A framework for incentivizing lending to high-impact agricultural SMEs in East Africa

Published 13 April 2022

African agriculture has long been neglected by the capital markets – and understandably so:  agriculture is much riskier and costlier to serve than other sectors. While agriculture employs the majority of the population in East Africa and is a leading contributor to GDP, lenders have historically gravitated to easier alternatives, including the stable returns of government bonds without the hard work of navigating dusty roads in remote regions. However, increasing competition is pushing East African lenders into underserved markets. Many have opened branches in rural areas and are now graduating from collecting deposits to lending to customers. Agricultural small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are a large if not well-understood market. 

Aceli is a market incentive facility that aims to unlock financing for high-impact agri-SMEs (see more background on Aceli’s approach). Aceli’s financial incentives aim to bring two things into alignment:

  1. Improve the risk-return profile of agricultural SME lending in East Africa; and
  2. Incentivize lenders to seek out and serve the highest-impact agri-SMEs.

Aceli’s multi-year data collection on loan-level and portfolio-level economics across the region formed the basis for addressing the first objective. Our task around impact was more challenging given the inherent challenges of objectively quantifying impact and the multiple layers of impact we seek to generate: increased incomes for smallholder farmers and enterprise employees, particularly women and youth; higher production of nutritious food at the regional level; and a more sustainable and climate-friendly food system.

Aceli’s recent learning report noted that capital mobilization (i.e., the total loan volume supported by Aceli’s incentives) is a relevant but limited measure of whether our incentives have been successful. At least as important are: 

  • capital additionality (i.e., whether Aceli’s incentives have shifted lender behavior and agri-SMEs are gaining improved access to finance);
  • the impact profile of the SMEs being served (i.e., whether the businesses gaining improved access are aligned with Aceli’s livelihoods and environmental objectives); and 
  • whether capital that is both additional and directed to high-impact agri-SMEs  contributes to increased impact (e.g., by enabling improved market access for farmers, creating more jobs, or allowing the business to manage through market downturns).

This post summarizes Aceli’s approach to incentivizing lending that is (1) additional and (2) targeted to high-impact SMEs. Follow-on posts will go into more depth on Aceli’s incentive design and initial learning related to improved farmer and worker livelihoods and our four thematic impact areas: gender inclusion, food security & nutrition, climate & environment, and  youth inclusion. To learn more, please see Aceli’s Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) and Impact Policy.

In Q4 2022, our annual learning report will share results from Aceli’s upcoming round of data collection from lenders and two years of implementing the incentives program. We will also delve into how Aceli is working with our data and learning partners – Dalberg Advisors, International Growth Centre, and 60 Decibels – to evaluate (3) the effectiveness of Aceli’s incentives and complementary technical assistance in advancing our impact objectives.

Capital additionality

Aceli defines capital additionality as:

  • Loans to “new” borrowers (defined as a business receiving its first loan of $25k or more from any source in the past three years)
    • To date, 49% of the loans supported by Aceli’s incentives programs go to new borrowers (compared to a target of 35%).
  • Improved access to finance for returning borrowers based on loan amount, financial product, and terms such as collateral requirements and pricing
    • One promising indicator, albeit with a small sample size, is that for the 17 SMEs that are entering the second round of loans supported by Aceli, there has been an average increase in loan size of 37% from Y1 to Y2 (and a corresponding increase in enterprise revenue of 62%). Aceli’s targets for average increase in loan size and revenue are 10%.
    • Several lenders have indicated anecdotally that they are reducing their collateral requirements, lowering their interest rates, and/or more proactively searching for new agri-SME customers that are woman-owned. We will be tracking these changes systematically through structured interviews with lenders during Q2-Q3 and through annual reviews of lenders’ portfolio composition and credit terms.
Approach to impact

Aceli aims to meet market participants – both lenders and SMEs – where they are and shift them towards increased impact over time. We pursue three interrelated strategies to do so:

1. Require “Good” Practices. Aceli has set minimum criteria for every lender, loan, and SME that we support. 

Lender-level: Aceli requires that each of our lending partners has a formal Impact / ESG policy, that staff are trained in the policy, and the policy is integrated into loan-level and portfolio-level management. Several lenders seeking to work with Aceli have not met this requirement when applying to participate in our financial incentives. Rather than rejecting these lenders, our approach has been to allow a six-month grace period and support the lender in designing or improving its ESG policy and integrating the policy into its loan due diligence and monitoring processes. 

Loan-level: To be eligible for Aceli’s incentives, a loan must meet Aceli’s ESG standard, which includes both negative screens (aligned with the IFC exclusion list – see Appendix in Impact Policy) and additional positive social impact criteria (i.e., the SME must either source from at least 25 smallholder farmers or employ at least five full-time workers).

The agribusiness manager for one East African bank reflected on the internal process it has undergone over the past year following Aceli’s support in developing its ESG policy:

“The bank has embedded the ESG policy into our lending process… All AgriSME loans are subject to ESG covenants like gender inclusiveness, environmental protection and social transformation among others. The bank has also scaled up its appetite for green enterprises financing. Exclusions were integrated in our credit analysis due diligence tools and general credit procedure standards. The bank now has an ESG checklist in place and [we have] conducted an online Training of Trainers to all Branch Relationship Officers, Assistant Managers, Branch Managers and the Head Office Credit and Agfin team to skill them up on ESG aspects.
Areas of improvement include continuous awareness raising to staff and SMEs on the importance of ESG compliance for sustainable business and climate proof banking. There is also a need to build an ESG credit score to supplement the usual bank eligibility criteria and underwriting.”


2. Incentivize “Better” Practices. Aceli’s incentives for lenders are tiered: on top of the baseline incentives for loans to businesses that clear the “Good” bar outlined above and increased incentives for loans to new borrowers, we offer impact bonuses to reward lenders for seeking out and serving higher impact agri-SMEs. 

Aceli’s baseline incentives comprised 40% of the total eligible incentive for each loan. An additional 30% is added for loans to new borrowers and 30% on top of that if the loan qualifies for all three of Aceli’s impact bonuses. 

Initially, Aceli offered these bonuses for impact in three different categories: i) gender inclusion, ii) food security & nutrition, and iii) climate & environment. As of March 31, 2022, 68% of the 369 loans supported by Aceli’s incentives qualify for the gender inclusion impact bonus, 57% for food security & nutrition, and 23% for climate & environment. Overall, 150 loans qualified for an impact bonus in one category, 180 in two, and 8 in all three.

As of May 2022, Aceli is adjusting our impact policy and bonus areas based on learning to date and in line with our vision to shift the lending market towards increased impact. 

  • First, we are adding a fourth impact bonus area for youth inclusion to promote lending to SMEs that create economic opportunities for youth as entrepreneurs, business managers, farmers, or employees. The impact rationale is clear: youth account for 45% of the population in East Africa; the majority live in rural areas but have limited employment opportunities. Translating this high-level objective into incentives that can tangibly increase economic opportunities for youth is more challenging. Unlike the gender inclusion criteria, where Aceli was able to adopt the international standard established by the 2X Collaborative, there was no pre-existing standard for youth inclusion – so Aceli has created our own. We will present this approach in more detail in an upcoming post and pilot this policy over the next year.
  • The second notable change in our impact policy is that we have sub-divided the criteria for gender inclusion, food security & nutrition, and climate & environment. In practical terms, this means offering higher incentives or a “double bonus” for loans to SMEs that meet multiple criteria for a given impact area. For example, the standard established by 2X considers an SME gender inclusive if it meets any single criterion across ownership, management, board, employees, or customers (note: Aceli added a category for farmer suppliers since this is a significant impact dimension in the agriculture sector). Aceli’s previous policy – aligned with the 2X definition – treated gender inclusion as binary: either an SME met the standard by fulfilling at least one criterion or it did not. Our revised policy divides the criteria into two sub-categories: 1) leadership (assessed based on ownership, management, and board composition); and 2) inclusion (based on farmer suppliers, employees, and customers). An SME can qualify for a single impact bonus under either gender leadership or gender inclusion OR it can qualify for a double bonus if it meets criteria in both sub-categories. Under the revised impact policy, we are applying a similar approach for food security & nutrition and climate & environment. These adjustments re-weight Aceli’s incentives to place additional emphasis on impact.

Aceli supplements self-reported data from lenders with field visits conducted by our verification partner, Africert, which specializes in ESG audits and certifications for agriculture and forestry in East Africa. Verification visits focus on practices related to Aceli’s climate & environment impact bonus and include assessments at both SME and farmer levels. We will share more detail about this process and learning in the upcoming post focused on climate & environment.

3. Continuous improvement. Practices related to impact at lender and SME levels are not static; nor should we accept the status quo in food systems that remain deeply inequitable and environmentally unsustainable. Aceli is committed to learning and continuous improvement across all of our work. In concrete terms, this includes:

      • Improving the Impact / ESG policy that defines minimum criteria for Aceli’s support and the higher standards to qualify for impact bonuses. We embrace the changes incorporated into our revised policy even as we look ahead to further learning and enhancements in the coming years.
      • Promoting continuous improvement at lender-level. In 2021, the USAID INVEST program supported Aceli and advisory firm Value for Women (VfW) to offer a series of workshops on Gender Lens Investing to Aceli’s lending partners. Fifteen lenders participated in sessions on applying a gender lens to lending processes and strategies for identifying and serving women-led and gender-inclusive SMEs. Two lenders are now working with VfW to develop gender action plans to guide their portfolio management practices. In response to lender demand, Aceli may offer similar advisory to other lenders as well as capacity building related to climate finance.
      • SME-level. In 2021, Aceli collaborated with partners to run a pilot promoting reforestation practices with eight Agri-SMEs and more than 2,000 affiliated smallholder farmers in Rwanda and Uganda. Aceli and Value for Women are exploring an approach to support SMEs in improving their gender practices, particularly related to sourcing and employment. Later in this series, we will share learning from the reforestation pilot and how Aceli is approaching partnerships to promote continuous improvement in Impact / ESG at SME level specifically linked to financing needs (e.g., for off-grid renewable energy).

Forthcoming posts will delve into more detail on Aceli’s incentive design and initial learning related to gender inclusion, farmer and worker livelihoods, food security & nutrition, climate & environment, and youth inclusion.