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Over four days in Morocco in late February, women microfinance leaders from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Sub-Saharan African regions met to further develop their leadership skills while learning about the local microfinance sector. Led by the Center for Microfinance Leadership, WWB’s Women in Leadership Program hosted nine participants from institutions in seven countries for the four-day exchange in Rabat and Casablanca. Association Al Amana, a leading Moroccan microfinance institution (MFI) and member of the WWB network, acted as local co-host and opened their doors to the group.

WWB designed its Women in Leadership Program in 2005 to advance women’s leadership in microfinance within the WWB network and globally and has previously held highly successful exchanges in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia and Kenya, and Peru. These leadership exchanges are designed for women managers to broaden their exposure to regional best practices, build their network of fellow women leaders in the field, and learn more about innovative work being done in the microfinance industry of the program’s host country.

Visiting a National Leader in Microfinance

This particular cadre of women first met during WWB’s Women in Leadership Program in Jordan in 2011, marking the first step of their leadership journey. Their first reunion and next step of the leadership training commenced in Rabat from February 20-23, 2012. After a brief reunion the team was off to visit Association Al Amana, a formidable microfinance institution with 2,100 employees, 480 branches and over 297,000 active loans to clients across the country. Fatima-Zahra Zaim Idrissi, Production Manager at Al Amana and program participant, warmly welcomed WWB and the other participants to her organization, making introductions to the CEO and top representatives from the Human Resources, Legal, Marketing, Risk Management, IT, Collections and Accounting departments during a daylong site visit to their headquarters that highlighted innovation and alignment around a common vision to achieve their targets.

WWB’s relationship with Al Amana dates back to 2003. Al Amana General Director Youssef Bencheqroun has enthusiastically attended leadership trainings through the Center for Microfinance Leadership in the United States and United Kingdom, and has supported his staff in developing their leadership skills to hone in on their collective vision. The organization proudly shares that it has achieved mission alignment throughout their organization: from CEO to loan officer. “I like Al Amana and how it works; I found a lot of harmony and energy there. It was a great experience and I benefitted a lot [from visiting them],” said Nisreen Swelem, a program participant from The Palestinian Business Women’s Association.

“My impression of these women leaders is that I was very impressed. Now I better understand gender politics,” said Bencheqroun. He continued, “I had an idea [of the role of gender in microfinance] when I was at Wharton and now I better understand the gender diversity impact at Al Amana. Forty eight percent of our personnel are women, and we hope to continue in this direction.” The largest microfinance organization in Morocco and the MENA region, Al Amana also serves a clientele comprised of nearly half women. Al Amana represents gender diversity throughout the organization and looks forward to furthering its commitment to women.

A Day in Casablanca

On day two of the program, the women leaders travelled to Casablanca for a tour of Morocco’s microfinance sector. Based on the King’s desire to develop Morocco’s microfinance industry, the Mohammed VI Centre for Supporting Solidarity Microfinance is dedicated to marketing and promotion of microenterprise, providing training for MFI staff and clients, and also serves as a research center for the industry. The team spent a morning with Youssef Errami, Executive Director of the Centre. A thorough presentation offered an in-depth profile of the current state of the sector and the innovative plans of the government to continue to better serve the low income population. “We have to raise awareness and meet the needs of women,” said Errami to the visiting group after a tour of the Centre’s resource library on microfinance and showroom for microentrepreneurs.

While in Casablanca the leaders also visited the headquarters of another leading microfinance provider, Fondation Banque Populaire (FBP), formed in 2000 as an offshoot of a commercial bank in response to the national effort for poverty control and unemployment reduction. FBP’s mission centers around three objectives: to aid microentrepreneurs in modernizing their work, bringing banking services to this population, and aiding them in formalizing their business. In order to achieve this mission, FBP offers credit products, coupled with no cost business training and financial education classes. FBP leadership’s willingness to discuss the successes and challenges associated with managing a recent large-scale institutional merger inspired members of the group. “They inspired me because it means that you can go through any process, however difficult, as long as you are committed,” said Ruth Mutebe of Uganda Finance Trust.

Conversations with Microfinance Clients

A trip for microfinance leaders would be incomplete without a visit to the end users of their products and services: the clients. On day three the women visited an Al Amana branch to debrief with a loan officer who spoke about the institution with the same zeal and consistent messages that Bencheqroun had impressed the group with earlier in the week. They then visited three women clients who served as leaders within their own community–a hair salon owner, a baker, and a dress shop owner–all of whom shared candid details about how microfinance has changed their lives for the better.

Critical Leadership Training

One of the most critical components of WWB’s Women in Leadership Program is the personal and professional development training offered to the group. Led by Muriel Watkins of MRW Consulting, the group shared daily debriefs of the institutions that they visited along with more intensive private sessions. Participants worked together to further refine their visions, discuss key leadership challenges and leverage the advice and feedback of their peers. Specific outcomes included proficiency in peer coaching, strategic leadership, negotiations, and emotional and social intelligence among others. To wrap up the program, final words were given by Madame Mounia Boucetta, Morocco’s current Director of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and Secretary General of Al Amana’s board of directors. She led an inspiring discussion about her leadership ascension and lessons learned along the way. Additionally, she commented on her role both in seeking and offering mentorship to others, reinforcing the final Center for Microfinance Leadership program objective. All Women in Leadership exchange participants will continue on as peer mentors to each other after they return to their home countries.

In giving her final thoughts on the program, Hanan Dahab from The First Microfinance Foundation in Egypt said, “In microfinance you need to help people to overcome poverty, so you have to have passion. That’s how you will become a leader.”