Letter from Jacqueline Novogratz – December 2013
I have just returned from a productive trip to Pakistan capping a whirlwind few weeks at the end of a whirlwind quarter. It has been quite a year.
Just this past week, our Pakistan Fellows held a phenomenal Innovation Conference as the capstone to their fellowship year. In addition to prominent thinkers and doers who attended, the conference showcased the work of Pakistan Fellows like Sumaira Gul who is building a waste management system to serve low-income communities in Rawalpindi; Ahmad Zeb who has de-radicalized and trained young leaders in Swat; and Waqas Ali, founder of Hometown, whose business makes and sells high quality handmade men’s footwear. The promise of the Fellows reflects the potential of Pakistan, providing role models, long-term pipeline, and next generation leadership.
By mid-2014, we will have Regional Fellows programs running in Pakistan, East Africa and India in addition to our Global program which is currently seeking applications for its ninth class. To give you a sense of the spirit of the Acumen Fellows, I would urge you to watch this video from our Investor Gathering held November 6th.
Indeed, the Gathering itself is a reflection of Acumen’s work, bringing together more than 200 supporters, entrepreneurs, board members and advisors from 15 countries. It is a day of accountability and a moment to reflect on what remains to be done. We start with our investment portfolio. Approved investments of $89 million in 82 companies have brought critical goods and services to more than 123 million low-income individuals, created 60,000 jobs, and catalyzed more than a half billion dollars of additional funding to our companies.
A number of companies are showing significant impact and growth. Pagatech, a mobile banking company in Nigeria has reached 1 million customers. GADCO is the largest rice producer in Ghana. GADC purchases organic cotton, sesame and chili from over 30,000 farmers in post-conflict Northern Uganda, injecting more than $8 million into the local economy. d.light has now brought light sustainably to more than 24 million. Patient capital ultimately helps create companies that matter to the poor.
When you add our work in leadership to that of investing, we begin to see an eco-system growing, an enabling platform to harness capital, ideas and experimentation, bound by a common vision and values. In addition to our 129 fellows, +Acumen now counts more than 5,000 chapter members from 23 cities. More than 20,000 individuals from 154 countries have signed up for our online leadership courses. From this has emerged a global community focused on creating new systems that approach investment as a means not an end, and aim to build solutions to poverty based in ideas of opportunity and dignity.
It starts with investments, and the change comes through people. LifeSpring Hospitals, a joint venture between HLL Lifecare Limited and Acumen, is a maternal healthcare company in India. Tricia Morente, Global Fellow (’08) worked with LifeSpring for three years, helping to grow it from one to nine hospitals. Nick Pearson, while on our East Africa team became determined to experiment with bringing the model to Kenya. Since founding his non-profit organization Jacaranda Health, no less than a dozen Acumen Fellows, team members and alumni have advised and supported him. In addition Jacaranda’s Clinical Director, Faith Muigai, is an East Africa Regional Fellow. She now has a partner in Baheirah Khusheim, Global Fellow from Saudi Arabia who is placed at LifeSpring in Hyderabad, India this year. Tricia continues to advise both LifeSpring and Jacaranda, and has created Kangu, to enable philanthropists to support the lowest-income women with safe access through these
and other companies. Acumen’s focus continues to be on supporting LifeSpring which now operates 12 hospitals and is on a growth trajectory to be one of the largest maternal health companies in India serving the poor. These interconnections built atop Acumen’s core work are now part of an ecosystem that is accelerating change and amplifying impact around the world.
Change is possible, though it often starts slowly. Each year, we learn more about what it takes to make early stage patient capital investments in entrepreneurs daring to go where markets and government have failed. While in Pakistan last week, we traveled to Pindi Gheb to see the work of SRE Solutions, a new investment bringing solar home systems to low-income people living off the grid (more than 40 percent of Pakistanis). Fakhar A. Khalifa, the company’s CEO, a Silicon Valley engineer, started by listening to low-income people. As in other places we’ve seen solar work, households want electricity to charge their cellphones and in hot places like parts of Pakistan, to operate a fan, as well as to light their homes. Indeed, many poor households will stretch for the more expensive option for the comfort of a fan in summertime.
We drove for hours along a rocky path into the hills of Pindi Gheb, a few hours outside Islamabad. Desert mountains, ancient landscapes under open skies carried my eyes to the horizon and back, my imagination a thousand years into history and back to the present. Finally, we reached an adobe home where a young woman in a red shalwar kameez watched over a donkey walking round and round a small mill, grinding corn into flour while her mother cooked over an open fire. Two camels stood tied beneath a clothes line.
The male head of household proudly showed us the lighting system turned on by a switch: sometimes what is most important cannot easily be measured. The more we learn about lighting, the more the on-off switch becomes a symbol of inclusion.
Meanwhile, in Bahawalpur, an agricultural center in Punjab, Southern Pakistan, more than a quarter million farmers now borrowing agricultural loans from NRSP Bank, have deposited about $24 million. I thought about what it would take for SRE Solutions to progress from this early innovation stage of trying to understand its customers and helping them understand the promise of solar to the kind of scale NRSP is experiencing. The road, like the path in the mountains is long, difficult. In a country where energy is arguably the single most important intervention needed for development, this terrain must be traveled.
It starts with a willing entrepreneur like Fakhar; patient capital to enable him to experiment, a community to share lessons and provide additional support. Through our new partnership with Bank Alfalah we are able to offer technical assistance to SRE as it navigates its path to scale. Our ecosystem should enable SRE to accelerate learning and executing through knowledge gained from other companies within our energy portfolio. And ultimately, our global community should learn from the insights generated, to spawn further experimentation in serving low-income populations.
This is how the world changes. We solve problems by focusing on scaling solutions where possible, and simultaneously recognizing the need to nurture a learning community bound by shared values. This enabled ecosystem in turn has the potential to catalyze further experimentation. We are resolved to do this. And we are just getting started.
The poet Hafiz wrote, “I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.” The work of our energy portfolio is bringing light to areas of darkness, and in so doing, is releasing the human energies of millions.
Let me close this letter in the spirit of light and gratitude for the privilege of doing this work with so many people to create change in so many different ways around the world. We need and appreciate your support.