SME Finance: The Search for Scale

Bukky George makes things happen. A true entrepreneur, she sees business prospects in Nigeria that others miss—and takes risks to turn them into reality. Investors willing to back high-growth small and medium enterprises (SMEs) like hers early on share in the rewards. This is good for development overall, leading to extensive formal sector job creation—raising incomes and improving lives.

In 2006, Bukky had just one small asset—a single Health Plus pharmacy in Lagos that she wanted to make the start of a top-quality national chain. Nigerians, she felt, deserved the same easy access to retail health care products that others in higher-income countries had, and would pay a fair price for it. 

Within a year she had added three new locations and needed additional financing. But she had insufficient cash flow and collateral, and most local banks would not lend to new women-owned firms. 

Then she met Access Bank, a fast rising Nigerian lender that had just received a $15 million IFC line of credit to increase its lending to women-owned businesses, which helped differentiate itself from other financial institutions. “Successfully reaching the women’s market in Nigeria will be key in achieving our retail and SME goals,” Access Bank CEO Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede said at the time. 

Access Bank made the loan, beginning a relationship that worked well for everyone. It now has a well-performing portfolio of almost $40 million in loans to women-owned SMEs and is a key partner of IFC, which through its  Women in Business program alone has provided new loans to 2,200 such firms and trained 3,000 women entrepreneurs. 

In Nigeria, Access Bank now lends to more than 550 women-owned SMEs—up from 60 at the time of the start of its program with IFC, which helped it build a new sales and marketing strategy targeted at women, set up women focused teams in its three priority cities  in Nigeria, and join the Global Banking Alliance for Women, an IFC-supported membership organization of financial institutions committed to the growth of women in business worldwide. The winner of the 2011 Financial times/IFC Sustainable Bank of the Year-Africa and the Middle East award, Access Bank has integrated the women in business approach as part of its expansion strategy in Africa. 

Its client Health Plus, in turn, now has six outlets employing 77 workers, roughly half of them women. It has received additional support from GroFin, a  $256 million IFC-backed investment vehicle in Johannesburg for rising African SMEs needing $50,000 to $1 million at a time to reach the next level. 

Such initiatives help local financial institutions see the profit potential in financing women entrepreneurs. This is why the G20 has asked IFC to co-lead a new Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion to increase access to finance—not just in Africa, but throughout the developing world. 

IFC is co-leading new work on increasing access to finance for women entrepreneurs. A report that maps the size of the women’s market and analyzes the obstacles women entrepreneurs face in growing their businesses will be presented at the G20 Summit in November in France with a set of recommendations to be endorsed by member countries.


Related link: Telling Our Story