Acumen Blog

Listening to “nobodies”

Peggy Noonan writes a compelling commentary about the kind of leadership needed in today’s world (and yesterday’s and the future’s as well). Leadership must begin with the people we are trying to serve. And that means listening to them, even if it isn’t comfortable, even if we don’t like them. We should think about organizing listening tours in the developing world for those in power – CEOs, government leaders, executive directors of powerful non-profit organizations. The point of such tours would be not to determine solutions after a few days’ exposure to the place, but simply to listen to what local people say, what they feel, what they articulate as their needs and desires. We might all learn a lot, not only about other communities, but also about ourselves. [Read More]

Talking social returns at Skoll

I just attended the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford, England. At the conference, Sir Ronald Cohen spoke of the need for a private equity model that would allow investors to back and build substantial businesses that promise a financial return plus social returns (increasing employment, role models, flows of capital, perhaps increased tax revenues, etc). The metrics around social returns, he said, are crucial to ensuring the true building of this market; otherwise, we will find it too difficult to connect with deep pools of capital. [Read More]

Focus on sustainability in water projects

The recent Fourth World Water Forum in Mexico City was of a grand scale, with more than 10,000 participants from around the world, ranging from NGO’s and government agencies to large corporations and academics. Some common themes around the sustainability of water solutions were apparent. There was an increased focus on the need for complete and reliable management of water and sanitation projects, including both education and marketing to end consumers and ongoing maintenance and water quality testing. Many of the sessions and Acumen Fund’s own discussions revolved around the current shortfalls in these areas that result from the current “build and move on” model that many governments and NGOs have adopted. [Read More]

Insurance products for the poor

How to protect themselves from unforeseen circumstances is a major challenge to the poor in building assets and wealth. Acumen Fund has been exploring health insurance products, which are critical given that health costs can eat up more than 30% of an average person’s income in the developing world. Our investee, Kashf already provides – indeed, insists that its borrowers take life and disaster insurance as part of their lending contracts. The UN World Food Program (WFP) has announced an insurance program for humanitarian emergencies that would enable poor farmers some degree of protection in situations of drought and other natural disasters. Key to how the program functions is not only who pays and on what basis risk is calculated and priced, but also how quickly farmers can be reimbursed for losses. Quick response is one of the main concerns of relief organizations, which must move within the first 24 hours of disaster for maximum effectiveness. However, this is a separate need from reimbursing farmers themselves for longer-term rehabilitation of their farms and main sources of income. [Read More]

Overcoming perceptions in and of the Muslim world

As we become a single world, how all countries integrate diverse communities becomes vital to our collective success. It is heartbreaking to see negative perceptions of Muslims rising in the U.S. as we also see negative perceptions of Americans in the Muslim world. Leadership is needed on all sides to point to what unites us rather than what divides us. In Pakistan, Acumen Fund’s work illuminates the potential to work across borders and get concrete, measurable things accomplished together. Supporting effective solutions to poverty, focusing on stronger media communications that highlight what is working in the Muslim world, and insisting on greater partnership – and dialogue – are small but necessary steps toward knowing one another. And that is where change – and dignity – must start. [Read More]

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]