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GroFin and Shell Foundation: Harnessing technology for SME finance

From mobile money to blockchain and data analytics, fintech is not only disrupting the way corporate financial institutions operate, it also presents far-reaching opportunities for social enterprises and development finance institutions to strengthen their impact and efficiency.

Shell Foundation (SF) supports innovators to test new technology and enterprise models to help overcome two major global development challenges: access to energy and access to affordable transport. Its portfolio includes both social enterprises as well as market enablers – like GroFin – that accelerate the growth of proven sectors.

SF, a UK registered charity, has supported GroFin since its inception in 2004, when the two organisations came together to develop a unique model that combines finance and support to grow SMEs and drive inclusive economic growth. In line with SF’s focus to support businesses and intermediaries capable of delivering social change at scale, it also assisted GroFin in two projects aimed to enable the company to better leverage technology and increase the efficiency of its growing operations.

Mairi Tejani, Head of SME Growth at Shell Foundation, says financial technology innovations create a unique opportunity to redefine the SME lending ecosystem.

“We remain committed to supporting initiatives that increase the efficiency of the SME finance sector in emerging markets, and are pleased to partner with GroFin to test the use cases for financial technology innovations in SME funds.”

Increased efficiency

GroFin provides financing and business support to SMEs in 14 countries throughout Africa and the Middle East and has invested in over 700 businesses. The ability to provide effective business support to its clients is integral to GroFin’s business model. This requires the company to accurately capture and analyse financial and other data gathered from these SME businesses, or created through its transactions with them.

Until recently, GroFin relied on various internal systems and manually extracted the data it needs for analysis and reporting – a process which was both time-consuming and error prone. With Shell Foundation’s support, GroFin enlisted Altron Karabina, a specialist in helping companies digitally transform using the Microsoft platform, to develop a data warehouse and business analytics platform.

The data warehouse allowed GroFin and Karabina to develop automated reporting templates, eliminating the need to manual collate and update data for reporting purposes and greatly improved efficiency. For example, the project has allowed GroFin to slash the time spent on collating certain data for creating quarterly reports for investors from about two weeks to mere minutes.

GroFin is now using its own internal resources to extend the infrastructure and functionality created during the project to create a wider range of automated reports. Since the completion of the project, GroFin has already published more than 60 automated reports. The automation of reporting processes is freeing up time and resources within GroFin’s investment team, allowing them to spend less time on verifying figures and conduct the analysis needed to manage their portfolios and support their clients better.

A digital solution to capturing data

The need to maintain an efficient system of collecting data that is complete, accurate and auditable also led SF to provide GroFin with support to test and pilot a blockchain platform from BanQu, a US based, blockchain solutions provider. GroFin tested the use of a digital platform using distributed ledger technology (DLT) as a more effective and convenient means for its clients to submit the data required from them.

Philippa Massyn, IST Executive at GroFin, says the pilot project showed the great potential for development finance institutions and others engaged in impact investing to use digital platforms to collect data in the field.

“The project showed that a digital platform can not only make it easier for SMEs to submit their data, it can also be used to generate key insights through analytics.  We believe that if SMEs see this immediate benefit to submitting their data, they will be incentivised to submit again and on time.”

Serving SMEs better

Ashraf Esmael, Chief Development Officer at GroFin, says exploring new ways to capture and analyse data from SMEs, can make an important contribution to the development of the sector.

“Small businesses are vulnerable to shocks and therefore need to identify changing trends early on. The ability to capture and analyse data quicker and more effectively will help GroFin to provide better and more timely support to SMEs, and to do this more efficiently.”

Ryan Jamieson, CTO at Altron Karabina, says the company is excited to work with organisations like GroFin which have both an economic and societal impact.

“Altron Karabina helps companies to understand, manage and make decisions based on their data. In GroFin’s case this not only improved their own businesses processes. It will also help them to empower the SMEs they serve.”