Interview with Zhanna B. Zhakupova, CEO of ACF in Kazakhstan
How did you come to work in microfinance?
I found my way to microfinance a long time ago. I actually graduated from a medical university and started to work as a pharmacist. In 1991, I started to look for different opportunities and I decided to enter the International Business School in Almaty, in Kazakhstan, from which I graduated with an MBA degree. There, I was also in a special group preparing people on how to run a business. We studied economics, pricing and accounting.
When I graduated, I came across Mercy Corps, which is the founder of our MFI, the Asian Credit Fund LLC (ACF). It is a non-governmental organisational with headquarters in the United States. They had started a business lending program in Kazakhstan dedicated to micro and small businesses. I was interested in this project and I decided to become a loan officer. This allowed me to know more about businesses and to talk to clients to learn more about how their enterprises worked. I found this very interesting.
Later in 2001, Mercy Corps decided to provide financing to create a local institution to provide technical assistance in Kazakhstan and I was nominated for a manger position.
To start with, we were a non-commercial institution which after only five years became a commercial one looking and started to look for equity investors.
Is the financial sector gender balanced in Kazakhstan or is there still some way to go?
I think that the financial sector is still male dominated. Although the Kazakh government requires equality, if you see women in high positions, you will note that they will be extremely highly qualified, and this is something that is really expected from them. It is not easy for women to reach such positions if they only have standard studies.
I believe that women should have exactly the same chances as men. Gender equality should not be about reaching a certain number of female executive positions within organisations, it has to be because they are qualified and dedicated to what they do. Women can achieve exactly the same as men, if not more, because women have always tended to go the extra mile to achieve what they want.
What is the gender balance within ACF and what kind of services do you provide to clients?
In the executive management bodies we have around 40% women and 60% men, and our staff counts 66% of women.
Our clients are mainly located in underserved rural areas with 63% of female clients. Beyond traditional finance, we provide services to micro and small businesses for development, like training in financial literacy, consulting and other community development services.
The Central Asian region has faced several challenges in recent years. How has this affected your clients, particularly women, and what has ACF’s response been?
The pandemic has certainly had a negative impact on our clients, both SMEs and ordinary rural households. It included a loss of jobs or incomes accompanied by high inflation for all segments of the population.
In total, 7,000 clients (25% of the total base) found themselves in a difficult situation. However, it is safe to say that about 80% of customers have felt in some way the negative impact of the pandemic. The latest survey showed that, after the end of the lockdown, 83% of ACF clients had no savings left.
ACF took the following measures to support its customers during the severe restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the COVID-19:
- Payment deferrals and grace periods
- Nominal interest rates reduced
- Micro loan terms extended
- Late fees and penalties were waived
- A call-centre was established for customer support in this period of uncertainty
- WhatsApp chatbot was developed to expedite communication with clients
- Improved cash-in terminals and new features on ACF’s website to facilitate payments
- Cashless disbursements
- Special offers with lower interest rates for SMEs aimed at increasing access to finance for people from rural areas
ACF and our clients were hardly affected by the January events as the major unrest and robberies happened in Almaty and the west of the country. ACF does not perform lending operations in this area. Some small indirect inconveniences happened of course. We had to stop operations for two weeks, the cash supply was low, etc., but looking at the big picture, not much has changed.
The impact from the war in the Ukraine is difficult to assess at the moment. Kazakhstan is not directly involved in the war. The biggest impact on the lives of ordinary people comes from inflation, increases in food prices and other basic goods, but this does not only seem to be the result of the war.