Business Today

Non-governmental opportunities

twitter-logoTaslima Khan | Print Edition: July 24, 2011

It's an MFI. It's an NGO. No, it's Micrograam. It enables poor villagers to get credit, but it is not a microfinance institution. It works closely with non-governmental organisations but is, in fact, a private company. Micrograam, set up in February 2010 by Rangan Varadan, a former head of banking and capital market verticals at Infosys, has devised an innovative means of extending credit to the poor by creating a portal that brings investors and borrowers together, allowing them to work out their own deals.

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Micrograam's initiative has been a hit: in just 16 months it has found 270 investors and helped disburse loans of around Rs 87 lakh to 563 borrowers. The timing has helped too, since the microcredit sector is currently in crisis, and loans for the poor have dried up. Banks were always chary of providing such loans - and remain so. Says Peter Rex Charly of New Life, a Tamil Nadu based NGO which, among other services, helps villagers secure loans up to a maximum of Rs 15,000 to set up self-sustaining businesses: "Banks want references from us but they will not bear even our operating costs. And if any borrower defaults, we are blamed." New Life has since given up on banks and works entirely through Micrograam.

Helping hand

Loans facilitated by Micrograam

Average ticket size of the loans Rs 10,000

Average recovery period 12 months

Repayment frequency: Varies from case to case. For agriculture loans, repayment begins after harvest; for education loans, the borrower starts paying back from the second month after getting a job
More importantly, MFIs are in a bind and have drastically curtailed their lending. Following a spate of suicides by farmers in Andhra Pradesh last year, some of which were attributed to their harassment by MFIs - excessively high interest rates, strong arm methods of debt collection - the state government in October 2010 passed a stringent law regulating MFI activities. The Reserve Bank of India too followed suit by setting up a committee under senior official Y.H. Malegam to scrutinise MFI functioning; the committee's recommendations, made in January this year - which broadly follow the stipulations of the Andhra Pradesh law - have been accepted.

Into this bleak landscape stepped Varadan and his colleague Sekhar Sarukkai, a serial entrepreneur formerly based in Silicon Valley. "It was the unsustainable relationship between the institutions and the customers that led to the current crisis," says Varadan. His alternative?

Seek funds not from banks but from well placed professionals and high net worth individuals or HNIs, who care about inclusive growth. Unlike banks, such people can be flexible with interest rates, as well as the loan periods. Simultaneously, avoid the expenses MFIs incur on setting up offices, engaging business development and collection agents - due to which they are compelled to charge high interest rates - and instead use NGOs working among the poor to zero in on potential borrowers.

We intend to get 16,000 investors and help disburse loans of Rs 25 crore in the next two years
Rangan Varadan, Head, Micrograam
Restricting its activities to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the Bangalore-based Micrograam has so far roped in 33 NGOs which identify borrowers. It puts up a list of prospective borrowers on its portal, along with each one's profile, the amount he needs and the maximum interest he can afford. Potential investors in turn - Varadan and Sarukkai already have employees of Infosys, ITC, TVS and Nagarjuna Constructions checking their portal - put up the minimum interest rates they are prepared to offer. The bargaining then begins; the time taken to conclude the deal usually depending on how long the borrower can hold out for the lowest bid.

Rangan Varadan
Rangan Varadan
Getting it right
How the Model Functions

Micrograam selects NGOs and approves their procedure of pitching credit-worthy borrowers

NGOs pinpoint prospective borrowers after checking for credit-worthiness

Borrower profile and financial requirement are put up on Micrograam's portal

Investors check the profiles and respond with the interest rates they are prepared to offer. Borrowers choose the lowest

Interest rates are never allowed to exceed 15 to 18 per cent per annum
Most deals at Micrograam are sealed has shot up." Given the upheaval in the MFI sector, Micrograam, too, has come under RBI scrutiny. But Varadan says he has been able to convince the officials of his good intentions. "People from RBI have visited us twice," he says. "We convinced them ours was a transparent lending model."

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Again, there are several obvious risks associated with the Micrograam model. For one, dubious NGOs abound. Varadan says he is extremely careful while choosing NGOs to work with. He is just as careful in keeping track of funds. "All disbursals are from bank account, by cheque so that the fund flow can always be traced," he says.

Is the likelihood of default by poor borrowers another risk? Varadan says Micrograam's repayment record since last September has been a staggering 98.2 per cent - hardly anyone has defaulted. What if he does not find enough investors?

Varadan dismisses the possibility "We do not want charity. We are looking for individuals who believe in social lending, not charity," he says. Around 80 per cent of his investors so far have been wealthy individuals rather than company employees, but Varadan is not fazed. The fact that Micrograam is not yet profitable does not worry him either. "Once we gather scale, we will sustain," he says. "This is how this model is meant to be." He has extremely ambitious targets. "We intend to get 16,000 investors and help disburse loans of Rs 25 crore in the next two years," he says.

Despite various measures for financial inclusion by the Centre and the RBI, about 40 per cent of rural households do not have deposit accounts. Most of them still depend on MFIs and informal sources like money lenders for their credit needs. With the MFI sector in a state of flux, newer models like those of Micrograam may be one of the ways to go.

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