Acumen Blog


Mapping the Water and Sanitation Sector

At Acumen Fund, we look to invest in for-profit, social enterprises that are using market-based approaches to increase the affordability, access, and quality of water and sanitation to the poor in the developing world. Our previous investments in the sector cover everything from an enterprise creating rural community water centers, to organizations using microfinance to increase access to sanitation. When considering the entrepreneurial landscape in the water and sanitation sector overall, there is an enormous opportunity for social investment to make an impact; however, in order to be successful, social enterprises will require innovative approaches to tackle the serious challenges that remain.

As we continue to look for new deals that focus on low-income customers, unfortunately the economics of the sector often make it challenging for social enterprises to serve the poor as customers, and so many either leave the responsibility to government and civil society, or end up having to focus on middle- or high-income customers. Part of the reason for this is that in many regions markets are distorted by a flood of NGO money into the sector. They often provide goods and services at free or subsidized prices, but they can sometimes be at low quality. This ultimately reduces consumers’ willingness to pay or desire to use products and services in water and sanitation.

Furthermore, there is often a real lack of education or consumer awareness in the market for why these critical goods or services are needed. Many customers think, “Why should I pay for drinking water when the water from the river is free and sweeter tasting? Why should I pay to use a toilet when there are other places I can go for free?”

With this as a general context, I do believe there are opportunities for investment and entrepreneurial solutions in the space. There are entrepreneurs out there that are innovating on technologies, but unfortunately it feels like many are still early stage and haven’t yet figured out how to actually build a business around the technology or product. The most interesting deals we see involve companies and entrepreneurs that are truly innovating on business models, and three of the most compelling innovations out there involve vertical integration, small-scale distributed infrastructure, or creative financing.

  1. We are seeing a lot of organizations that are trying to vertically integrate across the water/sanitation value chain.  They’ve recognized that in many regions it is difficult to rely on other parties to provide these functions and so are having to bring the entire chain in-house (this could include capture/storage, transport, treatment, reuse, etc.) These businesses have realized that some parts of the value chain are fundamentally going to be cost centers and other profit centers – but that you need to tackle all parts to make the whole process work and become financially sustainable.
  2. Other opportunities can be seen with companies trying to do small-scale, distributed infrastructure where they are really trying to bring down initial capital costs and ongoing operating costs, often by using hub-and-spoke models which are modular and highly scalable. Potential issues with this approach include water and sanitation service quality and physical-infrastructure maintenance across the organization, to ensure consumer confidence and brand integrity.
  3. And finally, we are also seeing deal-flow with businesses that are trying creative financing –whether it is microfinance at the household level for small water and sanitation improvements, or lending at the community level for community toilets or piped water mini-grids. Our recent investment in GUARDIAN is an example of using a creative approach to microfinance to increase access to improved sanitation in rural India.

We are also innovative businesses that manage to play at the intersection of water/sanitation and other sectors, such as agriculture or energy, for example by exploring new sources of revenue through waste-to-energy conversion or conversion of waste to fertilizer.  Ultimately the most compelling opportunities are the ones that are able to foster partnerships with communities, civil society and government to fully function, while leveraging an innovative business model that drives financial sustainability and quality service.

Nijhad Jamal is a Portfolio Manager at Acumen Fund based in New York where he focuses primarily on the cleantech and water sectors.


Four Emerging Leaders Building the Future of Pakistan

With 60% of Pakistan’s population living under less than a dollar a day, the external narrative of Pakistan is characterised by what the country lacks; a lack of security, a lack of women’s rights, a lack of access to education, and the list goes on. What this narrative ignores are the individuals who work tirelessly to plug those gaps. From human rights to education to food security, Acumen Pakistan Fellows are affecting change through organizations committed to tackling poverty. Their work is truly inspiring, promising a hopeful future for Pakistan. Here are four fellows that are building this future for Pakistan and come together periodically to share learning experiences and grow as leaders. Through five seminars, the fellows have strengthened skills of adaptability, communication, empathy and problem solving through listening. If you are committed to creating change in your community, apply now to be an Acumen Pakistan Fellow. The deadline is 29 September. [Read More]

Acumen Partners with AlphaSights to Better Access Global Expertise

In our work investing in social enterprises that deliver critical goods to the poor, there is a substantial amount of work to evaluate each investment opportunity. A critical part of the diligence process, particularly when it comes to emerging markets, is speaking with industry experts who can provide reliable information about sector trends, market dynamics and public policy – all of which affect our evaluation of potential investment opportunities. [Read More]


Our manifesto begins, “it starts by standing with the poor.” Yet for good reasons, the sector has found it challenging to measure which customers are actually being served through social impact investments – getting accurate data on incomes is notoriously difficult and the logistical challenge and cost of conducting surveys in person prohibitive. [Read More]

Questions for Aspiring Leaders

Bavidra Mohan, Acumen’s India Fellows Manager, attended this years Aspen IDEAS festival as a Scholar. The Scholarship program was established to invite guests from around the world to bring a diverse set of experiences, voices and perspectives to the rich conversations that take place at the IDEAS festival each year. [Read More]

Give Impact Investing Time and Space to Develop

Impact investing has captured the world’s imagination. Just six years after the Rockefeller Foundation coined the term, the sector is booming. An estimated 250 funds are actively raising capital in a market that the Global Impact Investing Network estimates at $25 billion. Giving Pledge members described impact investing as the “hottest topic” at their May 2012 meeting, and Prime Minister David Cameron extolled the potential of the sector at the most recent G8 summit.  Sir Ronald Cohen and HBS Professor William A. Sahlman describe impact investing as the new venture capital, implying that it will, in the next 5 to 10 years, make its way into mainstream financial portfolios, unlocking billions or trillions of dollars in new capital. [Read More]

10 Books We’re Reading This Summer

What are you reading? It is a common question here at Acumen, an organization full of avid readers constantly trading favorite book titles that discuss leadership, impact, development and branding. Here are 10 stellar books we’re reading this summer. These books and others provide a framework of thinking, a spark of new ideas, a platform for debate. So, what are you reading? [Read More]

How Acumen Brought Back my Fire

Eda is an East Africa Regional Fellow from Nairobi, Kenya and is the Founder and Director of Halisi Trust, an organization that seeks to challenge the vices that plague society and encourage transformational development in Kenya’s youth. When Eda applied for the East Africa Fellows Program, she felt disillusioned and stuck. Below, Eda discusses how Acumen’s Regional Fellowship Program brought back her fire. Now, Eda has engaged nearly 6,000 people through outreach events and the Mkenya Halisi movement continues to grow. Acumen is currently accepting applications for the next class of East Africa Fellows. APPLY TODAY! [Read More]

Imagining the world as it could be

Christine Gitau is an East Africa Fellow and an enterprise coach at Craft Afrika, which provides business support services to craft entrepreneurs, enabling them build viable and thriving businesses in Kenya. At Acumen we often use the term “Moral Imagination” when talking about leadership. Christine wrote a reflection on how this concept has shifted her thinking. We could not be more proud of what she is building! [Read More]

How two Acumen Fellows are disrupting the education model in India

Whether its running youth soccer programs, providing vocational training services, or transforming the education system in India, Acumen India Fellows are driving real change in their communities.  Abbas Dadla and Abhilasha Sinha are India Fellows who are addressing the teacher shortage in India through the use of technology and peer collaboration. Find out what they are building below.  If you have grit, resilience and a commitment to creating change in your community in India, East Africa or Pakistan, we encourage you to apply for the Regional Fellowship Program! [Read More]