I first heard about MicroFinance Sans Frontières, a BNP Paribas Group initiative, in June of 2008. I had already been interested in microfinance for about 6 years, and in 2002. I wanted to give my career a more international scope. I contacted a number of NGOs and had several interviews, but was unsuccessful due to a lack of experience. I then joined BNP Paribas as Branch Manager in the Maine-et-Loire region.
In June 2008, I was the head of the BNP Paribas branch in Vaison-la-Romaine, where I made a habit of keeping an eye on our intranet. A ton of information regarding our day-to-day work was available in addition to information on the other business lines of our bank and on the Group’s international activities.
One day, a particular report caught my attention: its subject was “international microfinance”, and more specifically, MicroFinance Sans Frontières, an initiative launched by Benoît Monsaingeon, a retired regional head for BNP Paribas. The project consisted of identifying individuals who are willing to volunteer their professional skills to meet the needs of microfinance institutions (MFIs) in emerging countries for technical assistance (organisation and information technology, control and internal audit, training, sales and so forth). I began to dream of being one of those volunteers.
Eighteen months later, my dream became a reality and I was carrying out my first mission to Burkina Faso with MFSF, on behalf of the NGO PAMIGA (Participatory Microfinance Group for Africa). This NGO was created by CIDR (Centre International de Développement et de Recherche – the International Centre for Development and Research) together with a number of experts, with the aim of developing microfinance in rural Africa. PAMIGA provides tailored technical and financial services, encourages innovation (new financial products, new technologies, risk management, etc.), and also participates in the consolidation of the sector through the merging and regrouping of MFIs.
My mission was to analyse the procedures for granting, monitoring and managing the bank loans of a Caisse Villageoise d’Epargne et de Crédit Autogéré (CVECA – an autonomous village savings and credit association) in the Boucle du Mouhoun region, then to set out the steps to be taken to improve the risk management of their loan portfolio.
This meant that I was working in a completely different environment and attempting to apply the skills that I’d acquired in the banking sector while acting as a consultant for a microfinance institution – certainly no day at the beach!
After a preparatory meeting with MFSF and PAMIGA to define the objectives, specifications, deliverables and logistical details of the assignment, I was able, in the weeks leading up to my departure, to get down to work myself, immersing myself in the reports from previous missions. This allowed me to get to grips with the subject and with the problems of the MFI in advance, so that I’d be able to hit the ground running when I got there.
Once there, the local team met me on my arrival at the hotel that evening, so we were able to start to get to know one another and to discuss the assignment’s objectives. The next day, we travelled by car to the area where the association is based, which gave me an early taste of the exoticism of the local transport (read: breakdowns), and helped me understand how important it is to be flexible and to know how to adapt in order to be a good microfinance consultant.
We therefore had to adjust the agenda of the mission according to the transportation constraints. Rather than starting with an underlying analysis, I began by interviewing the different parties involved in the decision chain. The first day I found myself in front of 15 technical advisers who were expecting to hear my solutions to their problems. That first morning was difficult, and I was afraid I didn’t have anything to offer them. I asked questions, but the debate sounded hollow. I think that at that moment I simply didn’t have enough perspective on the matter.
We met again the next day, and this time the discussions were much more animated. The bank advisors described the problems they had faced with the funds they managed, and we prioritized the various issues and worked out which loan procedures needed to be modified, which ones needed to be scrupulously observed, and so on.
This gave me what I needed to update the loan procedures manual, to develop a worksheet to help in deciding whether to grant or refuse loans, to propose and strengthen the procedures for granting loans of larger amounts, and to make suggestions for formalising the way in which loan guarantees were taken.
In the end, I was able to achieve the objectives that were set out during the preparation for the assignment, despite the unexpected events and agenda changes. After delivering my mission report, we met once again with the people from MFSF and PAMIGA for a feedback meeting to approve the recommendations and discuss implementation, and further steps to take following the assignment.
I would say that this experience gave me a new perspective on the job that I do every day. I came back more relaxed and ready to handle my daily challenges calmly, with less stress. In addition, I met a number of very nice people who were enthusiastic about sharing knowledge, curious about our way of working and motivated to improve the quality of their work.
While working in the traditional world of finance can sometimes be a thankless task, voluntarily contributing to different kinds of task can give you the chance to take a step back from your work and put it into perspective. This type of assignment gives you the opportunity to explore other cultures and to see that other people’s priorities aren’t the same as ours, and neither are their ways of working. It’s very rewarding and lets you get back to what’s really important.