Being poor doesn’t make you a bad borrower

There is a general belief among top bankers and armchair experts that the poor don’t pay back their loans, and therefore there isn’t any basis to even let them have access to credit.

The arguments are many, and having fought with unmatched vim in many of these arguments, and I wonder how I have escaped without a black eye most times.

In a country where over 90 million people are below the poverty line, and many just want a chance to move up the ladder (those who wait for the Government to move them shall wait forever), then it is elitist and dangerous to jump into these conclusions without an adequate assessment of the realities.

The poor don’t have money to pay back

Well, yes, this is true. One of the 4 Cs of credit is capacity, which is a core tenet of credit; it’s only sensible to never lend to anyone beyond what they can pay back and to structure it in a way that doesn’t keep them in a financial chokehold (na money dem dey find, no be say they kill  person).

It is equally as important to note that loans should also be tied to productive activities that are sure to yield enough return to pay them back. Being poor does not disqualify one from being productive. Someone who hawks Gala on the streets of Lagos with N0 to his name, taking a N10,000 loan in the morning to sell in traffic, has a higher chance of paying it back than a fat banker who took a loan to buy business class tickets for himself and his side chick to Dubai (we know your stories).

The poor have a history of not paying back

Nigeria is replete with tons of stories of government interventions where nobody paid back their loans. It makes you wonder when loans and cash gifts became synonymous. One might think this to be true until you discover that most of these loans were run by syndicates who arranged for most loans to be disbursed within their networks. These people saw an opportunity to share the national moi moi and divide the national cake.

While this narrative seems to have taken over, on the flip side, I can point you to thousands of lenders who extend daily credit to market women around Nigeria. These market women pay back consistently and reliably. Chimamanda couldn’t have said it better; beware of the dangers of a single story.

The poor have no credibility

Everyone assumes the poor would lie to get a loan. Yes, Nigerians lie to get loans, but this isn’t a problem of poverty; it is a character problem. Poverty does not directly translate to a lack of credibility, and neither does the Nigerian elite starter pack come equipped with credibility (selective amnesia for AMCON defaults still?) The quantum of the bad loans in the Nigerian banking system, powered by borrowers with zero character, was for the rich and mighty.

The lack of character is a personal problem, and this is due to the torn national value fabric, which is on its knees begging for mend.

You can’t catch the poor if they don’t pay back

But are the rich not still running?

Someone owes you N20,000 in unpaid loan; you spend N10,000 in locating their place; what would you do when you get them? Nothing! In all honesty, I concur that pursuing a poor person who hasn’t paid is a waste of effort and resources.

Unfortunately, almost the same applies to everyone except the middle class. The rich guys owe banks trillions, but they are the ones suing their creditors. A tale of the tail wagging the dog.

The poor have no credit history

The poor indeed have no credit history. And they won’t have a credit history because of two critical reasons:

One, most Nigerians have never gotten a chance to get a loan before, and if you never had a loan, you can’t have a credit history … but you need history to qualify for most loans (which came first? The chicken or the egg?)

Two, the cost of access to a credit bureau for the small lenders that only do microloans and serve a small portion of the market is unbearable. Imagine racking up credit bureau costs for 1,000 loan requests when only about 100 would qualify for loans and even less will pay back (when next you see the owner of a small lending business, hug them and then squeeze 50k in their hand, those guys are trying).

Why do we need to kill these narratives?

It is dangerous to use intellectual laziness to block over 1 billion people in Africa and 90 million people in Nigeria from credit simply because we can.

Our inability to find a working model isn’t the fault of the poor but the fault of those who may not be putting enough effort into solving these problems. The truth is, if we don’t solve these credit problems, Africa won’t grow, and the poor will one day rise against the rich (#eattherich).

Previous narratives based on elitism have been proven to be false. They once said phones aren’t for the poor, but today, the same poor are the source of life for MTN and others. They once argued that the internet wouldn’t be affordable, and today, Africans are addicted to the internet. I wouldn’t even call it a lack of wisdom. They know the truth. But the gods forbid poor people to have access to the same things as them (gatekeeping 101).

Some banks and fintechs are already changing these narratives

Don’t be alarmed yet; all hope isn’t lost. We’re already seeing the rise of lending-as-a-service tech companies such as Lendsqr, Indicina, Evolve credit, etc., creating cheaper and scalable lending stacks for small-time lenders, which allows them to reach the mass market more cost-effectively.

Some banks, such as Sterling, Access, and FCMB, are at the forefront of mass-scale consumer lending. These banks are giving loans to Nigerians who are not their customers as they understand that consumer credit is the future.

Disclosures: I’m the founder of Lendsqr, and I work there.