Q&A with Shamina Singh of the Center For Inclusive Growth

Africa.com had a chance to do an exclusive interview with Shamina Singh, President of the Center for Inclusive Growth.  This interview comes on the final day of the World Economic Forum Africa, taking place in Cape Town, South Africa. 

Shamina had just concluded an event at WEF featuring a panel discussion on digital transformation hosted by the Center along with The Fletcher School of Tufts University.  In discussing the importance of this topic, she quoted Professor Bhaskar Chakravoti, Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School: “Digitization in Africa could be what industrialization was for Europe.”

The Exclusive Interview:

As the head of the Centre for Inclusive Growth, let’s start by asking you to explain what “inclusive growth” means?

There are 1.7 billion people around the world who are not included in the formal economy. A lot of progress has been made over the last decade and as a first step at Mastercard we set a goal to achieve financial inclusion for 500 million people by 2020. Now on the cusp of that goal, we recognize it’s just the start. Opening the door is important but the ultimate goal has to be inclusive growth – the long term impact of our efforts. 

That means reimagining what growth means for everyone in today’s digital economy. Growth cannot be assessed using the mindset and measures of yesterday.  It’s more than just an increase in wealth — it’s about human lives reaching their full potential. That means thinking about the whole ecosystem and connecting people to the networks that can help them not only get access to a system but use it, grow from it and build a better life as a result of it. 

In a world where more than a billion people lack access even to a form of identity and 3.4 billion people, almost half the world’s population, still struggle to meet basic needs such as access to food and life-saving healthcare, this is about helping put more people in control of their own destinies. 

How do the latest trends in digital transformation, as Africa embraces the Fourth Industrial Revolution at an accelerated pace, impact the opportunity for digital inclusion?

The fourth industrial revolution is the current and developing environment in which disruptive technologies and trends such as the Internet of Things, robotics, data science and artificial intelligence are changing the way we live and work. 

However, we can’t have the internet of everything without the inclusion of everyone. 

Globally, technology’s relentless transformation continues to gather momentum, presenting both challenges and opportunities for people all around the world. Building an economy fit for the digital age is a challenge that must be taken up by corporations, policy makers, research institutes, educators and philanthropic organizations, to safeguard employment and opportunity for all segments of society. 

The rise of e-commerce, entrepreneurship and digital adoption represents tremendous potential for inclusive growth across Africa. Further, the Continent’s already burgeoning youth population, which is expected to grow by over 50% by 2050, presents a significant opportunity to create a demographic dividend, unlocking further investment in digital infrastructure as well as creating a more robust and inclusive workforce.

Technology advances are driving the critical migration from cash to electronic payments, which is positively impacting individual economies in Africa and the global ecosystem at large. Across 70 countries studied by Moody’s, a 1% increase in usage of electronic payments produced an annual increase of $104 B in the consumption of goods and services ($74 B contribution to global GDP each year).

As new tools and technologies are developed, financial services can be provided with greater speed, accountability, and efficiency. These tools are helping segments of society and industries that are traditionally underserved in Africa: Micro-retail sector; Agriculture sector; Education sector; Female entrepreneurs.

Opportunity zones are a pillar of the work you do throughout the world. For those who think that opportunity zones in otherwise affluent areas allow communities to work together and empower them to shape their future. Does the concept of an Opportunity Zone apply in Africa?

The area we are focused on is inclusive economic development – making sure we lift up distressed communities so they aren’t left behind. While people-based strategies are critical, so too are place-based strategies. We are harnessing our technology, talent and data insights to help community leaders build plans for upward mobility and long term inclusive growth within the communities they serve.

We believe to get to the right outcomes you need the right inputs. That’s why in the U.S. through data science and impact grants, we are helping community leaders to take advantage of the Qualified Opportunity Zones Act 

This Act may be country-specific but we see a future where we take the principles of our work and apply to other parts of the world. By understanding the economic trends in neighborhoods you can help attract investment, measure progress and protect community interests. This is particularly relevant when you consider Africa is undergoing the fastest urbanization rate in the world (Lagos is predicted to expand by 77 people every hour between now and 2030).

Fortune Magazine recently named Mastercard #2 in its “Change the World” List of global corporations who are doing good while doing well. Congratulations! Please help us understand what this means, and how you were chosen for this award.

The private sector has a vital role to play in driving social impact. However, we cannot rely on philanthropy or corporate social responsibility (CSR) alone — both of which are critically important.  This is not about trading off business interests against social interests.  It’s about recognizing that businesses thrive in a thriving world and fails in a system that fails too many.  

It is in shareholders’ interests that we explore how to use our products, technology, business models and understanding of ecosystems to address these fundamental social and economic challenges. Mastercard is making commercially-sustainable social impact business as usual, that’s what it means to do well BY doing good.

In 2015, Mastercard announced a commitment to bring 500 million people into the financial system by end-2020. Now on the cusp on that goal, we have set our sights beyond. Attention has turned to re-imagining what it means to achieve inclusive growth for people, communities, and economies around the world. 

It’s this attention to impact that set us apart for Fortune. The Center for Inclusive Growth was commended for its work with women entrepreneurs. 

  • In India, we have partnered with a local NGO to establish the first Chamber of Commerce dedicated to rural women entrepreneurs. By tailoring 13 services for women business owners, we are catalyzing 10,000 micro and small businesses to expand. 
  • In Indonesia, Mastercard has a philanthropic partnership with Commonwealth Bank to provide financial literacy and business skills to 15,000 women entrepreneurs through a combination of training, mentoring, and digital tools. Together we launched WISE (Women Investment Series), a skill-building program for small businesses, which will strengthen their operations and grow their profitability.
  • By partnering with a microfinance institution in Bangladesh to provide financial literacy and business development training, 175,000 women entrepreneurs have accessed working capital credit to grow their small businesses.

We also continue to be supportive of and aligned with The Mastercard Foundation’s goal to improve the lives of 33 million people across the continent. We are proud that the economic health of the company has enabled it to grow into a $30B+ foundation – one of the largest in the world. 

You are focused on how your work impacts female entrepreneurs. Can you comment on why there is a focus on women in Africa, and how women entrepreneurs, in particular, benefit from your work on financial inclusion?

Inequality and exclusion are two of the biggest barriers to women’s prosperity and this isn’t just a developed or developing world problem alone.

More than 1 billion people globally don’t have formal proof of identity and a disproportionate amount are women. This is especially pronounced in the lowest income countries, where 45% of women lack foundational identification.

In addition, women’s access to financial services globally has remained stagnant since 2011 and 70% of women-owned Small and Medium Enterprises lack access to adequate financing, representing a $300 billion credit gap each year.  

In Africa, there’s a real opportunity to drive change for women business owners through farming and access to financing. This requires strong partnerships and long-term commitment to deliver results over the long term.

  • Women grow 70% of Africa’s food so are critical drivers of community commerce. Through the Mastercard Farmer Network, we are connecting thousands of smallholder farmers in East Africa and India to transparent digital marketplaces to safely connect with buyers and get fully paid for their produce. 
  • With our partner, Unilever, we have also created a safe digital program for micro-merchants in Kenya—16,000 shop owners are already registered and more than half are women. The program uses the history of how much they have bought from Unilever to provide a micro-credit eligibility recommendation to the local bank. The bank then uses that history to approve an interest-free credit line so shopkeepers can stock their shelves and grow their business, not just buy what they can afford in cash on a particular day.

We are involved in many other relevant networks and organizations that are mutually focused on advancing the role of women in Africa:

  • Mastercard has extended its relationship with USAID to promote women’s economic engagement as part of the White House’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP).
  • Mastercard teamed up with African Women and Beyond (AWAB) to launch the Africa Women Leadership Network (AWLN), drawing attention to the importance of financial empowerment of women on the continent. The AWLN brings together like-minded women from various business sectors to tackle challenges facing women in East Africa, and across the continent.
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