Jim Louttit is the Chair of ResInt Canada. Jim has over thirty-five years of business and community development experiences, especially in the fields of microfinance and poverty alleviation, financial services, banking, and research. He has led many research-based interventions in changing people’s lives in the developing world.
Jim is also the President of JVL Global Corp, a financial services consulting company specializing in microfinance. Previously, Jim worked for an international Canadian bank. His work with the bank took him to Latin America where he had Executive roles as well as serving as a Director on the bank’s boards in five Latin America countries. He is also the Co-Chair and Executive Vice-President of Canada Trade Link Corp, an organization enabling Canadian businesses to connect and do business with high-growth emerging markets worldwide.
Jim has been a Rotarian since 2005 and is currently the President of the Rotarian Action Group for Microfinance and Community Development. He is a frequent public speaker in international seminars. He is passionate about working for the poor and underprivileged communities in the developing world, especially in Asia, Afric, and Latin America. He is also active in several other organizations serving as President of the Toronto International Microfinance Summit, and past President of the Peruvian-Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
In a recent visit to Dhaka, Jim sat for an exclusive interview with Bangladesh Brand Forum, excerpts of which follow.
Bangladesh Brand Forum: How often do you visit Bangladesh? How does it feel to be here?
Jim Louttit: This is my third visit to Bangladesh. My first visit was in January 2012, when I started to become more involved in the field of microfinance. So, I really wanted to get hands-on experience, since so many experts of the field stated Bangladesh as the origin of microfinance. I joined in on a visit to Bangladesh that was already planned and got the opportunity to meet Dr. Muhammad Yunus. The last time I was here was in April 2014 to work with BRAC. Since I had seen the Grameen Bank model of operation, I also wanted to learn how BRAC’s model worked. Both times, I visited rural Bangladesh, the Bogra District specifically, with the sole purpose of meeting the end clients and understanding their needs and wants.
I truly enjoyed meeting the people and to see how the microcredit system implemented in Bangladesh was different from that in North America.
You have over thirty-five years of experience in the fields of microfinance, financial services, banking, and research. What made you venture along this path?
I became involved in the financial services sector in 1972, for the first time. Then in 1975, I joined Canada’s largest international bank in the retail sector and my role mostly revolved around business development. I moved to the bank’s international division in 1989 and then had the opportunity of visiting a number of countries between then and the year 2000 to follow my passion of seeing new countries and engaging with new people. This included countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America as well as India and Hong Kong. In 2010, after leaving the banking business, I was invited to a meeting in Toronto on microfinance. I thought to myself that it is similar to banking and I tried my hand at it. I slowly got interested in microfinance and since then, this field has become a passion for me.
I have always enjoyed travel and decided to venture into the international division of the bank to learn more about diversified cultures and economies as well as having the opportunity to meet new people. This has continued with my time in microfinance visiting several developing countries to work with people, assisting them to move out of poverty. And of course, research is very important in any vocation, whether it be market or social research. I used a lot of market research during my time in banking due to the number of new products I wanted to implement in new countries which included product testing, usage, and customer satisfaction.
One quick story that I want to tell you, is why I stay on the path of microfinance. It is about a woman that I met at a community lending group meeting in the Bogra District in 2012. There were 26 other women just like her in the group. Each of them shared their story, hers really touched my heart. She was so proud of what she accomplished that she insisted I visit her home. She told me that 10 years ago, she was a beggar living on the streets foraging for food for survival and today she has her own home (small with two rooms but a home nevertheless) and a business of selling milk because of Grameen Bank lending her money to buy a milking cow. The story really stuck with me. Because it isn’t charity. The loan had to be repaid, motivating her to work hard. Her sense of pride and ownership shown to me that day has kept me in this path.
Do you think the future of microfinance is mobile?
I believe there is a great future for mobile in microfinance. A good example is mobile payment systems that can help microfinance institutions reduce the cost of their operations, adding flexibility, improving the accuracy of data, and reducing fraud and details. It also helps clients by providing them with extra time and flexibility.
Many people living in poverty have access to a mobile phone which means this tool holds tremendous potential to transform the way the poor save and access money. The widespread introduction of mobile money has helped lower or eliminate transaction costs associated with typical microfinance and has incentivized entrepreneurs to look at previously underserved markets. In addition to physical goods, we now see mobile money accepted by the service sector, rent-to-own technology, and energy service platforms. Even during my visit to Bogra, I saw how tedious the process of inputting data was for Grameen Bank employees. Introduction of more mobile means of data entry can eliminate the process of manually entering data completely.
A 2018 World Economic Forum stated that the future of development is in Nano financing. Do you agree?
I don’t know enough of Nano financing to agree or disagree with that question. As we are talking about very small amounts of money – which I have seen mentioned as “pay as you go” models – and yes, there seems to be a market, I do not see this taking the place of microfinance. Rather, it seems to be another way of providing credit for families requiring a service on a daily or weekly basis. And more options are better for the consumer. Nano financing caters to niche markets and is just another avenue for social business.
Extreme poverty is still a burning issue for the world. Although we have tried and progressed over the years, what else can be done to eradicate it completely?
We still have several things to do to eradicate extreme poverty although we have seen a considerable reduction over the past 25 years or so. In 1990 nearly 50% of the population in developing nations lived on less than $1.25 per day. As of 2015, that proportion has dropped to 14%. In terms of numbers of people, that equates to 1.9 billion down to 836 thousand. This meant that the original Millennium Development Goal was reached before 2015. The revised goal for 2030 is for the full eradication of extreme poverty.
I know this is a generic statement, but I do believe we require the assistance, as noted by the United Nations, of Governments, local authorities, indigenous people, civil society, business, and the private sector, the scientific and academic community – basically all people. This is on a lot of people’s agendas and we need everyone to continue working together to ensure success by 2030.
Briefly tell us about ResInt and its future plans.
We are a research organization formed in Toronto, Canada and we operate in South Asia as well as North America with offices in Dhaka and Toronto. Our clients include both the private and public sectors. Our operations cover market and social research, such as customer satisfaction research, product testing and usage for example. We also conduct media research, public opinion surveys, strategic planning, process improvement, impact assessment and benchmarking/baselining in a number of sectors.
In my visit to Bangladesh, I sat with all the staff to discuss our future plans, where we’ve come and what we are going to do for the rest of 2019-2020. Our future includes a full office in Nepal by the end of this year as well as the start of operations in Africa during next year.
Do you have any parting advice for the future generation who would like to pursue a career in the field of microfinance and the broader financial services that cater to poverty alleviation?
One piece of advice that I would give to those wanting to pursue a career is to first go out to the field and discover what microfinance is really about. Talk to the entrepreneurs about their successes and failures. Ask them what they want and need. Talk to the lending officers and executives of the various microfinance institutions about what works and what doesn’t. What the opportunities are.
What I most enjoy about my time in this field is the interaction with clients. Their pride and ownership of their successes are very evident when they are telling you their stories. This is not about charity. This is not a hand out, it is a hand up and when you provide an opportunity for them, they seize it and start their businesses on their path to move out of poverty.