Impact Investing: Case Study of Accion's Venture Lab
Investing in Financial Freedom:
The Harmony of Economic and
CASE STUDY ACCION& VENTURE LAB
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
A c c i o n | 3
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.
A c c i o n | 4
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
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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
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
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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
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
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
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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
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
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―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.
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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
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.
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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
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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
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platform that facilitates e-commerce transactions using prepaid airtime as the payment
―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
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
According to the non-profit
organization, the inability to measure the social impacts will limit the growth of the
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
Agriculture, Education, Energy,
Environment, Financial Services,
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
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.
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
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
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
―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
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.
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.
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.
A c c i o n | 19
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