Bridging the Financing Gap: Unlocking the Impact Potential of Agricultural SMEs in Africa

Published 14 December 2021

Our Year 3 Learning Report shares data and case studies drawn from 1,567 agriculture loans totaling $152M, more than double the volume captured in our Y2 report. We present high-level metrics from Aceli’s financial incentives program, data trends in agri-SME lending across East Africa, and ingredients for sustained lender behavior change. We also explore emerging data on the additionality and impact of loans across different size segments.

The Year 3 Learning Report centers on three themes:

  1. Loan size: Our pre-launch projections anticipated that most of the addressable market would be in the $200k-$1M range, but our latest data is showing far greater unmet but still addressable demand down-market. Aceli has pivoted to meet the market where it is by lowering our loan size minimum to $15k for certain high-impact market segments, increasing access to finance for unserved SMEs, particularly those owned by women and youth.
  2. Lender behavior: Data from Aceli-supported loans and feedback from lenders indicate a material shift in lenders’ collective reach to new geographic areas, value chains, and enterprise profiles, particularly women- and youth-owned SMEs, since joining the incentives program. 
  3. Evidence-based policies: At each decreasing loan size segment within Aceli’s range ($15k-$1.75M), there is a correspondingly higher volume of SMEs that are either completely unserved or significantly underserved by the financial markets. Our data points to an emerging case for African governments and international donors to boost inclusive economic growth by strengthening enabling environments for agri-SMEs, particularly those requiring finance under $200k. 

View the report


The 2024 Financial Benchmarking Report presents an analysis of key Agri-SME lending trends in East Africa, drawing insights from a dataset of 20k agriculture loans valued at $1.2B disbursed between 2019 and 2022. This data was sourced from 35 lenders, including commercial banks, non-banking financial institutions (NBFIs), and multi-country social lenders operating across Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Key takeaways:

  • Agri-SME lending by these lenders has experienced remarkable growth, with the value of the loan book tripling between 2019 and 2022 from $154M to $497M.
  • Notably, Tanzania leads this growth trajectory, propelled by supportive central bank policies initiated in 2021.
  • Commercial banks make up 90% of the loans in the dataset and their lending is increasing at an impressive compounded annual growth rate of 50% from 2019 to 2022.
  • The vast majority of the growth is concentrated at smaller ticket sizes below $200k, with the $10k-25k segment substantially outpacing growth in the other loan size segments.
  • 20-35% of loans are consistently allocated to new borrowers across most countries and lender types, signaling steady and sustainable growth.
  • Bank lending to agriculture has more than tripled in volume and doubled as a total share of their loan portfolios (from 2.0% in 2019 to 4.1% in 2022); but Agri-SME lending still constitutes a modest proportion of their overall lending.
  • Lenders continue to highlight high risks and origination costs as primary impediments to Agri-SME lending.

View the report


Aceli began its partnership with 60 Decibels (60dB) in 2021 to understand the impact of the loans it supports on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), farmers, and employees. Aceli believes that access to finance at the SME level will support improved operations that generate benefits for both farmers and workers.

This October 2023 Aggregate Impact Snapshot presents insights from surveys conducted by 60dB with 63 SME representatives working with 6 financial institutions in Kenya and Tanzania. Key insights include:

  • With support from Aceli’s incentives, lenders are serving SMEs that had not borrowed from financial institutions before, or that lack access to alternative financing of a similar caliber
  • SME representatives are overall satisfied with their loan and likely to recommend it to other SMEs
  • Financing is helping SMEs improve operations, increase revenue, better serve more farmers, and improve their range of services offered

The next publication (to be released mid-2024) will explore Aceli’s impact in greater detail. It will share findings from farmer and employee experience surveys conducted pre-financing (baseline) and post-financing levels.

Read the aggregate impact snapshot


Aceli’s 2023 Financial Benchmarking Report covers data gathered for an additional 13.2k loans totaling $749M issued by 31 lenders to agri-SMEs in East Africa during the period 2019-2021.

Key takeaways:

  • Aceli’s partner lenders increased their lending (largely independent of our incentives, which took effect towards the end of this period) despite the challenging macro environment.
  • Nevertheless, recent growth in agri-SME lending is from a low base and still represents <5% of the overall portfolios for commercial banks in the region.
  • Lending data and interview responses underscore the need to address the top two barriers identified by lenders: i) high risk and ii) high transaction costs of agri-SME lending.
  • Aceli’s incentives reduce the return gap of agri-SME lending relative to other sectors and are beginning to shift lender practices in promising directions: smaller ticket sizes, new value chains (see impact profile of loans to cassava SMEs in Tanzania), more remote geographies, and businesses that meet Aceli’s impact criteria, particularly for women and the environment. 

Read our Year 2 Learning Report for reflections on Aceli’s engagement with lenders in support of loans to agri-SMEs across Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

View the Report


Our Year 2 Learning Report reflects on Aceli’s engagement with lenders in support of 713 loans totaling $85M to agri-SMEs across Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Key takeaways:

  • Relative to Aceli’s pre-launch projections, we have shifted our approach to smaller loan sizes – this translates into lower capital mobilized on the one hand, but higher capital additionality and, we believe, higher impact than envisioned.
  • There is a need for increased evidence across the sector about what works in terms of both mobilizing finance for agricultural SMEs and how to steer capital to where it can have the greatest impact. Aceli and our learning partners are undertaking several studies to fill these knowledge gaps.
  • Our initial experience suggests that shifting lending behavior among commercial banks (which collectively are the highest volume lenders to agri-SMEs but by no means the only ones) requires: i) senior-level commitment; ii) defined agriculture strategy; iii) empowered middle manager; iv) awareness and internal alignment across departments; and v) dissemination of the model and engagement at the branch level as well as headquarters.
  • The response from lenders is palpable. In the words of Sabasaba Moshingi, CEO for Tanzania Commercial Bank, “Your vision helped us develop the appetite for ag. Previously, we would have been thinking twice before doing agri-lending. You guys are giving us courage.”

See our 2023 Financial Benchmarking Report to review data gathered for 13.2k loans totaling $749M issued by 31 lenders to agri-SMEs in East Africa during the period 2019-21.

View the Report


Cassava is one of the most important food crops in Tanzania and across East Africa. It is also an important source of food and income for an estimated 1.9M smallholder farmer households in Tanzania, including roughly half of farm households in the Kigoma region.

We profiled a cluster of 9 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Northwestern Tanzania that are accessing their first loans to purchase cassava from 1,980 smallholder farmers. These SMEs received loans from Tanzania Commercial Bank (TCB), who were originally deterred from lending to cassava enterprises in this region due to the far proximity from its closest branch and limited fixed assets for collateral. Aceli’s financial incentives helped TCB overcome these barriers to lending to this market segment, and the bank is now preparing for a second round of loans in June 2023.

Read the impact profile to learn more

Women form a majority of the agricultural workforce in East Africa as farmers and employees in agricultural value chains, but there is a vast gender gap in economic opportunities across the sector. Similar gaps persist at the level of senior management, board, and business ownership, where women entrepreneurs struggle to access capital relative to their male counterparts.

Overcoming these disparities will require a range of interventions from policy changes to shifts in cultural norms around gender roles. While no single actor can tackle these alone, it is essential that every actor aiming to build a more prosperous African agriculture sector – or a thriving economy more broadly – integrate gender inclusion into their strategy.

Our new Learning Brief highlights:

  • Aceli’s Approach to Gender Inclusion: Our experience adapting the 2X Criteria to lending for agri-SMEs in East Africa
  • Our Data: Learning from our first 22 months of offering impact-linked financial incentives for lenders
  • The Opportunity Ahead: Actions that Aceli and our partners are taking to close the economic opportunity gap for women, and outstanding questions for further exploration

Read it here

There are many well-documented barriers to agri-SME finance: risk aversion on the part of lenders, lack of collateral on the part of SMEs, and weak infrastructure, among many others.

The Aceli team, led by Head of Financial Sector Andrew Ahiaku, has recently delved into a set of barriers that is not commonly discussed: Central Bank regulations.

These highly technical policies and the ways in which regulated financial institutions interpret them are key drivers of the agricultural credit gap. Our new Learning Brief on this topic draws upon our review of the literature, conversations with more than 70 practitioners in East Africa, and the experiences of our team from the perspective of both lending and borrowing.

Read it here

Amid the ongoing challenges posed by COVID-19 and climate change—compounding the finance gap that pre-dated both—the need for investment in the African agriculture sector is more urgent than ever.

Aceli’s experience in Year 1 indicates that there is growing interest from private sector lenders to expand their agriculture portfolios. See here for a deeper data dive into Aceli-supported loans to date.

With new commitments from the Dutch and UK governments, Aceli has now secured $62M in funding through 2025 to scale up our activities.

Our latest report distills learning from our first year of implementation and highlights three key areas for learning in the years ahead:

  • How can public & philanthropic resources be targeted most effectively to attract private sector investment?
  • How can private investment be steered to optimize social & environmental impact, and what meaningful measures can we use to assess progress toward this goal?
  • How can the learning from Aceli’s model build an evidence base for blended finance that can spur adoption at the country level and replication in other sectors & geographies?

Download the Learning Report

At a sector convening in December 2017, lending practitioners discussed barriers to growing the finance market for agricultural SMEs: namely, the mismatch between the risk-return hurdle of capital providers and the addressable demand among businesses. Stakeholders in attendance pushed lenders to put hard evidence behind their anecdotal experiences.

This report synthesizes our journey over the past two and half years: first to distill the economics of agri-SME lending across a diverse set of lenders and then to design solutions to bridge the gap – estimated at $65 billion a year across Sub-Saharan Africa – between capital supply and demand for agri-SMEs.

In partnership with Dalberg Advisors and with funding from 12 donors, we reviewed data from 31 lenders on 9,104 transactions totaling $3.7 billion and also conducted in-depth interviews with lenders, technical assistance providers, and many other ecosystem actors.

This report shares our findings and presents Aceli Africa’s new data-driven, marketplace approach to align capital supply and demand and unlock increased financing for agri-SMEs.

Download the summary and full report below:

>> Summary Report


>> Full Report