Microfinance helps women entrepreneurs in Bosnia

By Anthony Williams
@ebrdtony

Milena Regoje lives in the village of Vojkovici in a rural part of the Republic of Srpske with one husband, four children, three cows and 27 sheep. In her smallholding, she grows tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. Hay is stacked up in the garden to provide winter feed.

When Mrs Regoje decided to switch from breeding pigs and chickens to cows and sheep, she bought one cow on her own. When she wanted to buy two more cows, she turned to loans from EBRD client MI-BOSPO, a microfinance institution set up in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996 with the specific aim of supporting women entrepreneurs in the wake of the devastating three-year war.

In Mrs Regoje's garden in blazing sunshine, the idyllic rural setting belies how tough life in the country can be. During a particularly hard recent winter, two of her cows became ill and 20 sheep died from a virus.

"We managed to move on. We picked ourselves up with the help of MI-BOSPO," Mrs Regoje recalled. "We didn't have to reschedule our loans."

MI-BOSPO has provided some €230 million in 216,927 loans to 74,024 women over the last 17 years. The average size for a MI-BOSPO loan is just €1,100.

The lender’s driven founder and CEO, Nejira Nalic, explained that it is not MI-BOSPO finance alone that supports women developing their enterprises. "This is not just about money. We are also a trusted friend during the difficult times," she said.

In addition to providing loans, MI-BOSPO runs a Women's Business Network that provides training courses, support, advice and an opportunity to swap ideas with other women entrepreneurs. It is an important support group that helps to build up both business acumen and general business confidence.

The MI-BOSPO chief is proud of how her pioneering work has helped forge the company into a "responsible lender" and is strongly in favour of efforts to eradicate corruption and malpractice in the system.

But in a discussion with President Chakrabarti during his recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ms Nalic wondered whether measures to attack corruption were being sensibly applied or were themselves becoming an impediment to investment. Anti-money laundering laws have tightened up requirements to prove the provenance of all sources of revenue. But this sort of documentation is not always available for someone like Mrs Regoje, who sells her milk and cheese to neighbours in the village.

The EBRD has been working with MI-BOSPO since 2007, providing two loans worth €3 million. Additionally, the Bank has just approved a new loan worth €1.5 million to support MI-BOSPO in serving low-income women entrepreneurs.

Speaking of the group's relationship with the EBRD, the MI-BOSPO CEO said: "Our experience with the EBRD is similar to the relationship that our clients, clients like Milena, have with us.

"This is about business. It’s about being able to have access to a loan and to use it for what it is intended,” Ms Nalic added. “It shows that MI-BOSPO is profitable. The EBRD adds to MI-BOSPO's reputation by showing that we can undergo thorough due diligence and demonstrate our administrative and financial responsibility.”

But, she said, it is also about trusted friendship: the EBRD provides technical assistance support so MI-BOSPO can further strengthen its core business and develop a better market position.

"In addition – and this is one of my favourite contributions,” Ms Nalic said, “the EBRD demonstrates a commitment to serving women and to profiling the gender balance through its programmes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as through its Women in Business forums during its Annual Meetings."