this practice keep the forced savings in a separate account that the bank cannot touch-this money does not belong to the bank but to the clients. Not at LAPO. LAPO would take these savings and promptly lend them back to clients, earning a hefty interest rate in the process and paying the clients peanuts on their savings, not even covering Nigerian inflation. Thus the real value of the clients' savings, even with the token interest payment, would be eroded through time-the poor would get ever so slightly poorer." (Page No.92 of the book)

"So, a client requesting a $100 loan would have to deposit $20, which would then be topped up by an additional $80 and lent to the client, with interest calculated on the basis of the original $100… With a regular mortgage, some form of deposit may be asked, but with one critical difference to the LAPO offering. If a house costs $100,000 and the bank insists on a deposit of $20,000, the bank in effect offers a mortgage of $80,000, and the client pays interest on only $80,000. At LAPO the client would pay interest on the full $100,000". (Page No.92 of the book)

"A final blow to the poor clients was the calculation of interest. Anyone with a mortgage is familiar with how interest rates are calculated-interest is paid on the amount outstanding. If one repays a portion of the mortgage, the interest paid on the mortgage goes down accordingly. Not at LAPO. LAPO uses an interest rate calculation method that is fortunately banned in many countries, called "flat interest rates."1 The ingenious benefit of charging clients flat interest is that the interest rate is calculated on the original loan amount even while the loan is being repaid. LAPO loans are repaid in 31 equal instalments over 31 weeks. Thus, after 15 weeks approximately half the loan has been repaid, but the interest is still calculated at 3% per month (which isn't actually a month) of the original loan amount (which they never actually received in the first place due to the forced savings and other fees and commissions deducted from the disbursed amount). In short, the clients were getting entirely fleeced in all ways possible." (Page No.92and 93 of the book)

"One might wonder why the investors in such MFIs aren't a little concerned about the interest rates charged to the poor. The problem is, to the extent that high interest rates reduce the possible impact on poverty, they boost the profitability of the MFI, and thus the MFI's ability to repay loans to the microfinance funds." (Page No.102 of the book)

c)    Due Diligence by MIVs and Global Institutions:

"Due diligence is the term applied to the exploratory investigations a fund sometimes does when researching a new potential MFI to lend to. Much of it is done from air-conditioned offices in Europe and the US, involving reading a rating report if one is available, perhaps requesting one if not, sitting on the Internet for a few hours, making a few phone calls, looking at the various sources of publicly available information, and speaking off the record to other funds that may have invested in the same MFI. The funds will sometimes physically visit the MFI, although amazingly this is not true in all cases. Funds are naturally hesitant to admit the proportion of their investments that they have never actually visited. They may well be taking money from pensioners in Europe and invest them in some small MFI in an unfamiliar African nation without ever actually visiting the MFI." (Page No.75 of the book)

d)    Savings and IT systems:

"Our job was to fix the IT system, a scope thankfully limited to only one of the gaping holes in the institution, and toward this goal we began the march. The first issue to consider was why the database contained so much nonsense data. The problems seemed to revolve around two issues, both related to interest rates. M2 was apparently calculating the interest on client savings accounts incorrectly. The communication between LAPO and Weng suggested a grave error in M2 that no other M2 client had detected. LAPO paid clients 6% per year on their savings balances, which is 0.5% per month. However, when LAPO configured M2 accordingly, a client with $100 in savings would end up with marginally more than $106 at the end of the year. This was wrong, according to LAPO." (Page No.90 and 91 of the book)

"After one month, a client with a balance of $100 would earn $0.50 in interest. The following month the client would earn slightly more, since the interest was then calculated on a balance of $100.50 rather than the initial $100. The effect of this over an entire year would accumulate, so that the final balance of the savings account would not be $106, but $106.17. This basic law of finance, called compounding, had evaded the entire institution. "(Page No.91 of the book)

"LAPO's solution to this critical 'flaw' in M2, apparently unique to it was to ask Grameen Foundation USA to help. Weng was well versed in the basic laws of finance and accounting and had been unable to find any problem in M2-because there was no problem. Grameen Foundation sent a consultant over to Nigeria to fix the problem, which he had apparently done." (Page No.91 of the book)

"Jose Manuel discovered large batches of transactions executed in precisely the same second that 'corrected' the savings balances. All such transactions had a mysterious user ID: transactionkiller. Users could select a username at will, but we thought this name was unusual. We asked the IT department about this unusual user. "Ah, that is special tool that Grameen Foundation made for us. It makes the problem go away." Grameen Foundation's tool made the problem go away by siphoning money that clients were rightfully owed from their savings accounts. The $106.17 in savings of these poor clients was reduced manually back to $106. "(Page No.91 of the book)

"All the savings balances were false. Every single one. This tool was designed by Grameen Foundation USA, not some irresponsible local IT geek; LAPO management was aware of its use; the auditors had approved the accounts; and some of the largest microfinance funds on earth were investing in this institution. The tool had its own button on each desktop to automate the process. "(Page No.91 and 92 of the book)

Finding it hard to believe these enormous claims, I asked Sinclair for evidence regarding the claims made in his book and he pointed me to some documents in the public domain (and at the book website - www.microfinancetransparency.com) as being relevant to the LAPO case. A couple of documents relating to Triple Jump (TJ) he claimed that he did not possess on hand but stated that he had seen them at work (as described in the book).

In my opinion, after having seen the various documents, I feel that it may be difficult for Sinclair to prove some of his claims with regard to intentions and related issues. But I think there are a couple of key issues here that are worthy of detailed attention: a) the aspect of whether (or not) LAPO had indulged in illegal savings intermediation; and b) the issue of whether (or not) LAPO's interest rates were as exorbitantly high as claimed by Sinclair. And I look at these issues in a question and answer format and try to provide evidence from the public domain!

Read On…

Question # 1: Who were the investors in LAPO?

While transparent information is not available to date, a look at the MicroRate rating report (2007) suggests the following:

Question # 2: Did LAPO collect Savings?

I looked at my favourite data source, the mix market and compiled the following data. Clearly as the data reveals, LAPO has been collecting savings for several years now. It is also interesting to note that the number of depositors has always exceeded number of active borrowers since 2005, implying that LAPO also perhaps collected voluntary savings! In 2008 alone, LAPO was in fact servicing 45,000 more depositors than active borrowers.
Question # 3: Was LAPO legally allowed to intermediate client savings (back then in the years - 2006, 2007 etc- preceding its transformation)?

MicroRate's 2007 rating report (Lift Above Poverty Organization (LAPO) Rating Report by MicroRate, December 2007) clearly mentions the following:  

"Client savings intermediation without a license and without an appropriate structure" as a weakness (Page No. 1).

"Borrowings are well diversified among a large number of mainly foreign lenders. Approximately one-third of funding is provided by client deposits even though as an NGO, LAPO is not licensed to mobilize savings." (Page No. 5)

"With a cost of only 4%-5%, savings deposits are a much cheaper source of funding than commercial credits. Recognizing this, LAPO has strongly pushed savings mobilization. In MicroRate's opinion, this policy bears a serious risk since as a NGO, LAPO is neither authorized nor adequately equipped to mobilize savings from the public." (Page No. 5)

"LAPO's present policy using savings deposits to fund its operations-besides being illegal-exposes its clients to risks of which they are unaware." (Page No.6)

Question # 4: Was LAPO's loan product legal back then (in the years 2006, 2007, etc preceding its transformation)?

As LAPO's collection and intermediation of savings was illegal as mentioned above, LAPO's loan product is also (perhaps) illegal as collection of savings was an integral part of this loan product

Question # 5: Did LAPO charge exorbitantly high rates of interest?

I have always been a strong advocate of de-regulated interest rates and have often championed this. However, I find it hard to accept that clients must borrow at rates in excess of 75% to 100%, whatever be the circumstances. Now for the evidence:

a)    The MicroRate rating report of 2005 notes that LAPO's loan products in 2005 were

b)    Likewise, the MicroRate Rating report of 2007 notes the following with LAPO's loan products in 2007
c)     And the Planet Finance rating report of 2009 notes that,

"Since the end of October 2009, all clients pay a 2.5% monthly flat interest rate (from 3% before), disbursement and administration fees, and a 2% risk premium (covering clients in case of fire or death).  Earlier in 2009 before that change of pricing, LAPO increased the amount of cash collateral requested as compulsory savings prior to loan disbursement, from 10% to 20% of the loan amount (upfront) and from 50 to 100 NGN at each instalment. Compulsory savings earn interest at a rate of 4% per annum (from 6% before). The decrease in interest rates coupled with the increase in the level of cash collateral, resulted in an increase of the average Effective Interest Rate (EIR) for the clients to 125.9% from 114.3% before. "  (Lift Above Poverty Organization (LAPO) Rating Report by Planet Rating, December 2009, Page No.6)

d)       The icing on the cake is however what Microfinance Transparency is said to have noted.

"LAPO had its pricing certified by Microfinance Transparency as of December 2010 for its Regular Loan. The average price for a first-time loan with insurance was estimated at 80%, expressed as a nominal APR. Since then, the average APR for Regular Loan decreased to around 76%. However, Microfinance Transparency also noted that as the client remains with LAPO, the APR can reach between 99% and 144% by the third year (depending on the loan amount and increase at each cycle) due to the cost of accumulating weekly savings that cannot be withdrawn." (Lift Above Poverty Organization (LAPO) Rating Report by Planet Rating, December 2011, Page No.7)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am not sure that any MFI which charges an effective interest rate (EIR) of around 144% is in anyway doing something even remotely connected to poverty alleviation.

To summarise, as a practitioner of micro-finance for over two decades, after reading Hugh's Sinclair's book, I am very concerned about several issues:

1.    First and foremost, how did the then funders (given in Table 1 earlier and other subsequent investors (Responsibility, Blue Orchid, etc)-get involved with LAPO despite its carrying on illegal savings intermediation activity as per the rating reports available in the public domain?

2.    Second, was there not any due diligence on the part of the various funders and investors and if so, did not this due diligence uncover these crucial facts (also available in the public domain)?

3.    If the due diligence brought out the key facts (also available in the public domain), then, why on earth did these well known and reputed institutions invest in LAPO, despite knowing that something illegal was going on?

4.    If the due diligence did not uncover the true facts, then, what does it say about the quality of due diligence at these well known institutions? Also, if due diligence had indeed been of poor quality, did subsequent internal audit processes at these institutions uncover the fact that due diligence was not up to the mark? It would be very interesting to understand this!

This is especially critical because many of these institutions are dealing with public money and also intermediating deposits. Therefore, they carry a huge responsibility to ensure that the funds entrusted with them are invested in a safe and sound manner. Forget LAPO and hopefully it is just one case but what is the guarantee that there are no more LAPOs around? That needs to be answered fair and square.

5.    Given that they are very key players in the financial inclusion domain, how are MIVs, global banks and related institutions regulated with regard to their micro-finance activity and investments? They control huge amounts of capital and by virtue of that they are often able to channelize cross-border flows significantly. We saw what happened in India after the Krishna crisis of 2006 when huge equity flows and external commercial borrowings coupled with local bank funding created a perfect storm (as Mix Market has noted) to trigger the 2010 Andhra Pradesh microfinance crisis. Given that, should not MIVs and related institutions come under proper regulation with relevant reporting and disclosure requirements? This is especially critical because they all intermediate and invest public money- collected as deposits from public, donations from individuals etc and/or contributions from national governments.

All of the above are very serious issues and I would expect every institution involved in the LAPO case to make public their answers to these questions. While I tried my best to contact many of these investors, some of them replied and others did not. But even those who replied often skirted the real issues... I really hope that the global microfinance industry wakes up to the reality and sets its house in order… And for GOD's sake, let not shoot the messenger. Let us follow-up Sinclair's huge contribution and make sure that cleansing actually happens on the ground!

(Ramesh Arunachalam has over two decades of strong grass-roots and institutional experience in rural finance, MSME development, agriculture and rural livelihood systems, rural and urban development and urban poverty alleviation across Asia, Africa, North America and Europe. He has worked with national and state governments and multilateral agencies. His book-"Indian Microfinance, The Way Forward"-is the first authentic compendium on the history of microfinance in India and its possible future.)

[i] Investors are listed in the ratings, which are publicly available. However, not all investments are publicly available, so it is hard to estimate who is, and was, the largest investor. Supporting evidence on the book website.

[ii] MicroRate 2007 LAPO rating, p. 6, also subsequent “unacceptable” reference.

[iii] MicroRate 2007 LAPO rating, p. 5.

[iv] The 2% are distributed between LAPO (1%) and MISS (1%), an affiliated company (refer to the section on LAPO group) that provides this service to LAPO clients.

[v] The EIR without the cost of cash collateral decreased to 73.5% from 85.1% before. The EIR without the risk premium fee and the cost of cash collateral decreased to 65.7% from 78.8% before.


Hugh Sinclair
1 decade ago
Response to Barnes Cole

1. I apologize if I did not reply to Mr Cole’s previous posts. I may have missed them, inadvertently or otherwise.

2. Regarding his reference to the apparently significant date of July 16th, I have no idea to what he refers. I did 4 radio interviews that day and delivered a short presentation on the problem of child labour in microfinance. Perhaps Mr Cole could enlighten us?

3. That Mr Cole was unable to find anything different in the book from my “earlier writings” is unusual in that I had not previously commented so extensively on the Andhra Pradesh scandal; the Nicaraguan crisis; the role of the MIVs; the role of Muhammad Yunus; the writings of other academics; the Heinemann documentary; Mexico, Mongolia or Mozambique etc. My “earlier writings” have relatively little to do with my more recent publication.

4. Apparently my writings have relied on three sources, MicroRate, the NYT and Planet Rating. My website [1] cites approximately 200 sources. Perhaps Mr Cole would care to review the other 197. I went to lengths provide footnotes for the claims in the book, but I cannot oblige the reader to read them.

5. Regarding LAPO’s illegal savings Mr Cole suggests MicroRate’s 2006 and 2008 [2] reports were critical sources, but fails to acknowledge page 7 of Planet Rating’s report of 2009 [3]. Perhaps he would like to review this page, if no other: “LAPO does not have the appropriate legal structure... is not formally authorized to disburse credit or collect savings from its members. Although illegal, this has been so far tolerated by the [Central Bank of Nigeria]”. This is the same report which mentions the interest rates of 144% charged by the bank he champions. While Mr Cole may focus on the issue of interest rates, protected as he rightly says by a lack of an internationally agreed-upon definition of exploitation or loan-sharking, he failed to point out the other issues in the Planet Rating of 2009. Inter alia, the external auditor being the brother of a board director is rarely considered best practice (page 4). The general manager was brother of the CEO (page 5). Page 6 explains how LAPO, presumably under pressure from investors, reduced its nominal interest rates while surreptitiously increasing the forced savings rates to result in an overall increase in the cost to the poor clients. LAPO’s original press release announcing this so-called reduction in the interest rate was removed from their website, but is available on mine. Page 9 discusses discrepancies with the PAR – one of the most important statistics in any MFI and one which LAPO seems incapable of measuring with much accuracy, although LAPO manages to have its accounts audited by an “external” auditor nonetheless. “Insufficient data reliability” is cited on page 11, confirming the justification for MicroRate’s previous withdrawal of LAPO’s rating [4]. What does Mr Cole think of the 126 cases of savings fraud mentioned on page 10? But, needless to say, LAPO was highly profitable. And that is the bottom line. The investors somehow tolerated these consistent “problems” at LAPO as long as it remained profitable.

6. Regarding the illegality of intermediating client savings, stated in both MicroRate reports and the Planet Rating report, it is unlikely that MicroRate made a mistake the first time. MicroRate did two ratings, at least one of which cannot have been the “first”. Mr Cole’s logic suggests that MicroRate inaccurately described LAPO as illegal, but LAPO ignored this detail and invited MicroRate back a year later when this apparently false claim was repeated, and once again ignored. Rating agencies usually provide their clients an opportunity to review the document for factual accuracy prior to publication, and both times LAPO failed to pick up on this accusation. As unlikely as this already sounds, LAPO apparently repeated this mistake with a second rating agency – Planet Rating, who repeated the precise word “illegal”, once again ignored by LAPO. Damian von Stauffenberg described a meeting with LAPO as early as 2002 [5]: “I could see that [LAPO] were perfectly positioned to cozy up to donors, but not be financially viable. They had an efficient branch network, making lots of tiny loans, but a bloated headquarters, with a big office studying women’s issues, social impacts, and so on. Those were donor concerns. It was well equipped to sing the songs the donors wanted to hear”, citied in the book on page 216. The history of LAPO has a long pedigree. It is the vintage of this pedigree that we are questioning. Mr. Arunachalam asks the valid question of whether these rating agencies were both entirely wrong on numerous occasions – no answer has been provided. Perhaps they were (both) wrong (on various occasions)?

7. Mr Cole suggests that collecting savings is not illegal in Nigeria, but is in fact “traditional”. This may be true, but this is not what the rating reports discuss. They discuss the intermediation of savings. There is also an important distinction between forced savings and voluntary savings, which I need not explain to Mr Cole as a qualified microfinance consultant. He suggests it is “preposterous” to believe that LAPO et al have been carrying out such practices without being sanctioned. Well, let’s put this into context before determining if this is preposterous or not: the Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, Dr Oby Ezekwesili recently suggested that Nigeria has lost more than $400 billion to oil thieves since 1960 [6]. That’s an average of $8 billion per year or $20 million per day. Is it preposterous to suppose that a little skimming on interest and savings may have also slipped through the net?

8. It is also worth noting that Mr Cole does not actually refute the interest rate of 144% charged by LAPO. Does he therefore agree with this? Grameen Foundation USA continues to deny this finding, despite it being calculated by the well-respected US-based NGO MFTransparency.org.

9. To suggest that “the accumulated surpluses of LAPO have not been appropriated by any person” contradicts entirely page 4 of the 2011 Planet Rating report which states clearly that 12% of the shares have been awarded to the CEO: “Shares will be allocated to LAPO NGO for 88% and for 12% to founder and Managing Director (MD) Mr. Godwin Ehigiamusoe. It remains unclear which portion of the capital was so far paid up by LAPO NGO, Mr Godwin has not subscribed any capital yet. LAPO plans to invite in 2012 two international investors”. A footnote within this text ominously adds “Planet Rating has not been able to see audited statements of LAPO MFB, nor has it seen a statement of subscribed capital.” Mr Cole presumably includes only cash in his definition of appropriation? I personally would refer to receiving 12% of the shares of a bank a payment of some description.

10. Mr Cole’s mention of the inflation rate is not relevant given the surprisingly low rate of inflation in Nigeria, once again, discussed in the book.

11. With regards the rant of other amazing services offered by LAPO, could Mr Coles provide independently audited accounts (i.e. not by the brother of a board member) demonstrating that these are funded by the microfinance operations of LAPO BANK? And also explain the origin of the astonishing profitability of LAPO?

12. When Mr Coles suggests my pseudonym is Holden, could he explain quite who “Holden Karnofsky Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director. Holden graduated from Harvard in 2003 with a degree in Social Studies, and spent the next several years in the hedge fund industry. He co-founded GiveWell in mid-2007” is [7]? To set the record absolutely straight for the benefit of Mr Cole: I am not Holden. Holden is not me. I did not graduate from Harvard in 2003, nor am I the founder of GiveWell, nor did I study Social Sciences. I am not sure how to prove this any further. I believe David Roodman (a well-respected US academic) knows both Holden and I, perhaps he could issue a formal statement confirming that we are in fact different people – would that constitute proof for Mr. Coles? Or perhaps I am also David Roodman?

13. Apparently I was angry that LAPO did not have a good MIS and therefore took vengeance upon my former employer. If Mr Cole, or his readers, chose to believe this, then I wish them well. I have fixed various MIS problems over the years. LAPO’s problems set a new standard, perhaps not helped by the fact that over half the licenses were stolen. This fact was, above all, embarrassing as the founder of the MIS company (Weng Liew) was with us when LAPO begrudgingly admitted this. The sloppy MIS of LAPO is a recurring theme throughout all the ratings, but I cannot fathom why this would a) anger me, and b) why I would barely mention it in the book.

14. I apparently have a vendetta against my former employer, Triple Jump, whom I took to court and won a handsome settlement against, as explained in detail in my book with all supporting documents on the website. In the "Acknowledgement" section on page 261 I specifically thank “the inept managers in the investing community.... without [whose] work this book would not have been possible. Or necessary”. Indeed, the microfinance community has abruptly woken up to the problems inherent in the MIV sector, and regulatory oversight is likely to tighten, and funds are already treading more cautiously. This can only be a good thing, and in some regards thanks is due to Triple Jump for initiating this change.

15. Regarding Mr Cole’s suggestion that I used confidential information to suggest that LAPOs “MIS was a mess” is clearly unfounded , it is written in all the rating reports before and since my visits to LAPO. I will focus on one report – that performed BEFORE I went to Nigeria: Front page, under the section entitled “Weaknesses”, the first is “Weak MIS”. Moving on to page 2: “Inadequate MIS - Loan tracking and accounting systems are not integrated and the system is prone to error. Although the system can be easily adapted and modified, reporting still needs to be improved”. Pages 7 and 8 provide additional detail. The report is available on my website. It is true that I provide additional information about the tool (or, perhaps more correctly, the virus) designed by Grameen Foundation USA to skim money from client savings accounts – transactionkiller.exe, perhaps this is what Mr Cole is referring to?

But, perhaps most fundamentally, is Mr Cole’s suggestion that the book is about “LAPO, Triple Jump and Nigeria”. Mr Cole and I will have to agree to disagree on what the central theme of my book actually is. LAPO is a mere case study, a backdrop, an example, of a deception that is taking place to a far greater extent than even LAPOs. As much as it pains me to see endless Nigerian women exploited by LAPO, this is a drop in the ocean. LAPO is a trivial and exploitative fish, but nonetheless a small fish in a far larger pond. The real problem is not LAPO, but those behind such MFIs. It is these players, Triple Jump, Deutsche Bank, Kiva, Calvert Foundation, ASN Bank, Oxfam Novib, Citi, Standard Chartered, Grameen Foundation USA, ASN Novib etc. that are the problem. LAPO is merely a symptom of a far great concern, a pawn in a larger game. Admittedly an exploitative and greedy pawn, but in the grand scheme of the microfinance sector LAPO is, alas, a mosquito: annoying, but minor.

There is no excuse for charging the poor interest rates of over 100% per year. Ever. Wake up and smell the coffee. This is an exploitative, money-lending MFI for which I have zero sympathy, nor for its investors. Even Muhammad Yunus criticised [8] the interest rates charged in Nigeria!

Mr Cole may have missed the central point of my book. So in order to correct this I would like to end by referring him to an interesting review [9] that managed to understand the book well. The reviewer summarises the “Deceivers” mentioned in the book:

• "Kiva gets a roasting.
• Grameen Foundation USA doesn’t look particularly good.
• Deutsche Bank is definitely not innocent but far from the worst offender.
• Citibank looks ridiculous.
• Standard Chartered is about as inert as it is possible to be.
• Blue Orchard and responsAbility completely subvert the stereotype of Swiss financial conservatism.
• World Relief is probably not celebrating.
• The SMART Campaign is actually misnamed—CRAFTY would be more appropriate.
• The Calvert Foundation exhibits fair evidence that fancy pedigrees don’t translate into solutions that help more than hinder the world’s social problems.
• Triple Jump is staffed and run by criminals. There’s really no other word for it.
• And the #1 cheerleader, Muhammad Yunus, in Mr. Sinclair’s words, is the shepherd who lost control of his flock. In my words, Yunus comes off as well-intentioned but disturbingly naïve, and his Nobel Peace Prize only raises more cause for suspicion."

Mr Cole will presumably be delighted with one rather obvious observation from this list: LAPO is not mentioned, nor is it mentioned anywhere in the entire review. This is for a simple reason which Mr Cole can chose to believe or not, as it is impossible to prove: the book is not about LAPO.

[1] http://www.microfinancetransparency.com/...
[2] http://www.microfinancetransparency.com/...
[4] http://www.microfinancetransparency.com/...
[5] http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&...
[6] http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/08/niger...
[7] http://www.givewell.org/about/people
[8] http://www.businessdayonline.com/NG/inde...
[9] http://www.divergingmarkets.com/2012/08/...
Barnes Cole
1 decade ago
I am a Nigerian and microfinance consultant. I have followed Hugh Sinclair’s on LAPO in various blogs I remember that two years I had the cause to respond to a piece in one of blogs comments on LAPO written by Hugh Sinclair, the Heretic in his new book.
I read the Ramesh S. Arunachalam’s piece of July 16 `with interest. By the way July 16 is a significant date for those who are in the know of Hugh Sinclairs’s book promotion schedule. Unlike Ramesh,” the claims made by the author” did not “jolt” me and perhaps many others. The reason is that I tried in vain to find anything in the book that is different from the contents of Hugh Sinclair’s earlier writings against LAPO under different guises and through different channels since 2009. As a participant in the Nigerian microfinance Industry; an observer of LAPO’s growth and values over 20 years; and a follower of Hugh Sinclair’s writings in the different blogs on LAPO for over 3 years, I, in 2010, provided some clarifications on the issues he raised then and now in his book. The only surprise I have is that those clarifications provided in 2010 were never reflected in a book published in 2012. This raises some questions about his real motive.
What has remained constant in Hugh’s writings since 2009 and his book are the central issues which Ramesh rightly highlighted in his comments; the language, mostly negative, aggressive, and cynical and the sources (MicroRate, lately New York Times and Planet Rating), which Hugh has diligently quoted and for which I give him credit for his diligence.
What are the issues? I do not need to copiously quote from Hugh Sinclair’s book, Ramesh has done that for readers already and he promises to write more on the subject in his column. My comments may help him understand the issues more clearly or maybe not.
The issues:
1. LAPO illegally collected savings. The usual sources are MicroRate reports of 2006 and 2008. When in 2010 Hugh Sinclair raised this issue I made some efforts with my comments to provide some clarifications on indigenous informal group savings and loan practices in West Africa and Nigeria in particular. NGO MFIs in Nigeria adopt this approach whereby members make contributions to a pool and ONLY these member-depositors take loans from the pool. It was this pool early donors in 1980s contributed grants to as Loan Funds for these NGO MFIs. These institutions were really known as community development associations. LAPO is one of these several institutions in Nigeria. There are still many NGOs today that carry out this practice in Nigeria. They neither take deposits from non-member-borrowers nor make loans to non members. It is wrong to say that these institutions collected savings or intermediated illegally. MicroRate probably was carrying out rating exercise on MFI possibly for the first time in Nigeria and did not take this vital traditional practice into account. After conducting rating exercises on a number of NGO MFIs in Nigeria which still collect savings from members, as MircroRate has done of recent, the rating agency must be wiser and more knowledgeable on this issue. It is preposterous to think LAPO and several other NGO MFIs would have been carrying out illegal savings mobilization in such large numbers without being sanctioned! Had Ramesh tried to find out if these investors requested and got correct information and interpretation of this traditional practice, he would have been surprised to find out that many of them did and were satisfied.
I commend Ramesh as he “tried” his “best to contact many of these investors” obviously for their comments. Is it not curious that he did not indicate in his comment that he tried to contact an institution whose name appeared more than 50 times in his contribution?
Probably the Hugh Sinclair’s book he quoted generously and the MicroRate report are infallible and obviously the gospel truth about a “corrupt Nigerian MFI” as Hugh Sinclair and his Publishers libelously termed LAPO (smart guys: good business calculation perhaps; what is stereotyping for anyway?)
2. LAPO charges high interest rate.
Ramesh declared “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am not sure that any MFI which charges an effective interest rate (EIR) of around 144% is in anyway doing something even remotely connected to poverty alleviation” (emphasis his).
When I commented on this in response to Hugh Sinclair’s blog in 2010, my points were:
i) there is no international interest rate. While Europe-based borrowers from commercial banks may not pay interest rates higher than 3%, in my environment, no commercial bank will lend to you at a rate less than 15%! I know that the calculation of the above quoted effective interest rate takes into account the balances of the borrowers’ savings accounts which in classical microfinance is a form of security. If my current loan from a commercial bank takes into account my collateral which is minimum of 150% of the value of loan amount, I can only imagine my Effective Interest Rate (EIR). I am not in anyway justifying high interest rates. The point I am making and I made about 2 years ago is that interest rate determination takes into account factors in the operating environment such as inflation rate, operating cost, particularly in an environment with infrastructure deficit. Hugh Sinclair conveniently ignores this in his book, while he devoted ample space to experiences in a “hotel”, with “drivers” and bad road to LAPO’s office.
ii) Another point I made in 2010 was that motive is important when making judgments such as Ramesh’s declaration referred above. To my knowledge, and I think MicroRate’s and Hugh’s, the accumulated surpluses of LAPO have not been appropriated by any person. Those who are close to the people operating LAPO would tell of stirring stories of prudence and personal and financial discipline. The founder’s Spartan life style is exemplary. Hugh Sinclair must have noticed this but he conveniently kept this out of this book.
Where then does the money or surplus go? LAPO has continuously noted in its documents that the accumulated surpluses explain in part the outstanding growth of regulated microfinance bank to meet the capital requirement of N2billion about USD13million. NO external capital! It is important to note at this point that LAPO is probably one of the VERY few MFIs, at least in Africa, which was not a project of international agencies but has successfully scaled up its operations.
Another point is that MicroRate and Hugh Sinclair are aware (Ramesh would have also been aware if he had “tried to” reach LAPO) that LAPO is a not a conventional financial institution. It is a finance plus institution.
• LAPO has huge health programmes including an acclaimed innovative HIV/AIDS programme with women infected and affected organized into support groups through which support is provided to members.
• LAPO has for 12 years run a weekly television programme to address issues of gender inequity.
• LAPO provides secondary/high school scholarship awards to children of clients as LAPO finds that children from poor households drop out of the school system at secondary level, at least in Nigeria.
• LAPO runs a legal aid programme for female clients who often are victims of injustice mostly arising from inheritance issues at the death of their husbands.
• LAPO facilitates insurance cover for life, fire in the market place and complications at childbirth for its clients. It is common to see women from poor households abandoned in maternity wards by their husbands for inability to meet medical bills.
LAPO was one of the VERY few corporate entities in Nigeria in 2005 to formulate and implement Work Place HIV/AID Policy for its staff. Again Hugh Sinclair and to some extent his quoted source (MicroRate) and Ramesh ignored these investments in clients and their families. If Ramesh had had contacted LAPO, he would certainly not have doubted the poverty alleviation mission of LAPO. But all these are in the public domain, at least at LAPO’s web page. I feel that in a book published in 2012, the author should have updated his information on LAPO’s rates. Except that doing so may not help the motive for the book.
I must note that Hugh Sinclair (aka Street cred, Holden) in response to a comment on one his several writings in 2010, admitted that it was not about LAPO. I could not believe him, and after going through his book; with it negative and aggressive attack on LAPO, I am finding that more difficult to believe. I am aware that threats of “I will take you to the media “were made to some partners of LAPO and associations it belongs to for not completely believing Hugh Sinclair’s story and acting against the MFI. If one is to believe Hugh Sinclair, the only explanation for the venom against LAPO is that an NGO MFI going through IT challenges (which organization does not go through it at one point or the other?) and one in Nigeria for that matter, has been a convenient tool for a vendetta against another organization, his ex-employers.
I will like to conclude my comments with the following:
i. Does it not raise moral issue for a consultant to make comments and even write a book (it could be fruitful financially) with privileged information (like “the MIS was in a mess”) obtained while providing services to a client as Hugh Sinclair did at LAPO in 2006/7?
ii. Does it not tell much about the person to sell a book with a promo containing a libelous statement such as “a corrupt Nigerian MFI”? I checked up the word ‘corrupt’ and went through his book and I am at a loss at the justification for such a serious allegation and judgment a in public document.
iii. Does it not appear that a more honest title for the book would have been “LAPO, Triple Jump and Nigeria” given the space dedicated to these entities?
I will advise Ramesh to try to reach LAPO before writing his column on the issues raised in Hugh Sinclair’s book. Honesty demands that we should avoid the futile attempt to make it look like it is not about the LAPO – Triple Jump – Hugh Sinclair triangle. Please let us be honest and dig deeper for the real motive!
Barnes Cole
Ramesh S Arunachalam
Replied to Barnes Cole comment 1 decade ago
You are points are well taken and LAPO in fact may be doing many positive things but any institution that charges effective interest of close to 144% under specific circumstances needs to closely look at whether or not it is providing client oriented and efficient services. Clearly by my limited experience, when some one lends at EIR 144%, I would find it hard to call that poverty alleviation or client sensitive (irrespective of the environment). Sorry but that is my view

In terms of illegal savings intermediation, please clarify whether MicroRate and Planet Finance are wrong. I have merely Quoted them and if so, please take action against them for wrong representation of reality


Best regards

Ramesh S Arunachalam
Replied to Ramesh S Arunachalam comment 1 decade ago
I would also like to clarify that you may look at my subsequent pieces and they have focussed on MIVS and investors. So, I have no special motives and I will be talking to LAPO as well!

a) http://www.moneylife.in/article/regulati...

a) http://www.moneylife.in/article/should-n...

b) http://www.moneylife.in/article/does-sin...

c) http://www.moneylife.in/article/deutsche...

d) http://www.moneylife.in/article/triple-j...

Jakob Logan
1 decade ago
Fantastic... Well done to Hugh Sinclair for writing the book and well done to you, Ramesh Arunachalam for going through the evidence and confirming his findings. I only wonder why the large investors are not responding?
MK Gupta
1 decade ago
From my long association with an IRS officer for decades, who was ignored and dumped for his uncanny investigative prowess, I can say that, in India, most of the so-called "micro"-finance entities operate as the front organisations of the "macro" biggies in the field. One of the purposes behind this facade, very much within the knowledge of the Finance Ministry and, in fact, with due profit-shating insurance cover from the bureaucrats and their political bosses, is to park the unaccounted funds of these people in power. Thus, nothing really should surprise the informed members of the public. There are too many unscrupulous people masquerading in India as anti-corruption fighters and this field of micro-finance, like tat of anti-corruption image, is a very easy way to international awards!
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