Can a banker be a farmer? Or can a farmer be a banker?
Arnold Tijdens is both.
“For me, the variation of life experiences is what makes it so interesting” says the founder of Kilimo Finance.
A tall Dutchman who towers over most people, Tijdens grew up in a farming family before opting for a career in finance. He led Rabobank’s agri-finance activities in Rwanda and Uganda before moving to Asia on secondment to Yoma Bank, where he designed loan products for the agricultural sector.
The problem Arnold witnessed as a farmer and a banker is that smallholder farmers in rural areas face difficulties in accessing loans.
So in 2019, he founded Kilimo – the Swahili word for ‘agriculture’- in Vietnam. The company uses digital technology to connect smallholder farmers to financial institutions and facilitate access to funding.
His inspiration came while living in Myanmar prior to Vietnam, where he was surprised to see so many farmers using smartphones.
“Already more than 70% of the farmers have smartphones, which is a great tool to get access to capital in the future”, he says. “Technology is the tool!”
Making the mobile connection
For banks, making credit assessments of smallholder farmers can be difficult and expensive, especially when only small amounts are involved, as ‘clients’ are often far afield and unable to provide sufficient financial information.
And for the farmer, access to finance can be as difficult for similar reasons: distance and information. As a result commercial banks tend to lack suitable loan products. And that is where Kilimo Finance wants to bridge the gap, using Tijdens’ dual expertise in banking and agriculture.
“Everyone can develop an app but not everyone can understand what kind of loans farmers need”, Tijdens states.
“Big Data” fills the gaps
His solution is two-fold: first, it supports banks by designing suitable loan products for farmers; and two, it lowers operational costs.
Through the Kilimo App, farmers can apply for loans remotely. A Scoring Platform takes the input from the farmer and combines it with multiple other data points from sources like suppliers and buyers, household and social data, and media reports, and the combined weight of the collected information allows for an immediate calculation of an appropriate loan amount for each farmer.
“The good thing about our solution is that we have digitised the entire journey from applying for a loan all the way to disbursement”, Tijdens says.
Cementing the future custodians
Since its conception, Kilimo Finance has achieved some major milestones. In its first few months, the company received a letter of support from the Dutch Farmfit Fund – a guarantee instrument which lowers the risk of banks that are willing to make loans to smallholder farmers.
The company also scooped first prize in the Vietnam Fintech Challenge 2019 as an early stage start-up. And at the start of 2020, Kilimo won the Innovation Challenge at the Asia Financial Institution Forum in Bangkok. It has also signed a contract to support coffee farmers in Vietnam to buy fertilisers on credit.
While Kilimo’s primary market is Vietnam, there are imminent plans for expansion to Philippines and Indonesia due to their vast agricultural sector and large number of smallholder farmers.
“The biggest challenge so far has been getting access to the main decision-makers of the banks to showcase Kilimo Finance’s solution”, Tijdens says.
But that does not stop him from forging ahead to engage other partners with the intention of securing the future custodians of the land, and to continue to ensure their impact.