Acumen Blog

Social Capital Markets: Design for the Developing World

Editor’s note: Jocelyn Wyatt leads the Design for Social Impact initiative at IDEO (a global design consultancy). Prior to IDEO, Jocelyn worked as an Acumen Fund fellow in Kenya and served as Interim Country Director for VisionSpring in India. Jocelyn has an MBA from Thunderbird and a BA in Anthropology from Grinnell College. She blogs (periodically) on

By Jocelyn Wyatt

Fully admitting my bias here, I did think the Design in the Developing World panel was an especially interesting conversation between a top-notch set of designers and practitioners. Caroline Balerin launched the panel with the question "What would it look like to design for the other 90%?" I fully expected the panelists, who have traditionally designed products, to respond with something about appropriately designed technologies. I was pleasantly surprised to hear each of them respond with the need to design not only the products, but the systems around them.

Paul Polak noted that the design of tools is trivial compared to designing how to mass market them. Tim Brown followed up with the need for us to design the distribution channels, supply chains and marketing strategies to ensure they get to market and scale. "Breakthrough innovation in the developing world is happening by designing systems." Kristen Peterson built on this with a story about how Inveneo started by designing hardware, but realizing that wasn’t enough, has moved to building partnerships with local entrepreneurs who can distribute the IT services.

The second point, which was made by Paul Hudnut, was the importance of empathy and the need to speak to your customers in a way that makes sense to them. In his example, the fuel efficient motorcycles that Environfit designed are appealing to its customers because they are faster and cheaper to run, not because they have lower emissions.

A major point of Paul Polak’s during the panel and in his book, Out of Poverty, was that design for the other 90% needs to be about the "ruthless pursuit of affordability." If we can design for people who make less than $1/day, the tools will scale. It’s not enough to cosmetically change existing technologies, rather, they must be designed for the needs of the customers. Tim Brown talked about the need for rapid "just enough" prototyping and close collaboration with customers to ensure that designs are appropriate and useful.

A point which echoed what I had heard throughout the conference was the need to take a business approach to designing for the poor. By showing that profits are possible, big business will be encouraged to enter the market and will start designing for the other 90%. Paul Hudnut emphasized this and mentioned that he’s most proud of the large factory in China that is manufacturing Environfit’s clean burning stoves, which is making it possible for them to be priced affordably enough to sell 10,000/month. Tim Brown added that "all progress has happened because of profit drivers." Philanthropy doesn’t have the potential to make systemic change or scale happen, but business does.

Finally, the panelists all emphasized the need to build local capacity. Kristen Peterson mentioned that designing a local delivery channel for installation and repair of IT solutions will allow for scale. Paul Polak and Tim Brown both emphasized the need to teach innovation and design thinking at universities worldwide. Paul’s plan is to create 100 Stanford and MIT-like design courses at universities, 50 of them in the developing world and Tim hopes to see the creation of design schools in India and Africa.

"Scale" was a frequently-used buzzword at the conference and the question of how to get good ideas to scale is one that remains on the table. We are now seeing how design can address issues of scale. Whether it’s by designing appropriate products or services for the other 90%, by designing the systems around these products or services, or by teaching the design thinking approach to social entrepreneurs and students, design certainly has a contribution to make to this sector and truly has the potential to help good ideas scale and create deep and lasting impact.


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]