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IFC Lends Support to Microloans in Russia

The International Finance Corporation, the World Bank's private lending unit, signed its first deal to support microloans in Russia on Friday.

The $1 million loan to the Russian Women's Microfinance Network is intended to support hundreds of microloans -- on average $1,500 each -- to entrepreneurs without the collateral to qualify for traditional bank loans.

"For us this is a very interesting project targeting segments of the population that are not being served," said Alireza Zavar, head of financial markets for Central and Eastern Europe at the IFC. "The amount that you provide is small, but the impact is great."

Although there are more than 1,200 banks in Russia, small and medium-sized enterprises often find it difficult to obtain affordable loans. And even as banks increasingly reach out to entrepreneurs in the regions, it is still not very lucrative to target entrepreneurs in small towns and villages.

According to the Russian Microfinance Center, 80 percent of the country's 6 million small businesses are in need of microcredits ranging from $300 to $10,000. Total demand for loans is between $5 billion and $7 billion, with a supply of only $1 billion, the center said.

The Women's Microfinance Network, which in the past relied exclusively on grants for its funding, has given 37,000 loans -- totaling $44 million -- to some 6,000 entrepreneurs since 1999.

Now, having received the IFC loan, the network is becoming a bona fide business. The annual interest rate on the loan will be between 3 percent and 5 percent, Zavar said.

The network focuses on small businesses in central Russia, with 65 percent of its clients being women, who generally have less access to conventional bank loans.

As the network grew, it boosted the average loan from $300 to $1,500, and it has almost no bad debt, said Diana Medman, the organization's founder and chairwoman.

Medman chalked up the network's success to the fact that women are reluctant to take out loans -- and when they do, they make sure they pay them back.

Analysts welcomed the IFC deal, saying it was in line with a current global trend for nonprofit organizations to ramp up operations and become profitable businesses.

"Banks are aware of competition and should upgrade their financial products," said Aldo Moauro, director of Microfinanza Rating, a Milan-based agency that rates microfinancial institutions around the world.

"There is no reason for [the network] not to be successful if [it] occupies a specific niche and is run well," said Andrew Keely, a banking analyst with Renaissance Capital.

(The Moscow Times 20.vi.05)

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