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New York, USA. February, 27 2012 - “Professor Yunus was right,” Mr. Akula said, referring to Muhammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank founder, economist and a frequent critic of Mr. Akula and others who tried to turn microfinance into a for-profit industry. “Bringing private capital into social enterprise was much harder than I anticipated,” he said.
Vikram Akula, the founder of SKS Microfinance, the for-profit company that is accused of aggressive collection tactics, made an unexpected observation Sunday night at the Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard University.
Mr. Akula also told conference attendees that “he had focused on scaling SKS’s model and had not fully anticipated the potential downside of accessing the public market for social enterprise,” a statement from conference organizers said.
The microfinance industry in India came under scrutiny in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in 2010 after reports were made public that 200 borrowers had committed suicide after being unable to repay microfinance loans. Along with other microfinance companies that operate in Andhra Pradesh, SKS had taken large losses in the state — approximately 90 percent of its borrowers were unable to repay their loans. The company, which was started in 1997 as a nonprofit organization that offered microcredit, eventually turned in a for-profit direction and made a stock offering in 2010.
A recent report by The Associated Press said that the SKS was aware that its own debt collectors were using coercive methods that played a role in some borrowers’ suicides. The report described debt collectors encouraging some borrowers to
commit suicide, in some cases after suggesting it as a way to eliminate debt. An “SKS debt collector told a delinquent borrower to drown herself in a pond if she wanted her loan waived. The next day, she did,” the report said.
SKS said in a statement that the report was “irresponsible,” and that the police had exonerated the company in 14 of 15 suicide cases it was investigating which had been filed against the company.
As Vikas Bajaj wrote for The New York Times in May of last year, SKS seemed to reflect the problems faced by the companies hoping to turn their business of making small loans to the impoverished into a larger profit-making enterprise. Mr. Akula, an American, stepped down from his post in November 2011 following criticism about his company’s debt collection tactics.
In an interview with India Ink earlier this month, Mr. Yunus pointed fingers directly at SKS and Mr. Akula, saying: “The key is that the whole thing was triggered by SKS. They were the ones who kind of overdid things in a big way. The aggressiveness that it brought into the picture created all the problems. And then he made personal money out of it.”
In an op-ed for The New York Times in January 2011, Mr. Yunus wrote: “I never imagined that one day microcredit would give rise to its own breed of loan sharks. But it has. And as a result, many borrowers in India have been defaulting on their microloans, which could then result in lenders being driven out of business. India’s crisis points to a clear need to get microcredit back on track.”
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