Ghazanfar Azzam, President and CEO of MMBL Exclusive Interview Conducted by Farooq Awan Arranged By Adnan Arif Photos by Ramzan Mughal Access to financial services is widely acknowledged as a fundamental requirement for economic growth and poverty reduction. Despite the progress made in financial inclusion globally, many developing countries, such as Pakistan, continue to face significant challenges in this regard. Mobilink Microfinance Bank Limited (MMBL) has been at the forefront of promoting financial literacy, women’s economic participation, and digitalization. The man leading this charge is none other than Ghazanfar Azzam, the President and CEO of MMBL. In an exclusive interview with Daily Times, Ghazanfar Azzam shares his journey from working in the private banking sector to taking the helm at MMBL and how his vision is transforming the landscape of microfinance banking in Pakistan. Q: What motivated you to transition from working for commercial banks to leading MMBL as its CEO? A: The impetus for my transition from a career in commercial banking to assuming the role of CEO at MMBL stemmed from a desire to make a more profound and positive impact on the lives of underprivileged communities who lack access to traditional banking services. This aspiration was coupled with a yearning to work in a dynamic and innovative environment that would provide ample opportunities for personal and professional growth. Furthermore, the opportunity to develop and execute a mission-driven strategy as the CEO of MMBL was another key factor that motivated me to pursue this new challenge. Q: Given that financial literacy is a key factor for the long-term growth of microfinance institutions in Pakistan, what policy changes, regulatory reforms, and other measures can be implemented to support the growth of financial literacy in the country and enhance the access of borrowers to financial services? A: One key measure to bolster financial literacy and support the long-term growth of Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) is integrating financial literacy education into the national school curriculum, ensuring that children are exposed to basic financial concepts and principles at an early age, enabling them to make informed financial decisions in the future. To increase public awareness of financial products and services, especially in low-income communities, it is essential to prioritize national financial literacy campaigns in collaboration with the private sector. In addition to these, implementing regulatory reforms that promote transparency and accountability in the microfinance industry can enhance people’s trust in the system. Collaboration between MFIs and financial regulators is also essential to promote financial literacy, provide guidance on best practices for financial education and measure the effectiveness of regulatory policies. Finally, investing in Financial Technology (FinTech) has the potential to significantly enhance financial literacy by offering user-friendly digital tools for financial management. Q: How has MMBL specifically tailored its products and services to meet the unique financial needs of SMEs in Pakistan and what impact has this had on the growth and development of these businesses? A: MMBL has taken significant strides to tailor its products and services to meet the unique financial requirements of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Pakistan, without causing financial strain. MMBL has also made significant advancements in digital banking services through its DOST App, enabling SMEs to access banking services from anywhere and at any time, alleviating the burden of financial management. In addition, MMBL provides comprehensive guidance and support in financial planning, budgeting, and cash flow management, intending to assist SMEs in achieving financial stability, productivity, and competitiveness in their respective markets. The Bank has also formed strategic partnerships with leading organizations to enable SMEs to access a broader range of resources and expertise, which in turn has contributed to their growth. Our top products during the year remained Gold-backed loans, Commercial Vehicle Loans, Nano loans, Housing Finance, and Karobar Loans with an average current collection FY 2022 standing at ~95%. MMBL recorded 38% growth in revenue, a 7% increase in Profit Before Tax, and an 18% growth in assets. We also witnessed a 32% increase in Gross Loan Portfolio (GLP) numbers and a 10% increase in our deposits at the end of 2022. Q: How do women-owned SMEs contribute to the economic growth of Pakistan and what measures have been taken by MMBL to promote their role in generating employment opportunities? A: Women-owned SMEs have been recognized as key contributors to the economic growth of Pakistan. These businesses are responsible for creating job opportunities, reducing poverty, and increasing the country’s GDP. However, despite their important role, women entrepreneurs often face numerous challenges, including limited access to finance, training, and networking opportunities. In response to this challenge, MMBL launched its flagship initiative, Women Inspirational Network (WIN) program, which aims to provide financial and non-financial support to small-scale women entrepreneurs. WIN has forged meaningful collaborations with organizations that share its vision of empowering women entrepreneurs. Among these allies are the Islamabad Women Chamber of Commerce & Industry (IWCCI), CARE International in Pakistan, Daraz, and the like which offer training and capacity-building programs to equip women with the skills and resources needed to succeed in business. Under WIN, the Bank has trained 1000 women in various skills, including financial literacy, entrepreneurship, marketing, and vocational training. Q: What do you believe is the most pressing challenge that MMBL currently faces and what strategies do you plan to implement to address this challenge in future? A: The microfinance industry currently faces several significant challenges, two of which include limited access to capital and the need for technological advancements. To overcome these obstacles, MMBL is actively reducing its reliance on traditional funding sources and expanding its financing channels to diversify its funding base. Furthermore, MMBL is leveraging fintech solutions to streamline its processes, enhance customer experience and reduce operational costs, which are crucial in today’s digital age. Another critical challenge that the microfinance sector encounters is the limited understanding of microfinance among individuals. MMBL recognizes this issue and is taking proactive measures to address it by increasing access to financial education, collaborating with organizations to provide workshops and training sessions, and utilizing digital platforms to disseminate information and resources about the Bank and its broad range of customized products and services. Q: Considering the growing number of Finance/Fintech graduates every year, what is MMBL’s strategy to absorb them into its workforce? A: We have multiple recruitment drives and programs that help us find and retain the best talent and provide opportunities for fresh graduates to gain valuable experience in the banking industry. Last year, we inducted 89 interns in permanent positions, nationwide. Similarly, our Humqadam program- a unique on-the-job training offering for Persons with Disabilities is a prime example of generating opportunities for all segments of society, diversifying our employee base as well. Ghazanfar Azzam – the Journey of Success Ghazanfar Azzam is the President & CEO of Mobilink Microfinance Bank Limited since its inception in 2012. He has vast experience in retail, commercial, consumer, SME & micro & digital banking segments and has the distinction of being the founder & CEO of two leading greenfield nationwide microfinance banks in Pakistan i.e. Kashf Microfinance Bank in 2008 (now FINCA) & Mobilink Microfinance Bank in 2012. Mobilink Bank, backed by Veon- an Amsterdam-based global telecom giant, now operates with over 110 brick & mortar branches and 200,000+ branchless banking agents offering micro-enterprise loans, micro-housing loans, savings, domestic remittances, utility bill collection, mobile wallets, life insurance & G2P & B2P payments through a strategic alliance with Pakistan’s largest telecom operator Jazz, under the umbrella of JazzCash. In a career spanning over 35 years, Ghazanfar has worked for some of the best banks in Pakistan including HBL, Union Bank, Prime Bank & Bank Alfalah. During his banking career, he spent several years as Head of Training & Development at Prime Bank & Bank Alfalah. In recognition of his contributions to HR development & training in Pakistan’s banking industry, he was awarded the prestigious Hubert Humphrey Fellowship by the United States Government for the year 2000-01 under the Fulbright program. The program included studies at State College, Penn State, PA in HRD & Leadership and on-the-job experience at ABN Amro Bank, North America in Chicago. Before moving back to business leadership, Ghazanfar worked with Shore Bank International (Now Enclude), a leading international consulting company in SME and microfinance sectors- based out of Washington DC and operating globally, as a senior consultant and Head of a USAID-funded SME downscaling project in 2005-7. Ghazanfar is a fellow member of the Institute of Bankers in Pakistan.