Empowering Growth with Ibthishama Ahmed Saeed, Managing Director and CEO, Maldives Finance and Leasing Company Pvt Ltd

PUBLISHED May 11, 2024

In this edition of The islandChief, we had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Ibthishama Ahmed Saeed, the dynamic Managing Director and CEO of Maldives Finance and Leasing Company Pvt Ltd. With an illustrious career spanning nearly two decades across diverse sectors such as banking, aviation, hospitality, and health industries, Ms. Saeed brings a profound depth of experience to her current leadership role. In our exclusive interview, she candidly shared her strategic vision for MFLC, highlighting the company's ongoing efforts in promoting sustainability and its proactive approach to adapting to the evolving landscape of tourism and hospitality.

1. Can you share with us your vision for integrating finance and leasing services into the travel and tourism industry, particularly in the Maldives?

Maldivian tourism has evolved since its inception in 1970s, despite challenges, the industry has demonstrated growth with occupancy rates nearing pre-pandemic levels. MFLC contributes to this growth by providing tailored financial solutions to tourism enterprises, including resorts, tour operators, and transportation services. Our services, includes offering personal loans and leases with flexible repayment plans. Our asset-based financing solutions help manage cash flow gaps, ensuring smooth operations for these businesses. MFLC Corporate loans also includes being open for syndicate partnerships with consortium of lenders to gap or bridge financial closure for resort construction projects as we are limited by the capital and single borrower exposure caps set by the regulators, making it challenging for lenders to solely provide finance for large capital-intensive projects.

As part of our vision, MFLC promotes environmentally friendly financial solutions, such as our Green Loan Products, aimed at promoting sustainable practices within the industry. Recognizing the importance of connectivity for the Maldives, we offer flexible leasing arrangements for vessels and equipment essential for tourism operations. We are committed to introducing more green products to support the evolving financial needs of the tourism industry.

2. How do you perceive the role of innovative financial solutions in supporting small and medium-sized enterprises within the tourism sector?

By offering accessible credit facilities to support local tourism SMEs' working capital needs, addressing their challenges in accessing conventional loans due to limited collateral or financial records. Through financial literacy initiatives and tailored products, we empower SMEs, fostering their growth in the tourism sector.

Our financial products are designed to accommodate the fluctuating cash flows and seasonal nature of tourism businesses. Solutions like working capital financing and flexible repayment structures help SMEs manage expenses during off peak periods and capitalize on peak periods. This financing allows companies to improve their offerings, enhance services, and increase their competitiveness in the market.

Supporting SMEs is vital for our communities, as these businesses not only create opportunities, but also foster innovation, and contribute to the unique character of our neighborhoods. Through sponsorship opportunities and skills development programs, we empower individuals to gain new skills and generate sources of income. By supporting local enterprises, we believe we contribute to the well-being of our communities and empowering them to thrive for generations to come.

3. Leveraging your extensive experience in banking and aviation, how do you plan to enhance financing options for tourism-related projects?

Recognizing the close connection between aviation and tourism and stressing the importance of transport links and aviation connectivity in meeting tourist arrival targets. While the Maldives' economy is stable, challenges persist in regions like the south where international transport links need improvement. Investing in infrastructure for international airlines is crucial, but it must align with sustainable development goals for long-term viability.

To achieve this, we adopt a multifaceted approach to financing tourism projects, offering flexible financing options tailored to each project's unique requirements. Collaboration with our clients is essential, as we work closely to customize repayment structures that facilitate project completion while ensuring repayment within the designated time frame. This approach ensures that financing solutions align with the sustainable growth and development of the tourism sector.

4. Could you discuss the potential impact of sustainable financing initiatives on developing eco-friendly tourism infrastructure in the Maldives?

Maldives recognizes the significance of green and blue economies for sustainable development. Sustainable financing initiatives can create 'Green Jobs' in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and eco-tourism, benefiting local communities. Resorts that prioritize environmental sustainability attract conscientious travelers, thereby diversifying the tourism market and increasing visitor satisfaction.

As sustainability becomes more important, SMEs are pressured to adopt environmentally responsible practices, which can entail significant cost. To address this challenge, MFLC offers green loans to SMEs, with favorable terms encouraging environmentally responsible practices.

The government's commitment to green and blue initiatives is growing, and decision-makers should support SMEs offering authentic, sustainable products and services. MFLC supports initiatives for businesses to explore and make the best use of the Maldives' natural resources, such as mangroves, through tailored financing options for marine tourism and offshore wind energy projects, thereby creating employment opportunities and promoting sustainable development.

5. As a leader with experience across various industries, how will you collaborate with key stakeholders to promote tourism investment and development?

Recognizing Tourism’s major contribution to the Maldives' GDP and government revenue, our approach emphasizes establishing close collaboration with policymakers. This involves aligning investment priorities, streamlining regulatory processes, and jointly developing sustainable tourism policies with input from industry stakeholders.

We aim to empower Maldivians in the tourism sector by offering training programs and vocational courses to develop local talent. Supporting SMEs that authentically represent the host community's identity, customs, and traditions is crucial to fostering a sustainable and inclusive tourism ecosystem.

Inadequate infrastructure hinders the Maldives' green economy development. Currently, the country lacks public transport, waste management, and renewable energy infrastructure posing significant challenges. To address this, it is important to Partner with government agencies to facilitate public-private partnerships. This will open accessibility to grants, subsidies, or guarantees that help lower financing costs and encourage private sector investment.

6. With your background in marketing and communication, and tenure as Chairperson of Maldives Tourism Development Corporation, what strategies do you believe are essential for diversifying the tourism offerings in the Maldives and attracting a wider range of visitors?

The Maldives' tourism industry has evolved from a reliance on luxury resorts to include safari vessels and guesthouses. While relaxation and scuba diving are popular reasons for visiting, there is potential to attract a wider audience by addressing diverse global tourism interests.

To achieve this, it’s crucial to expand strategies beyond luxury and island adventures. Targeting the global Muslim population of approximately 230 million travelers annually presents a promising opportunity. focusing on eco-tourism initiatives and promoting blue and green initiatives could attract new visitors. Additionally, promoting the Maldives rich heritage tourism and niche segments like surfing and sailing can enhance its appeal to different traveler demographics.

Guesthouses have been successful in benefiting local communities, but remote areas still face challenges due to high transfer costs, hindering investment opportunities. Cost-effective transport solutions could unlock the potential for creativity and unique travel experiences in these communities. Developing tourist villages to cater to families and travel groups could also boost tourist arrivals and enrich the tourism landscape.

7. How do you plan to address the challenges posed by fluctuations in tourist demand and external economic factors to ensure the stability of tourism-related investments?

The pandemic severely impacted the Maldives' economy, highlighting its heavy reliance on tourism. To improve resilience, the focus is on diversifying tourism offerings, such as targeting segments like Halal tourism, eco-tourism, and group travels to remote local islands. Additionally Encouraging skill development among residents to reduce reliance on expatriates and improving the efficiency of legal systems are also essential key strategies to bolster the tourism sectors stability.

Being overly dependent on tourism makes the economy vulnerable to fluctuations. Hence, there is a need to prioritize promoting other economic sectors to diversify the economy and reduce reliance on tourism. This approach will not only help sustain potential shocks to the tourism industry but also boost overall investments and confidence in the economy. 

8. Can you elaborate on any specific initiatives or partnerships you aim to implement to foster the growth of sustainable tourism practices in the Maldives?

We actively promote environmentally friendly initiatives such as installation of solar panels and water treatment plants. At MFLC, we promote these practices through targeted products, such as our Green Loan facility, specifically designed to support these efforts which prioritize applications that benefit the environment.

While MFLC does not directly operate in tourism, as a financial services provider, we are committed to encourage investments in sustainable practices. We also seek opportunities to collaborate with international partners on eco-friendly infrastructure, conservation, and community-based tourism projects, aligning with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Our future success is tied to sustainable development, and we are committed to working with partners to achieve this goal.

9. With your experience as the General Manager of Addu international Airport, what is your opinion in enhancing the overall travel experience for tourists visiting the Maldives, particularly in terms of airport facilities and services?

From a traveler's standpoint, it's crucial to recognize that their entire journey, including their transportation to their holiday destination, contributes to their experience. Investments in infrastructure to enhance the journey haven't matched accommodation advancements or the quality of the resorts. While some may argue that seaplanes negate the need for major airport investments, I believe that if we aim to expand beyond luxury tourism, airport facilities are vital. Some regional airports have succeeded in hosting private jets during peak seasons, while others are ambitious in expanding runways to accommodate larger aircraft. With resorts mainly concentrated in central Maldives, and the desire to extend tourism benefits to other parts of the country, affordable air travel options and airport services are crucial. These elements ensure that tourists' experiences in the Maldives are memorable and encourage them to return, exploring new destinations within the country.

10. How do you plan to champion initiatives that empower and promote the participation of women in key decision-making roles within the sector, both in terms of employment opportunities and entrepreneurial ventures?

Being a woman, I am grateful for the opportunities that have allowed me to gain experience, including holding leadership positions in various industries. I strongly believe in creating a safe work environment for women that promotes their growth and provides them with equal opportunities as their male counterparts. This includes access to training, certification, and leadership roles to showcase their local talents, skills, and expertise.

Ensuring equal and fair opportunities for all staff in evaluations and promotions is fundamental to any organization I am associated with. My approach involves establishing the right policy framework in the corporate environment to cultivate a culture that professionally addresses and overcomes challenges and barriers to equal opportunities.

The current disparities in female-to-male staff ratios and the representation of Maldivian women in various industries are unfortunate realities that our community must overcome. I am proud to note that at MFLC, we have female representation across all levels of the organization, and we continuously review our gender equality benchmarks to ensure our pay and benefit schemes reflect a fair and merit-based assessment of the skills contributed to the organization.


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