Mary O'Keefe

Mary O'Keefe

Co-founder and Board Member of ProDevelopment: Finance and Microenterprise, Mexico’s Leading Network of Microfinance Institutions

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During the week of August 27th, Mary O’Keffe will be sharing her experience working to advance financial inclusion. Join the conversation!

Mary O’Keefe is a Microfinance expert with over 20 years experience in the Mexican popular finance sector serving as researcher, consultant and practitioner. She’s had leading roles in financial inclusion studies in Mexico and written on the topic. Her most recent research activity seeks to identify most appropriate products and delivery channels for populations on the verge of financial inclusion. She has also conducted in-depth qualitative research to determine the state of development of financial services of microfinance market and application of the relevant regulatory framework.
Besides her research and publications, Mary established the microfinance institution FINCA Mexico and was the co-founder and operations’ director of CAME. She co-founded and later directed the leading professional development association ProDevelopment: Finance and Microenterprise (ProDesarrollo: Finanzas y Microempresa).
Mary has also served as independent advisor and board member for bilateral development, popular finance, educative and health institutions. She has participated in expert panels to assess strategy of development programs and for financial inclusion, to analyze regulatory and supervisory processes, and to design financial education programs. In conjunction with a group of Mexican experts, Ms. O’Keefe developed a tool to analyze the conditions and actions, both private and public, to achieve financial inclusion.

  1. 448 days ago

    Jason Rucker

    Hi Mary. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience here. We need people like you, a leader, great advisor, researcher and the like. I wish all the best for you. life insurance for your family.



  2. 819 days ago

    Irma Cosico

    Thanks Mary for sharing your rich experience in the area of financial inclusion, I am working with the migrant workers in Singapore and delivering financial education and entrepreneurship courses, not only for the workers but also for their respective families in the Philippines. The intervention also includes microfinance and microenterprise development through partner banks and MFIs in the Philippines. Our financial inclusion model addresses geographic barriers and including the “excluded”. I would highly appreciate it if you can share with us the tool to assess and achieve financial inclusion.



  3. 820 days ago

    Natalie Zuniga

    Hi Mary, welcome to our Speak Up section! Thanks for sharing your expertise about the financial inclusion situation for low income populations, particularly for women. In the article you mentioned that a key issue in Mexico is the lack of product diversification and one can also understand that there is a need for a more holistic and systemic approach in order to achieve financial inclusion of women, including products that really satisfy the needs of the client. Could you provide some recommendations for innovators who are creating financial products and services – to make sure they are tailoring those products to the needs of their clients, and particularly of their female clients? And would you recommend them to tailor specific products by gender or is not necessary anymore?



    • Mary O Keefe

      I’ll begin to answer in reverse order. Women’s needs as you stated, often relate to the multiple roles they play simultaneously. Years ago, Christine Oppong wrote about a 7 Role Framework for women wherein they are: partners, mothers, kinswomen (daughter’s-in-law, grandmothers, nieces, etc), domestic workers, and workers in their local markets, individuals and members of their communities. While Christine wasn’t referring to microfinance, it’s useful to consider that at different stages of women’s lives each of these roles is more or less the focal point of attention for women. While a young mother is in her home and very involved with her children, a middle-aged woman may be very involved in her community and or her business activities. Often older women participate in microfinance groups, not because they intend to manage growing businesses but because a low level constant activity provides them independence and the constant access to savings helps them pay for medications or whatever. So, if we think about women – in terms of what they need to get done, we’d devise methodologies and service delivery channels that contribute to that end.

      818 days ago


    • Mary O Keefe

      Women’s products shouldn’t require constantly obtaining productive credit, when a women is about to give birth or caring for a sick relative – she may not be able to work. She should however have access to savings and insurance. A dynamic microentrepreneur may grow tired of a group meeting with an elderly neighbor for whom the microfinance group has a very different meaning. That doesn’t mean that group methodologies don’t work, it just means that over time we need to consolidate spaces for women to come together around the issues most useful for them. A better group may not be the focal point for a collateralized loan, but for Saturday morning computer literacy for some women, attention to staying healthy and active for others, places to address childrearing, family finance for others, and microentrepreneurial skill development for many. So, short term productive credit offered by the vast majority of microfinance institutions is useful for initiating and maintaining low-level microentrepreneurial activities. As productive activities grow they require credit products tailored to their needs, longer loan terms, varied repayment schedules, competent loan analysis to mitigate the risks of over-indebtedness. With regards to savings, women need savings products that provide the possibility to “keep money out of sight” so that they can create the lump sums they need for the next health, education, household or business need. These needs may be as simple as paying for a medication, a light bill, school shoes, or replenishing a portion of their stock. Because poor families always have more needs than money – it’s useful to keep money accessible but out-of-sight as a way to save. Minimum balances, minimum deposits, etc. don’t help women create the savings they need. Also, women need access in save surroundings; privacy and being inconspicuous are primary concerns for women savers.

      818 days ago


  4. 821 days ago

    Dani Matielo

    Dear Mary, thank you for sharing your experience with us. Even though I have been working in the social field in Brazil for quite a while now, financial inclusion has just recently become part of the social change framework that I work at. In this sense, I would like to know if you could share with us what has changed in the last 20 years in the field: what was innovative when you started working with financial inclusion, what were the challenges, what were the big ideas then, and how is the system now, specially for Latin America. Thank you!



    • Mary O Keefe

      Hi Dani! I’ll say 20 years ago, access to credit for women was innovative. Women in many Latin American countries needed husband’s approval prior to receipt of any credit. Furthermore, women’s role in the financial management of their households, and the positive influence this management played on families was little understood. Twenty some years ago, people asked question about why families below certain income thresholds made little use of health care, education or other public services even when these services were close-by. These questions were at the onset of interest in women’s empowerment. Looking more closely at the lives of impoverished women, it became apparent that their time and energy resources were fully engaged in daily survival. The timeframe for their decisions consequently was largely immediate. Utilizing the services designed to make their lives easier required time and resources they directed to procure their next meals, garner the resources needed to pay for their next proximate expenditure. It became apparent that women needed to have their needs attended to before we could ask more of them in the name of their families’ or their communities’ development. In this sense, women’s participation in microfinance programs contributed both to enhancing their financial stability and their decision-making. Women met weekly, made partial payments on their loans, saved and discussed how the decisions of THAT WEEK fostered their microenterprise success. This move in attention from daily to weekly decision-making was monumental. And, from there we can build larger time frames for decision-making and analysis. This monumental change used financial instruments so important to women that they stuck in there, and with attention to details the change was much more than financial. In that sense, recognizing women’s potential as administrators and economic agents producing resources for their families and providing women with productive credit was innovative. Going to where women were, creating self-groups wherein women could see their competencies reflected in the successes of each other was innovative too.

      818 days ago


    • Mary O Keefe

      While we’ve come a long way in understanding the power of women’s financial decisions. While groups are good starting points, they don’t respond to the long-term financial needs of many clients. Time is their most precious resource and the topics addressed in groups tend to cater to the newly initiated. Mature clients need more direct attention to their financial and business development needs. Here we need product innovation, both in terms of the particular products and their delivery; we need to pay attention to issues of productive chains and their investment needs to procure stability for the economic activities undertaken.

      818 days ago