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10 Things We’ve Learned #9 – There is no currency like trust, and there are no shortcuts to earning it

Acumen Fund is committed to sharing the learnings we have collected over our past 10 years. In this spirit, we have published  a document called “10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty.” Each week on the Acumen Fund Blog, we will be posting the next lesson in this series of “10 Things,” along with a guest response from a valued member of our community.

9. There is no currency like trust, and there are no shortcuts to earning it.

“Building trust takes time, and it can be destroyed in an instant.”

Low-income communities are often understandably wary of outsiders coming in with “solutions to their problems.”  Having been short-changed in the past, they expect to be short-changed again.  Why bother trying something new when the old ways work well enough, when the new ways might cost more than you can afford, when trying something new means taking a risk that could mean not enough food on the table?

We thought if you offered the poor clean, affordable solar lights that raised incomes, people would flock to buy them.  An Acumen Fund investee gave a woman a free solar lantern to use in her stall selling samosas on the street for a month to test it out.  At the end of the month, she said she loved the lamp: it allowed her to save money by avoiding kerosene, earn more by staying open later, and have a light to walk home safely. Still, she refused to buy the light when offered, saying she couldn’t be sure of the product’s quality.

We thought if you offered safe, quality housing to renters in slums at comparable prices, people would line up to buy homes.  But people had been fleeced by too many fly-by-night housing developers to risk uprooting their families. It took the entrepreneur personally showing up at the site after violence erupted to prove his seriousness about the project, and then building a home for himself at the development to gain lasting trust.

We thought if farmers saw their neighbors double their productivity using inexpensive drip irrigation systems, sales would explode simply through word of mouth.   Yet we’ve learned that our investees’ field staff must show up again and again before new customers will sign up.

These examples make it all the more amazing that d.light has sold more than a half million solar lanterns; that Saiban has built a thriving community for more than 2,000 outside Lahore, Pakistan; that Global Easy Water Products has sold hundreds of thousands of drip irrigation systems.

Trust is the most precious commodity we can offer.  Building it takes time, and it can be destroyed in an instant. It isn’t so much what we do most of the time, but how we do it that counts. We learn this over and over.

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Click here for the full “10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty.”

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