Acumen Blog

Flexible distribution in developing countries: the Tupperware Model

How does the direct sales model of Tupperware connect to building sustainable business models for the poor? Acumen Fund and our investees are using variations of this in the sale of anti-malarial bednets and low-cost glasses. Tupperware has been the inspiration. The brilliance of the Tupperware model is in tapping into women’s social networks, which allows the company to surmount challenges associated with the lack of infrastructure, takes advantage of women’s social organization and can build significant self-esteem. In the U.S., this model has also generated significant wealth for millions of women. When thinking about distribution channels, we need to find the best examples of how this model has been adapted most effectively to deliver critical goods and services to the poor. Hindustan Lever’s Shakti model is one such example. Which others have gone fully to scale (for Acumen Fund, that means at least a million people served)? [Read More]

Putting data into context

Check out Hans Rosling’s gapminder.org. Hans’ mission is to unlock the data held up in the halls of the UN and make it available and accessible. The technology is incredible – it allows for a more nuanced approach to seeing and understanding problems so that we move away from regionalizing problems (“Africa is starving”) and toward contextualization (part of Africa are starving and parts are wealthy). The software enables a visualization of changes among countries and groups over time. To watch countries move along a graph over thirty years (health on the x axis, income on the y axis) is to watch choices in public policy and the effect of AIDS and disease over time. Connecting gapminder.org to a major search engine could revolutionize the way we access, present and understand data. Acumen Fund needs to leverage the platform to better present stories and to make better decisions around how and why we build different business models for varying groups of individuals. [Read More]

A Non-Zero World

At TED, Robert Wright, the author of Non-Zero, spoke eloquently about the increasing moral dimension of history. With the increasing growth in complexity of social organization comes a deeper correlation of our fortunes. What happens in Iraq and in Gaza means more when there are super-empowered individuals with the technological power to create havoc across national borders in ways never before seen. Indeed, this downside correlation of fortune means we have to look more seriously and carefully at the growing lethality of hatred. [Read More]

Creative considerations in pricing

In addition to considering sliding pricing schemes to reach greater numbers of people with scarce resources, several ideas for integrating real costs into pricing strategies were surfaced at the TED conference last week. Bill Joy suggested integrating the risks of catastrophe (terrorism, hurricanes) into doing business. Should we build a terrorism insurance policy? Gregory Colbert (you should definitely check out his website to see his truly exquisite photographs of the world) argued that corporations using animals in their commercials should “pay the animals” and build a fund for the environment with it. He estimates the world could raise $600 million annually doing this – and save the environmental activists from the “soul-killing work of fundraising.” Both ideas underline the flexibility that is emerging in the marketplace – something to watch, important for considering new approaches to opening markets to the poor. [Read More]

Delivering safe water in Hyderabad

This article in The Hindu, one of India’s national newspapers, announces the launch of a market-based initiative, developed by by Heritage Livelihood Services Provider, to deliver safe drinking water to the urban poor. Heritage is based in Hyderabad and is Acumen Fund’s most recent investment in the water portfolio. They have recently launched this program in partnership with Children and Police, a local NGO, and the Hyderabad municipal government. Acumen Fund will work with them to assure that sufficient capital is available to expand the program, and will offer strategic management support to help accelerate its expansion. [Read More]

The age of transformation

If the decade of the ’90s was the age of information, then all signs point to the world moving into an age of transformation. TED is as much a reflection of where the world is today as it is a pioneer in moving the trends forward. People are searching for meaning. Companies understand that social responsibility must be a part of their marketing strategies. Young people the world over are bringing forth an idealism not seen since the 1960s. And this is a more sophisticated idealism, one grounded in pragmatism, in pushing the edges of technological solutions, in understanding global complexity. The question is how to harness not only the good will but the skills and resources to make things happen. As Acumen Fund builds its entrepreneurial bench, we should think about what it would take to create a system whereby we help connect even more individuals with resources, skills and imagination to potentially sustainable and scalable innovations solving problems of poverty. [Read More]

When was the last time you really looked at a flower?

At the TED conference, Peter Skillman of Palm spoke about the power of creativity and quick prototyping. He has given the following test to various groups, including groups of kindergarten students and also MBAs from top U.S. schools. The group is given spaghetti, string and tape and given the instruction to create a free-standing structure to hold a marshmallow on top. Over and over, the kindergarteners aced the game, and the MBAs scored on the lowest end of the spectrum. Why? The kindergarten kids didn’t worry about rules and hierarchy and procedures but just got down to the work. It was messy, and there were more mistakes but the children got it right. We need more experimentation, more just doing things on a small-scale level quickly, learning from mistakes and doing again to make it better. You don’t want too many interations and want to ensure that the team is working together and not in parallel, but it is a great metaphor for solving tough problems. [Read More]