SAM 2021 key figures and highlights 

700 participants over the week

53 countries represented,
including 37 African countries

90 keynote speakers



430 meetings between 
18 investors/rating agencies and +200 MFIs


30 innovators at the
Innovators' Village


20 training courses and workshops organised
by ADA and its partners




SAM 2021 Report by Bob Summers/MicroCapital 

Kigali, Rwanda - October 18-22, 2021 


The SAM week in Kigali followed the same schedule as the previous edition in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: a full day of varied training sessions by financial inclusion experts on Monday, followed by the two-day SAM conference on Tuesday and Wednesday, the increasingly popular Investor Fair along with the Innovators’ Village on Thursday, and a last day of training sessions plus the MAIN general assembly on Friday. 

Following Monday’s workshops on topics such as social performance, serving refugees, green initiatives, investment funds, microinsurance and implementing new technologies, Laura Foschi, the Executive Director of ADA, welcomed 700 attendees to the two-day SAM conference on Tuesday.  

Strengthening resilience is key 

This year’s conference topic was “One is not born, but rather becomes, resilient: Strengthening inclusive finance to overcome crises.” Laura Foschi not only introduced this theme of resilience but also presided over a moment of silence for those we have lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During the opening panel on the state of play and challenges for the inclusive finance sector, Dr Brian Chirombo of the World Health Organization outlined the toll of COVID-19 so far on health as well as the economy in Africa. He noted the disproportionate effect on people running informal businesses and the unfortunate fact that, “We have had to divert resources that could have been used for development to the pandemic.”  

The first keynote speaker of the SAM conference, Renée Chao-Beroff from CIDR Pamiga, set the scene for further discussions by introducing and exploring the three dimensions of resilience for inclusive finance: financial infrastructure, climate change and digitalisation.  

She gave her speech in a packed auditorium with several state representatives in attendance. Franz Fayot, the Luxembourgish Minister of Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs, and Dr Uzziel Ndagijimana, Rwanda’s Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, took the stage after Ms Chao-Beroff’s speech, along with Patrick Losch, the Chairman of ADA, for the official opening ceremony of the SAM week.  

The SAM conference is just one example of how Luxembourg and Rwanda are currently intensifying their collaboration. Both countries have signed several agreements on deepening their ties, from a double-taxation agreement to a memorandum of understanding on Luxembourgish support for the development of an international financial centre in Kigali.  

Both Ministers expressed their appreciation to ADA for succeeding in hosting this large physical gathering in such challenging circumstances. And indeed, this was the first major conference in 18 months that most participants were able to attend in person!  

Mr Losch reminded the audience that the SAM week is now the largest inclusive finance conference in Africa, and he explained that “the growing importance of SAM is a reflection of the growing importance of the inclusive finance sector as a whole. While microfinance used to be a niche topic, many governments around the world have now integrated it into their strategies as a tool for achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.”   

The afternoon was mainly dedicated to parallel sessions that explored different aspects of resilience in detail, such as digitalisation, climate change, structural change and of course the impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic.  

Going Digital 

The need for increased digitalisation of inclusive financial services was a key topic throughout the conference. One of the examples of using technology to address resilience was CIDR-Pamiga developing Wi-Agri to serve smallholder cashew farmers in Côte d’Ivoire. Borrowing ideas from Safaricom’s Digifarm, Wi-Agri offers 24-hour access to buyers as well as access to savings, credit, insurance and advisory services. In addition to cutting costs and boosting convenience, digital services can help MFIs green their operations - by reducing the need to travel to meet with clients, for example.  

Going Green 

When MFIs finance green assets, there are benefits on many levels. For example, if an MFI funds energy-efficient equipment to process agricultural goods closer to where they are grown, not only does the rural processor make a profit, but waste is reduced and young people see less reason to leave home for urban areas to find work. When an MFI funds a solar power system that increases a client’s electricity usage by a third, that person may be able to grow his or her income by 70 percent. Triple Jump has found its investors are very interested in renewable energy, and the firm is “happy to leverage our network to help” MFIs develop green products. 

Working Together 

Success often hinges on partnerships and collaboration. Recognising this, the government of Burkina Faso has convened a group of 200 stakeholders to determine how to strengthen resilience. In addition, many microfinance investors around the world collaborated early in the COVID-19 pandemic to respond uniformly to investees that needed to adjust their repayment schedules; Myanmar is one market in which this was particularly effective.  

Closer to the end-client, when an e-lender wanted to reach farmers that didn’t have smartphones, it turned to cooperatives to serve as intermediaries. Another MFI leveraged partnerships to offer its clients housing loans (as large as USD 27,000 with terms up to 10 years). Partnerships can occur at the client level as well. When microlenders reach out to refugees, they often mix members of the host community in the same solidarity groups to foster neighbourly collaboration while avoiding potential resentment. 

Optimizing Incentives 

Another theme of SAM 2021 was incentives. Both investors and financial service providers (FSPs) reported using the promise of lower interest rates to incentivize resilient practices, such as boosting the usage of microinsurance, climate-smart agricultural methods and various products targeted at youth. It was also noted that farmers are more likely to make climate-friendly investments, such as installing solar irrigation pumps, when lenders calculate what the payback periods will be. 

One provider that connects farmers with part-time access to tractors found it was not incentivized to promote climate-friendly farming until its leadership realized that the new practices were boosting farmer incomes by 25 percent, thus rendering them more profitable as customers. Another lender, however, noted the challenge of convincing clients to change their practices in the face of “the influence of agribusinesses promoting usage of their products.” 

In addition to helping clients adopt more sustainable practices, FSPs must get better at measuring the resulting impact. One reason for this is the new EU rules requiring investors to report on sustainability, meaning that FSPs will need to follow suit in order to continue to access funding. This will require a significant level of technical assistance. 

Assessing needs 

Many presenters at SAM 2021 cited the value of needs assessments. A provider of solar irrigation pumps said, “We have 15 different pumps.... We ask: what do you do, what do you farm, how many acres?”. This allows the firm to estimate the return a farmer can expect from each product (resulting in stronger incentives, as noted above). Another example is the use of a gas-producing biodigester, which may require the manure of four cows to meet the capacity of the device. Thus some clients may need money for buying cows to be included as part of the loan that finances the digester. 

When considering the needs of FSPs to become more resilient, a common gap is preparedness for cyberattacks. Luxembourg addresses this by providing free cyber-defense advisory services (for domestic firms). 

Be Bold! 

Multiple speakers expressed concern that the development sector is not on track to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. They proposed bold action to increase return on investment. More specifically, the need to address the lack of employment opportunities in Africa amid rapid population growth was a recurring theme.  

Keynote speaker Marieme Esther Dassanou of the African Development Bank sees the issue through a gender lens. She argued that MFIs need to do more to help women grow their microenterprises into SMEs: “How else are we going to create the jobs that are needed across the continent?” The jobs problem is also acute among youth. While some unemployed young people are finding success via technology-oriented entrepreneurship, armed groups in many regions are recruiting idle youth with better offers than they are getting from MFIs. 

MFIs need bold investors that are willing to commit equity financing to establish deep partnerships that support MFIs’ long-term health. When evaluating a project, investors should beware of allowing a single metric to derail their participation in an otherwise viable project. For example, solar firms in Africa in 2021 are unlikely to have 10-year track records. In addition, many investors overestimate the risks involved in impact investing, even when a government guarantee is sweetening the deal. Nevertheless, FPM SA of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) - despite the string of crises that DRC has weathered - has been profitable for six years in a row. Since the onset of COVID-19, it has increased its number of investees from 10 to 17. 

Another way to be bold is to invest when the market is down, as many governments did in response to the pandemic. The government of Burkina Faso established its Fonds National de la Finance Inclusive to boost micro entrepreneurship and deliver pension payments amid both the pandemic and armed conflict in that country. In another example, when the government of Rwanda was looking to boost financial inclusion, it established over 400 rural savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs). This - along with increased availability of mobile phones and mobile money - helped Rwanda boost its rate of financial inclusion from 48 percent to 93 percent in about a decade. 

Being bold would help a broad range of stakeholders in many ways. For example, lenders who became conservative early in the pandemic need to become flexible again, as many MFIs are missing opportunities to up-scale to serve SMEs. At the same time, many fintechs are too focused on consumer lending and need to branch out to other segments such as corporate lending.  

And yes, MFIs need to be even more inclusive to reach even the most vulnerable groups. For example, MFIs often have shied away from serving refugees based on preconceived notions of the population. Bringing leadership into refugee camps to talk to potential customers and see their businesses in action can overcome this fear. One investor found the skepticism he heard from MFI leaders about working with refugees to be reminiscent of talks he had many years ago with bankers about microcredit! Since the onset of the pandemic, this investor reported refugee PAR in his portfolio has risen from near zero to around 7 percent, a rate he described as “much better” than other segments. Being bold pays off. 


The key takeaways from the SAM conference include the following: 

  • Improving regulatory infrastructure is key to boosting resilience. This includes efforts as diverse as issuing and updating national plans for financial inclusion and resilience, as well as creating enabling environments for MFIs and SMEs.  
  • Micro-borrowers, FSPs and investors are becoming more aware of the financial (and health) benefits of going green, as green practices are more efficient, sustainable, less risky and able to enhance resilience.  
  • High-quality digital financial services give people and institutions more options when disaster strikes - whether this is sending a remittance to a family member whose house has flooded or applying for a loan or insurance online without needing to travel during the pandemic. That said, cybersecurity is becoming a key issue that needs to be strengthened together with all stakeholders to boost the protection of end-clients.  
  • While impact investors have been successful in working together to support FSPs in adjusting to COVID-19, mainstream investors now need encouragement to scale-up the models that impact investors have proven viable. 

Innovators and Investors 

Following the SAM conference, Thursday was dedicated to two very popular networking events, the Innovators’ Village and the Investor Fair.  

The Innovators’ Village showcased dozens of established businesses and startups offering inclusion solutions. One of these was E-clectics, which offers a single POS device that lets an agent work with multiple FSPs. Akiba, on the other hand, helps FSPs harness alternative creditworthiness data using a WhatsApp chatbot to collect applicants’ POS data, financial statements and selfies for know-your-customer compliance without a smartphone.  

Other examples of the showcased businesses included Rubyx, which works with MFIs to pre-approve repeat loans for customers before their current loans mature, in one case boosting renewal rates from 60 percent to 80 percent. Finz and HEDERA offer systems for tracking and communicating a range of social and environmental impact indicators. 

In addition to hosting interested visitors at their respective stands, all exhibitors had the opportunity of pitching their solution to the audience in a dedicated speaking area. There were so many interesting pitches that some people spent most of the day there! 

During the SAM Investors’ Fair, which also took place on Thursday, MFI representatives and investors participated in more than 400 one-on-one sessions to explore the viability of new partnerships. For example, Caroline Kamau of Triple Jump reported that her firm participated in over 40 such “speed dates” during which she and her colleagues “identified some quite promising investees and initiated discussions on future collaboration opportunities with multiple peer investors.”  

Jean Claude Thetika, the General Manager of FPM ASBL, exclaimed, “Only SAM offers us this angle on prospective deals!” The Fair has been growing in popularity over the years, with more and more investors wishing to participate. Several investors even expressed their hope that the Fair would be extended to more than one day at the next edition of SAM as they barely had enough time to meet all the MFI leaders they wished to see! 

Looking Ahead to SAM 2023 

SAM 2021 closed with Friday’s general assembly of MAIN plus training sessions on topics such as agent banking, cybersecurity, responsible digital finance, and making financial and social projections. All participants agreed that the SAM week was once again a great success and a key networking event, especially given the lack of personal networking opportunities since the onset of the pandemic. 

The next SAM will take place in 2023, in a yet-to-be announced location. Until then, ADA will keep up the momentum!