|September signals the end of summer and a sense of newness, of change, and of anticipation for the coming year. I feel those stirrings more intensely this year, perhaps more now than at any time since starting Acumen. We’ve seen tectonic shifts in the world, in the impact investing industry, and in our companies. The world is swirling with violence ensuing from a misguided video, the Eurozone crisis, hiccups in India and China, a stalled US economy, and uncivil discourse.
Everywhere people are looking to new solutions and to new leadership, but where is it? In many ways, Acumen, as it grows, increasingly reflects the world around us. Our investee companies are, in a number of cases, reaching millions, and becoming more complex as they do. Global conversations around the roles of government, the private sector, and civil society are becoming more heated. Young people are looking to build careers that meld both public and private aspirations. All of this is good news. Yet it also poses challenges as organizations evolve.
Over the past six months, Acumen consequently has spent time reflecting not only on what the world needs, but on how we should respond to best meet those needs. We have focused on strengthening our operations and have added seasoned professionals with decades of private and public sector experience. We’ve also further globalized our Board and Advisory Council to reflect our work and values.
CNBC features Acumen Fund and Dow’s CGI commitment.
Jacqueline shares a personal story about leadership in a Washington Post video.
Melinda Gates, Diane von Furstenburg, and Jacqueline speak on a panel at the Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy.
|Our new leaders stand on the shoulders of Acumen’s extraordinary early builders, without whom we would not be here. I couldn’t feel more honored that Brian Trelstad, our former CIO, and our former country leaders Aun Rahman and Biju Mohandas have remained actively involved with us as Investment Committee members, board members of investee companies, and strategic advisors as they pursue exciting opportunities connected to Acumen’s work. This kind of continuity – one that allows for individual growth and organizational vibrancy – is something we hope to model. Indeed, I dream that over time we will see a legion of Acumen-inspired alumni working together in real ways across the world, both inside and outside Acumen; and I hope we also can be part of building new career paths that include moving among private, nonprofit, and public sector opportunities.
I am pleased to introduce our new leaders to you, starting with our global Chief Investment Officer, Robert van Zwieten, who comes to Acumen from the Asian Development Bank in Manila, where he oversaw the bank’s private sector investment activities in Asian frontier and emerging capital markets. Sachin Rudra now leads our India team, bringing more than 15 years of investment experience, first as a line manager in rural Bihar for Unilever, then as a McKinsey consultant, and most recently, as a successful private equity investor with Navis Capital, where he served as a Director for their India office. Our Pakistan team will be led by Farrukh Khan, who brings 30 years of experience as a highly respected investor in Pakistan and as founder and CEO of BMA Capital, one of the largest investment banks in the country.
In East Africa, we are excited that Duncan Onyango, a longtime supporter of Acumen in the region, has joined as Country Director. Duncan brings real knowledge of our work and extensive local experience, most recently leading Rift Valley Railways as Group Chief Finance Officer. These professionals join Godfrey Mwindaare, who leads our West Africa office after managing a private sector portfolio of about $4 billion at the African Development Bank. It’s thrilling to be building our future together with this dynamic global team.
I’m also excited to announce that Naveed Riaz, CEO of Citigroup Africa, has joined our Global Board of Directors. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and Antony Jenkins, Group Chief Executive of Barclays, are now members of our Global Advisory Council. Each brings a track record of leadership in corporate citizenship and an understanding of the role that corporations can play in our interconnected world.
Obviously, people represent the heart of change. I’ve been inspired by the growth of the Acumen Fellows program. The seventh class of Global Fellows has just arrived in New York. The East Africa Regional Fellows program has just closed the call for applications after having received over 600 entries. And we are in the midst of calling for applications across Pakistan for our new Pakistan Fellows Program, so please join us in spreading the word. I could not be more encouraged by this next generation, who are all so willing to work toward building new systems for change. I imagine adding hundreds of leaders that span geography, race, ethnicity, religion, and class every year, all bound by a shared commitment to a world where all people have greater choice and opportunity, where all individuals have dignity.
Of course, building profitable, scalable companies that serve the poor remains at the heart of all we do. It is the reason we invest heavily in people and ideas as well.
Acumen historically hasn’t invested in mobile technology as a sector – we felt others were more equipped to do so. However, a host of new applications building on the distributive power of mobile phones are providing low-income individuals with powerful tools for contributing to and benefiting from the global marketplace. Consequently, we are beginning to invest in these opportunities in a more deliberate way.
Sproxil, founded by Nigerian entrepreneur Ashifi Gogo, enables individuals to check whether pharmaceutical products are counterfeit or legitimate in markets like Nigeria, where up to 70 percent of all drugs are counterfeit or substandard. Using a scratch-off label on medicines, customers text numbers to a call center and immediately receive a reply confirming whether or not the drug is counterfeit. Already, Sproxil has enabled millions to verify the quality of essential products.
Virtual City has developed a mobile application that improves transparency and productivity along the agricultural supply chain in East Africa. Founded by Kenyan entrepreneur John Waibochi, this company promises to be a game-changer for smallholder farmers, co-operatives, and corporations interested in sustainable agriculture. Already, the company has reached more than 350,000 smallholder tea producers, increasing their incomes by an average of 9-13 percent in the first harvest.
So how does it work? To understand its significance, you have to imagine how things used to work. Prior to Virtual City, farmers would haul their tea to input centers. Co-op members would weigh the tea, typically under-counting by 10-20 percent. This widespread practice did little for trust. The tea would then be trucked to large storage facilities and another portion of tea would be lost along the way. Ultimately, up to 40% of all agricultural produce in Africa is lost due to a combination of factors, including poor storage, infrastructure, and corruption.
Virtual City is changing this with a simple technology. Farmers now weigh their tea leaves with a digital scale. The co-op member inputs the weight along with the farmer’s ID into a PDA, which immediately transmits the information to the trucking station so they know how much to expect upon the truck’s arrival. The member then hands the farmer a receipt for her tea, which she can use to verify her earnings when she collects them. John dreams that soon the farmers will hold virtual bank accounts that include receivables owed to the farmers for their tea, so that they could pay, for instance, school fees based on those receivables rather than have to borrow at usurious rates from the local moneylender.
The combination of transparency and traceability (connecting tea to where it is grown) has enabled the British retailer Marks & Spencer to complete a pilot project called “From Bush to Cup,” whereby a Kenyan co-op grows, processes, and even packages tea for retail sales in the UK. All of this has meant fewer losses at the time of weighing and in transport. Already, more than 350,000 farmers have seen an average 11 percent increase in their incomes. The advances in technology across East Africa are thrilling, so keep watching this space.
As for patient capital investing, we continue to learn on all levels. One focus in this next year will be better calibration of trade-offs and how we measure success. In the meantime, we welcome our new leaders, board members, and advisors with the knowledge that they will help push us to new levels in the fight to change the way the world tackles poverty.
Thank you for being part of the journey,