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Impact Investing: Case Study of Accion's Venture Lab


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Investing in Financial Freedom: The Harmony of Economic and Social Development …

Investing in Financial Freedom: The Harmony of Economic and Social Development

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  • 1. Investing in Financial Freedom: The Harmony of Economic and Social Development CASE STUDY ACCION& VENTURE LAB Brienne Thomson January 2013
  • 2. A c c i o n | 2 Table of Contents Executive Summary 3 1. Introduction 4 2. New Model of Development: Impact Investing 5 3. Developing Companies in Developing Countries: Enter Venture Lab 9 4. The Social Impact of the Investment 11 4.1 Metrics: Implementing Investment Standards 13 5. Venture Lab‘s Communication Chain 15 6. Conclusion 17 Notes 19 Bibliography 20
  • 3. A c c i o n | 3 Executive Summary The separation of economic and social development has been a long standing issue. Though scholars are now calling for more inclusion of culture in development models and strategies, they are based on the idea that culture is malleable as opposed to models of economic development. However, the relatively new approach of impact investing proves that this is not so, and thus alters the debate of where, how much, and in what way culture should be taken into account in development initiatives. This study aims to discover if this new structure of economic development brings in new and more inclusive strategies to account for cultural context and communication, or if the divide between culture and development continues to persist. And, even if social and economic development can proceed in harmony, does it entail the imposition of ―Western‖ ideals? To analyze this more thoroughly, this study examines the non-profit organization Accion and its subsidiary Venture Lab, which utilize both the new model of impact investing and time-tested model of microfinance. By comparing the two models and their cross-cultural communication strategies within one company, we were better able to see the methods and actions taken to incorporate culture and communication into their goal of providing the financial tools to open the door to economic opportunity. But exactly how is culture taken into account by investing organizations? And with Venture Lab‘s new model of finance-based impact investing, which aims to give financial freedom to the ‗unbanked‘ while turning a profit for itself, is culture taken into account? And how is the balance between profit and social impact maintained? Through this study, it has been exemplified that impact investing organizations are applying the financial tools of a Western economic structure, but the employment is push/pull; meaning that cultural demand exists. According to Accion‘s market research, investments are made based on substantial market desire, with thecultural customs and sustainability in mind. And in order to maintain an ethical balance between profit and the social impact of an investment, the Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS), has introduced metrics. Yet, while the metric measures are new in the growing industry, they will hopefully become implemented in order to set a standard and maintain a healthy ‗win-win‘ balance in this new realm of impact investing.
  • 4. A c c i o n | 4 Introduction In recent years, there has been a marketable increase in investment by both non- profit and private equity firms at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP); a 37-percent increase just between 2009 and 2010 to be exact.1 And as a means to alleviate some of the typical struggles within developing communities, many of the investments have been aimed at socio-economic and pro-social causes to benefit the entirety of a society. According to the World Bank‘s 2012 Global Poverty Update, for the first time since they began keeping record, ―the data indicate a decline in both the poverty rate and the number of poor in all six regions of the developing world.‖So with a significant number of people moving up the pyramid and a history of avoiding risky BOP ventures, what is fueling this new investment focus? In 2012, the total world population exceeded 7-billion2 , 82-percent of whom live in the developing world. And of that population, as of 2008, 22-percent live on less than $1.25 a day.3 Thus, while there has been a proportional decrease of people in the developing world living below the poverty line – down from 52-percent in 1981 – there are still billions without access to the comforts and conveniences often taken for granted in the developed world. But not only is the BOP vast, it is growing at a staggering rate, especially compared to the stagnant rate of the world‘s developed population. In the past 30-years alone, the world population has grown by 2.5-billion people with the developing world accounting for more than 95-percent of that growth.4 With the population mass at the base, investors have been looking at the BOP risk with new lenses. First, they began to notice thatinvesting to improve the socio- economic status of such a large volume of people would pay off financially, with focused
  • 5. A c c i o n | 5 investments in disruptive, or leap-frogging, technologies; those that jump many of the steps in between. And secondly, while these protracted investments played out, they saw that the positive repercussions of giving people a chance to achieve their full potentialwas worth the wait. Thus, investing to make an impact has not only made its mark on the developing world, but it has shaped a whole new sphere of investment in the developed world known asimpact investing. And while impact investing targets a multitude of humanitarian causes, from energy to health to water, the field that is working to arm societies with the tools to overcome deficiencies through enterprise is that which offers financial freedom. However, in such a nascent field, little is known of how this new perspective on investment is impactingmodels of development and the cultural status quo in developing countries. Has this new ―win-win‖ model of economic development changed the way financial organizations approach investment decisions and communication strategies in other countries? Or are communication and the socio-cultural impact still overshadowed by the heavyweight of profit on the path of economic development? Before we can begin to explore these questions through our case study of Accion – a non-profit at the forefront of impact investing in economic development – it is important to understand the historical and contemporary links between culture, development, and communication. New Model of Development: Impact Investing By the 1990s U.S. foreign aid, the United Nations and international NGOs began to focus on imparting methods to developing countries on how to improve their
  • 6. A c c i o n | 6 ownquality of life. One of these main structural components that began to take shape through Western aid was economic. Appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Brundtland Commission, also known as the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), published a landmark report in 1987, titled Our Common Future. In it, they delineated and interpretedsustainable developmentthat emphasized the importance of a solid economic foundation. In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development; and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations. …Economic and social development can and should be mutually reinforcing. Money spent on education and health can raise human productivity. Economic developments can accelerate social development by providing opportunities for underprivileged groups or by spreading education more rapidly.5 This report played a major role in disseminating the idea of sustainability and subsequently the importance of a solid economic structure as a foundation for developmental progress. And with the idea of economic and social development being symbiotic, comes the question of whether progression would take a Modernist approach in its method of cross-cultural communication and development.6 Would developing countries set out to follow in the footsteps of those with a more developed economic structure, or would Western ideals of financial freedom and capitalism be imposed from abroad?7 With this new collaborative focus, NGOs and aid organizations began recognizing the ―have and have nots‖ between developed and developing financial structures, and progressing on the arduous task of instituting these complex
  • 7. A c c i o n | 7 systems.And while people in developed countries generally take for granted the culturally incorporated abilities to use a credit card, have an insured savings account, to finance an education, etcetera, these were recognized as major limitations that prevent the ―have nots‖ from achieving full potential. As Nathan Gonzalez, a Senior Analyst at Accion‘s Venture Lab pointed out in an interview, ―We have access to credit, we have access to savings, we have a way to store our money, we have a way to pay each other and we have a lot of information about those services. But how do you address these core pillars of what you and I would know as being an ‗operating financial system‘ for a very poor bottom of the pyramid person?‖8 This concentration, addressing the four main pillars of a Western financial system; credit, savings, payment, and insurance, as Gonzalez noted, are critical features that enable progression for socio-economic development, and thus, is the focus offinance-based impact investing. As Accion commissioned their premier impact investing branch, Frontier Investments, to invest in companies that would structure and diffuse the financial pillars throughout the developing world, the structure of their investments and the risk they were designed to take did not permit the funding of pre-revenue companies, which they had started seeing a lot of. Some of these start-ups had technologically disruptive ideaswith the capability to open doors for more accessible and culturally tailored financial systems for the ―unbanked.‖ What they did not have, however, was proof of concept; as is the feat for instituting any innovation.9
  • 8. A c c i o n | 8 ―The socio-economic base of the pyramid (BOP) need a full range of financial tools to improve their lives,‖ noted Paul Breloff, the Managing Director of Venture Lab. ―From credit to insurance to savings, transfers, and more, and traditional status quo models and institutions will likely not be sufficient.‖10 What Breloff is emphasizing is the need to fill the gap between ideas and innovations that are geared to both expand socio-economic freedoms of a developing culture,while working within the structure and daily lives of the people, and how to ‗fund‘ and guide them into reality. For example, while Frontier Investments empowered a Chilean based company, who plans to expand from managing prepaid mobile phone services to mobile financial services, with a $3 million investment, it would not have done the same for the Indonesian based start-up, Coda Payments. Although, with a similar mobile banking platform and visions to empower the impoverished,according to Frontier‘s investors, Coda was ‗pre-investible.‘ Taking this example back to what Breloff noted about providing the BOP with ―financial tools,‖ in relation to whether it would implement a Modernist approach to economic development, it is indeed the case. Impact investing organizations are applying the ―tools‖ of a Western economic structure, but the employment is push/pull. As will be detailed later in this study, according to Accion‘s market research, investments are made based on substantial market desire, with sustainability in mind. So, while the goal of financial freedom is comparable, what has evolved over time in developed economies will not necessarily beembraced in a developing environment. This is where impact investing in tailored and transformative technologies comes in.
  • 9. A c c i o n | 9 Developing Companies in Developing Countries: Enter Venture Lab Through the success of Frontier‘s investments, and following the non-profit paradigm, Accion needed to turn the equity earned around and reinvest itto further their mission of disseminating economic opportunity. With a $10-million stake, Accion launched Venture Lab to fill the gap of financing the pre-investable ideas and guiding them to a self-sustaining investable stage. While the idea of impact investing is relatively new in the financial world, aiming dollars at international ‗seed-stage‘ start-ups in developing markets is inits infancy.―One must confront a morass of other challenges like poor physical and telecommunications infrastructure, relatively lower levels of available human capital and talent, and often a more fluid political economy,‖ noted Breloff.11 And while he distinguished that these ‗seed-stage‘ ideas are less restricted by bureaucratic structures than larger more established companies, it was a route that would take Accion‘simpact investing arm down to a more grassroots level than it was slated to go. And, although the non-profit was already investing in developing countries, they had been funding established companies. Now, they were looking to work with developing companies within these challenging and undersupplied environments, as Breloff detailed. Of course, this would require a more culturally attune method to both ensure that the investment is something that had the potential to create institutional change, and that the company had the means and know-how to be able to negotiate with financial institutions and government agencies within a moremercurial system.
  • 10. A c c i o n | 10 While Accion‘s financially-focused impact investing arm, Frontier Investments, was designed to invest in disruptive technologies with a balance between financial returns and social gains, the structure of its investments were aimed at companies that had already established revenue. These were larger companies with concepts that had been proven to work within a developing community, and who were looking to expand post-seed-stage. The riskier, but potentially more ground-breaking, start-ups were left to find investors in markets where few would participate. To put this concept into a more clear perspective, the Center for Global Development notes that, ―Impact investments can exist only where commercial investment is limited or unavailable. Otherwise there would be no need for the impact investor.‖12 Overall, impact investing itself had already filled a gap in the developing world by investing in user-friendly financial tools. But to further close the gap with start- upinnovations in developing markets, Breloff added that they can, ―Better course-correct and adapt based on customer or market realities, as well as pursue niche markets, products, or strategies which would not satisfy the investment criteria of bigger players.‖ As a result, Venture Lab was incorporated in April of 2012 to find and build on these untapped ideas; one being the aforementioned Indonesian based mobile banking company, Coda Payments. On top of providing the financial support that is lacking in developing countries, Venture Lab claims that it offers investees a more varied package; such as, business structural guidance, technology experts, market research and most importantly, its international network of partners. ―What we‘re bringing is Accion, which is a legacy organization, access to markets and also to the people that we‘re introducing them to for business opportunities that
  • 11. A c c i o n | 11 have the same pro-social aspect that we want to see in them,‖ explained Venture Lab‘s Nathan Gonzalez. ―So we‘d like to fight for some of those deals because what we want to do is prop up innovation where we think innovation is core to extending financial services to the poor.‖13 But how can the people of developing countries truly benefit from these financial contributions and how does Venture Lab and the field of impact investing ‗know‘ what people need and want? The Social Impact of the Investment These ‗financial services‘ that Venture Lab‘s investments are geared toward are related to establishing the four main pillars of a financial system; credit, savings, payment, and insurance. But since developing countries lack the structure, administration and enforcement to institute similar models that are in place in developed countries, the start-ups that Venture Lab is looking to invest in have developed new concepts or methods for achieving the same financial freedoms. Some of these ideas revolve around, mobile-phone based banking, ways to earn credit or assess whether an individual is ‗creditable‘ for a loan, and the use of social media to communicate information regarding financial services.14 For example, the Indonesian-based mobile banking company, Coda Payments, was Venture Lab‘s first investment. It was founded by two veterans of Global System for Mobile Communications Association‘s Mobile Money for the Unbanked group. Coda Payments provides both cell phone communications service and also provides a
  • 12. A c c i o n | 12 platform that facilitates e-commerce transactions using prepaid airtime as the payment mechanism. ―In countries where people don‘t have debit cards and don‘t have credit cards, which could be 90-percent of the population in many cases, this now affords them a way to pay for things that they could not access beforehand,‖ said Venture Lab‘s Nathan Gonzalez in a recent interview.15 Gonzales also noted that Coda Payment cell-phone platform has the potential to open a whole world of information and services to people living at the BOP, which is something Venture Lab and Coda are developing. Another of Venture Lab‘s investees isDemystData, a Hong Kong-based company that compiles data about customers to give financial institutions a way to categorize and market to them in regions where credit scores and other related standards are unavailable. And without the ability to deduce whether or not a person would be a viable borrower prevents them from the ability to get a loan; expand a business, invest in an education or capital. Paul Breloff, Managing Director of Venture Lab, advocates DemystData as, ―A breakthrough technology that can help financial institutions around the world, including microfinance institutions, more efficiently and responsibly reach neglected customer segments with credit and other financial services.‖16 Both of Venture Lab‘s aforementioned investees are bringing disruptive technologies to the table that have the potential to open doors and propagate ideas in a people that never had these opportunities. However, the question now is whether these
  • 13. A c c i o n | 13 opportunities are for the good of the people or the profit of the investor. How is the social impact versus profit kept in balance? Metrics: Implementing Investment Standards Profits from micro-financiers through their impact investment ventures have caught the attention of other pro-social and non-profit investment organizations, instigating a positive movement greater than what governments alone could provide. Elizabeth Littlefield, President and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), pointed out that this new field of impact investing has inspired business school programs and organizations, including the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs and the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), to work toward developing a structure for these types of socially responsible investments.17 GIIN has developed Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS) in order to make these dual-purpose impact investments more transparent by ―describing social and environmental performance that facilitates comparisons of impact data across investments.‖18 According to the non-profit organization, the inability to measure the social impacts will limit the growth of the industry. The IRIS metrics divide investments into five sections with tables that answer related questions about the company‘s progress, such as what the company‘s ―social performance incentives‖ are, like ―outreach to women‖ or ―rural communities,‖ or ―how IRIS Categories Organization Description Product Description Financial Performance Operational Impact Product Impact IRIS Fields Agriculture, Education, Energy, Environment, Financial Services, Health, Housing/Community Facilities, Water
  • 14. A c c i o n | 14 many full-time employees‖ they have, and ―how many are women.‖ They also provide a glossary of table-terms to help investors and humanitarian organizations compare the impact of the investments.19 What compiling this data will do is to create a standard that future investors will have to achieve in order get funding. This standard will require them to track and compile data, and more importantly, to never forget the other side of the equation;thesocial impact. Although it has gained acknowledgement as a field, as of yet, impact investing is too new to derive hard quantitative statistics on either its effect on the developing markets or the financial returns for private investors. Despite this lack, both estimations from the financial sector and qualitative inferences point to positive repercussions. In a 2010 study on impact investing as an ―emerging asset class,‖ J.P. Morgan projected returns from pro-social investments made within five sectors; housing, rural water delivery, maternal health, primary education and financial services. The report estimated that within the next ten years, between $400 billion and $1 trillion will be invested in developing populations earning less than $3,000 a year and that the profit would range from $183 to $667 billion.20 As standards begin to take shape, both sides of the impact investing equation, the profit and social influence, will be forced to hold equal bearing. These measures are dire in order to keep ethics in check in a world where the competitive capitalistic markets are globalizing.
  • 15. A c c i o n | 15 Venture Lab’s Communication Chain Venture Lab‘s $100,000 to $300,000 investments in these ‗seed-stage‘ companies are both riskier and require more involvement in the structural aspectsthan more established companies.Through investment contracts, Venture Lab takes an active role in guiding these businesses on strategy, financing, hiring and more. With inter-cultural communication being of utmost importance when launching such radical ideas into a developing community, Venture Lab can make the involvement of a local player who knows the market and can communicate with financial institutions and government officials, contractual. ―In terms of closing deals and making sure the economics actually work for your business,and you want your business to survive, you‘re going to have to find somebody that can understand the nuances of business language that exists in that kind of country,‖ emphasized Venture Lab‘s Gonzalez.21 Although, on top of first-hand information from local connections, Venture Lab depends on market research to ensure whether or not an investment is needed and wanted by a community. This is where the seniority of Accion comes into play. Accion distinguishes between ―market research,‖ which is compiling data about a larger market, and ―market intelligence,‖ which, in this case, is data that is collected by Accion from secondary and primary sources. According to Accion, they aim to understand―consumers in-depth—including their purchasing behavior and usage patterns, decision-making processes, critical values, attitudes toward the product offering and levels of satisfaction.‖22
  • 16. A c c i o n | 16 Through local contacts and Accion‘s detailed ―market intelligence‖ reports, Venture Lab can make substantiated decisions about investments and suggestions for the benefit of their investees and clients. For example, Coda Payments is planning to branch out from prepaid mobile banking to credit-based mobile banking, which will also be an opportunity to expand the goods and services that are offered through this platform. As this door opens, Venture Lab will be able to use Accion‘s market data to assist Coda in developing offerings that will suit their clients‘ needs. ―What I think about establishing this platform is, now that you have a way to reach a whole population of people who can now pay for things, I can now put things like agricultural information services onto this and they can buy it, consume it. I can now put things like micro-insurance policies; sell micro-insurance, and now I have a settlement mechanism whereby they can pay me the amount on my premium policy every month and we know how to settle with that customer in the event of an insurance settlement.‖23 As Coda Payments exemplifies, in developing countries mobile phones have been and continue to develop as the source for communication, financial services and information.Venture Lab makes investments like this globally; although, with representatives in East Africa and India, it does have a regional focus based on investment concentration. ―There‘s more probability of those companies coming out of East Africa or coming out of India than there would be coming out of Latin America, for instance. Not that they will not be coming out of Latin America, but the numbers are going to be
  • 17. A c c i o n | 17 greater in these other markets because they‘re less developed,‖ said Gonzalez. ―They‘re not as heavily regulated in some instances, the banks and ‗telcos‘ in those regions have different power dynamics. So our strategy builds around those, but then we look globally for different places to invest.‖24 On top of their interest in cultural customs and communication, Venture Lab‘s impact investments have an ethical component. They look to invest in companies with no negative repercussions on the surrounding community or environment and take intangible assets into account with profit.25 This, along with a strong web of communication between investor, investee and client, detailed market research and intelligence are dire in making a good investment and a beneficial one for the community at hand. Conclusion Venture Lab‘s impact investments are not solely about the ease of financial transactions, like making purchases, depositing checks or transferring money with a mobile phone, but the entrepreneurial and technological spillover that these financial freedoms allow for. The socially responsible objective in investing at the bottom of the pyramid is to instigate a diffusive and progressive effect; from an education loan to a secure job, from an income that just feeds the family to one that earns interest, from a subsistence farmer to one with the power and ability to sell. And on top of the physical benefits developing populations can reap, it is the financial self-reliance and ensuing gratification that can have the most powerful impact.
  • 18. A c c i o n | 18 The two-fold aim of impact investing to introduce disruptive technologies geared toward financial freedom and economic opportunity, and to make a financial gain, is already proving effective on both accounts. However, only time will tell if the IRIS standards to maintain this ethical balance will become rooted in the industry.
  • 19. A c c i o n | 19 Notes 1 SarikaMalhotra, ―The Financial Express: Private equity discovers bottom of the pyramid,‖, Sunday, Dec 05, 2010, < discovers-bottom-of-the-pyramid/720481/0> (Accessed November 10, 2012) 2 Population Reference Bureau, ―2012 World Population Data Sheet,‖, 2012, <> (Accessed November 10, 2012) 3 SarikaMalhotra, ―The Financial Express‖, 4 Population Reference Bureau, ―2012 World Population Data Sheet,‖ 5 UN Documents, ―Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future,‖, 1987, <> (Accessed November 10, 2012) 6 George W. Musambira, ―A Comparison of Modernist and Postmodernist Accounts of Cross-Cultural Communication between African Societies and the United States,‖ Howard Journal of Communications 11:2 (2000): 145 7 Nannette Levinson, ―Technology and Development in International Communication,‖ The International Studies Encyclopedia, edited by Robert A. Denemark (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Publications, 2010): 6933 8 Nathan Gonzalez, Interviewed by Brienne Thomson, Voice Recording. Accion‘s Washington DC office building, Friday, November 3, 2012 9 Proof of Concept is when an idea or method has demonstrated its usefulness or success within a certain context or environment. 10 Paul Breloff, "Driving Financial Inclusion Innovation: Why Startups and Why Now?" Blog, 2012, <> (Accessed November 18, 2012) 11 Ibid. 12 Simon, John and Julia Barmeier. ―More than Money: Impact Investing for Development.‖Center for Global Development (2010): 1-34. 13 Nathan Gonzalez, Interview November 3, 2012 14 Accion Venture Lab, ―Executive Summary,‖, 2012, <> (Accessed November 4, 2012) 15 Nathan Gonzalez, Interview November 3, 2012. 16 ―DemystData Announces Series A Investment to Help Financial Institutions Grow Through Deeper Customer Data,‖ PR (August 28, 2012) <> (Accessed November 10, 2012) 17 Elizabeth Littlefield, ―Impact Investing: Roots & Branches,‖ Innovations Volume 6, no. 3 (2011): 22 18 Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), "Impact Reporting and Investment Standards (IRIS),", 2012, <> (Accessed November 18, 2012) 19 IRIS: Impact Reporting & Investment Standards, "Sample Reports", 2012, The Global Impact Investing Network, <> (Accessed November 18, 2012) 20 Nick O‘Donohoe, Christina Leijonhufvud, and Christina Leijonhufvud, ―Impact Investments: An Emerging Asset Class,‖ J. P. Morgan Chase & Co, last modified November 29, 2010, < 58611333228&blobheader=application%2Fpdf&blobcol=urldata&blobtable=MungoBlobs> (Accessed November 10, 2012) 21 Nathan Gonzalez, Interview November 3, 2012 22 Accion, "What We Do: Market Intelligence for Microfinance,", 2012, <> (Accessed November 18, 2012) 23 Nathan Gonzalez, Interview November 3, 2012 24 Ibid. 25 Intangible assets are identifiable non-monetary assets that cannot be seen, touched or physically measured, but are created through time and effort.
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