Acumen Blog

Here’s to you, Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson is a good friend to Acumen Fund and an inspiration for all of us. This article underlines not only her undying determination to effect change in the world but the power of individuals to change the world. It seems people the world over – in technology, media, finance – are seeing the potential for their individual actions to have significant impact in ways never before believed. This is contributing to a wave of talented people getting more involved in development. Mary Robinson has been working in this are for decades and this article is a testament to what sets her apart as an example – her humility and willingness to listen, her willingness to take moral stands and and the use herself to convene, to push, to cajole, to inspire. Here’s to you, Mary. [Read More]

Africa’s strategic position in the world

The Council on Foreign Relations just published an insightful report on Africa: “More than Humanitarianism: A Strategic U.S. Approach Toward Africa”, the result of an independent task force chaired by Christine Todd Whitman and Anthony Lake. The report (available in PDF or hard copy) reminds us that 2005 was the year for Africa, although we missed the point. “The point that was missing,” the report states, “amid the music, the communiques and the commitments – is that Africa is becoming steadily more central to the United States and to the rest of the world in ways that transcend humanitarian interests.” Africa is increasingly strategic to the U.S. – and the rest of the world – as a source of energy (in the next decade, Africa could provide as much oil to the U.S. as the Middle East). China sees the value of Africa and is making significant investment in the continent, and the rest of the world should pay attention. Africa, increasingly connected to the world, can teach a lot about the spread – and, hopefully, control – of HIV/AIDS so that Asia and Russia can learn from its lessons. The continent is a base for terrorism and a concern in terms of social stability, both of which affect the rest of the world in ways like never before. One response is to invest in growth, in the power of entrepreneurs. This is touched upon with a good example of the work of TechnoServe, and we could use even more examples of what works. There are not only strategic national security issues at hand for the U.S. but real investment opportunities and good news from the continent. [Read More]

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 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 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]