Acumen Blog


Experimenting with leaner ways to collect poverty data

In partnership with Grameen Foundation India, Acumen is working on a Lean Data Initiative, analyzing the poverty rates among investee Ziqitza Healthcare Limited‘s callers in Orissa, one of India’s poorest states. Wei Wei is an Impact Associate working on this project and provides context for the study below.

In contrast to the chilly, grey morning outside, the brightly-lit room in Amritsar, Punjab buzzes with life as a few dozen young people sit in front of phones and computers. Phones ring every few seconds and alerts on pending calls flash on their computer screens. Fingers dance quickly and lightly across keyboards, punching in numbers and commands instinctively.

But this isn’t just any call center in India – the young 20-somethings are answering calls that are often a matter of life and death. They’re working for Ziqitza Healthcare Limited, which runs 240 ambulances for the government of Punjab in addition to several hundred ambulances across several other states. Known locally as “108”, the emergency telephone line, everyone from taxi drivers to villagers is aware of the service. The call center processes almost a thousand calls a day from traffic accidents to expectant mothers headed into labor.


Acumen invested in Ziqitza over five years ago, when the company had a fleet of just nine ambulances in Mumbai and a can-do spirit. Through a number of public private partnerships with state governments wanting to provide reliable emergency transportation services to both their rural and urban populations the company has since grown to serve over 2.5 million callers with a fleet of nearly a thousand ambulances. Ziqitza’s emergency medical technicians are indeed very reliable – they were first responders in the 28/11 attacks at the Taj hotel in Mumbai and rescuers during the flooding in Orissa this year.

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As board members of the company and investors, we’ve always known Ziqitza to be a socially-focused company with cutting edge standards of service. But what we didn’t know as deeply was who they were serving, and whether – as a free service in states where they’ve signed contracts with the government – they were reaching into poorer segments of the population that would have no alternative emergency medical transport. Given the company’s social mission, Ziqitza’s CEO Sweta Mangal is also determined to better understand their focus on the poor. So we came together with Grameen Foundation India to run a study of poverty rates among ZHL’s callers in two of their biggest states – Punjab and Orissa – using Grameen Foundation’s Progress Out of Poverty Index, an easy-to-administer 10 question tool that determines poverty likelihoods.

The impetus behind Grameen’s creation of the Progress Out of Poverty Index was the desire to create a tool that would simplify the process of understanding who was being served and whether there were any improvements in poverty levels over time. Income-related information is notoriously difficult to collect accurately, and existing surveys took hours to conduct in person.

The study is novel in two ways in its application of the PPI to Ziqitza:

1)      Rather than being conducted in person, the study is layered on Ziqitza’s existing infrastructure – its call centers – where members of their quality team perform customer call backs within days or weeks of the initial call. The quality team is adding the PPI’s 10 questions onto their usual set of customer feedback questions. This process cuts down on surveying time and costs dramatically. We’ll be conducting an in person validation of a small percentage of calls to determine the efficacy of this method.

2)      It will test correlations of poverty rates to other information regularly, and rigorously, collected by the company such as the urgency of the caller’s medical complaints and whether the caller comes from a rural versus urban area.  By doing so we’ll learn more about whether poorer callers are using the service differently and what the company can do to target them most effectively.

We’re particularly excited that the study will be the first to be part of Acumen’s Lean Data Initiative, which is experimenting with leaner, more cost and time efficient ways to collect better data on our investee’s customers, with the hope of furthering both business and impact measurement goals. By testing a range of collection methods (like call centers, SMS, and automated voice response), we’ll also be improving upon our own understanding of what methods work best with different business models.

We look forward to sharing what we’ve learned in the next months!



Dispatch from Pakistan: Hope in Place of Fear

There is fear in the streets of Pakistan. I sit in traffic, just a few hundred feet from my hotel where my next meeting is scheduled. I could arrive at my destination in five minutes if I walked, but it is not advised to walk. On the right side of my car, four men pointing automatic weapons stand in the back of a police van. Just in front is a black SUV with four commandos in the back, each with AK-47s, I think, though I’m no expert in guns. Let’s just say they are very big and look very menacing. A few cars to the left is another gun-filled vehicle pushing other cars out of its way, presumably to join the caravan of the armed. Sirens are wailing. [Read More]


Acumen announces its new investment in First Access, a data analytics company improving access to formal financial services for low-income East African communities. In East Africa, only 22 percent of the population has access to formal financial services with the region’s poor having even less at 10 percent. First Access presents an opportunity to increase the ability of these low-income communities to save, manage risk responsibility, invest in such critical services as education, and ultimately rise out of poverty. [Read More]


Acumen is proud to announce the selection of our third cohort of Pakistan Fellows. After a competitive application process, we’ve chosen a diverse group of 20 leaders working in provinces across the country. This year’s Fellows are fighting poverty and changing lives across Pakistan through unique initiatives that range from advocating for vulnerable prisoners’ rights, to creating solutions to address low-quality education, to developing branchless banking channels for low-income customers, and more. Read more about each Fellow and their inspiring work below. [Read More]

Lean Data Goes Deeper

One of the most interesting questions we’re grappling with right now on the Impact team at Acumen is how to develop a more robust, rigorous, and transparent form of quantifying the social value our companies create. While I don’t believe we will ever fully understand all the social value created – and while there will always be room for debate and interpretation – I do think today we have the tools to get a lot closer to customers and hear how they value products. [Read More]


Acumen is proud to announce the selection of our second cohort of India Fellows. After a competitive application process, we’ve chosen a diverse group of 20 leaders working in 13 states. This year’s Fellows are fighting poverty and changing lives across India through unique initiatives that range from providing affordable menstrual hygiene products to marginalized women, to making quality education available to children in conflict zones, to designing innovative sanitation solutions for the urban poor, and more. Read more about each Fellow and their inspiring work below. [Read More]


Fast Company today announced its 2015 ranking of the World’s Most Innovative Companies in Not-For-Profit, honoring leading organizations and rising newcomers that exemplify the best in social and philanthropic innovation. Acumen earned the No. 7 spot on the annual list in recognition for its Lean Data Initiative—a project launched in 2014 to find more efficient, cost-effective ways to measure and evaluate social impact. [Read More]


Acumen is proud to announce the selection of our fourth cohort of East Africa Fellows. After a competitive application process, we’ve chosen a diverse group of 21 leaders from five different countries in the region: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and, for the first time, Ethiopia. This year’s Fellows are fighting poverty and changing lives across East Africa through unique initiatives that range from providing much-needed ambulance services to helping make hygienic sanitation more accessible and affordable to empowering young women to start viable agro-enterprises and more. Read more about each Fellow and their inspiring work below. [Read More]

We Are Each Other’s Destiny

To reflect on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is to consider deeply our human interconnectedness and the world we want to build. Each year on this day, I re-read his extraordinary, elegiac “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to remember his commitment to human equality and the price he paid. I read it to remind myself of the power of idealism grounded in pragmatism. I read it to renew my belief in our individual and collective abilities to help bend the moral arc ever more toward justice. [Read More]

Let’s Work Together

Acumen has offices in New York, Mumbai, Karachi, Bogota, Nairobi and Accra. Last August, Avinash Mishra, a Senior Portfolio Associate in the India office, and Keya Madhvani, the Internal Communications Associate in the New York office, were nominated to attend the One Young World Summit in Dublin. Below, they share lessons learned at the summit.  [Read More]