This is a report about Acumen’s activities in 2019. Yet as I write this letter, the COVID-19 pandemic has awakened the entire world with a jolt.
If there is one thing the pandemic has made clear it is this: we are one world—not just interconnected, but interdependent. We will rise and fall together and, indeed, our collective future rests on ensuring that all of us are safe. It is only in reimagining systems that put our shared humanity at the center that we will build a future in which all of us can flourish and sustain.
As I look back on Acumen’s work in 2019, I see many examples of models already building this new future. By putting into action values of the moral imagination—seeing the reality of the world as it is and imagining it as it could be—Acumen’s investees and Fellows are creating the long-term solutions we need to address the world’s toughest problems.
Off-grid energy access—one of the sectors in which we work—is an example of where we’ve seen these long-term solutions gain traction. A decade ago, more than one billion people lacked access to clean light and electricity, one of the most basic building blocks of human development. When Acumen first began investing in the idea of bringing solar lighting to the poor, it was considered crazy. By listening to customers and building solutions from their perspectives, today our investee d.light has brought safe, clean affordable light and, increasingly, electricity to over 100 million people. That is nearly one quarter of all people living off the grid who have gone from darkness to light in ways that help avert long-term climate crisis.
This one audacious idea led us to a philanthropically funded energy strategy through our Pioneer Energy Investment Initiative and to the closing in 2019 of our $67 million for-profit energy fund, Kawisafi Ventures Limited. Together with its sponsored funds, today Acumen is the largest off-grid energy investor in the world with investments in 33 new business models that are inclusive of the poor and promise a more sustainable future. Equally important, we can point to role models like d.light founders Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun, who measure their success not in terms of money, power or fame but in the amount of human energy they release into the world. When you measure the lives changed, the jobs created, the carbon displaced (from replacing kerosene), the health improved, the education enhanced, the dignity reinforced—that’s the success that gives me stubborn and pragmatic hope. Even if it does not come easily—at least not at first—Acumen’s last decade has proven, unequivocally, that change is possible.
If the last ten years were about building a new market in energy, the next ten must be about achieving universal energy access. Acumen must build on its work, not only in energy but in many other sectors, like creating pathways to opportunity for India’s workforce, in building more inclusive supply chains for Colombia’s farmers. If the last ten years were about proving that we could innovate around such business models, then the next ten years are about redefining success for all businesses and showcasing the business models and role models for the world to emulate.
Acumen has learned so much in the past two decades that it is now time to share our experience with the next generation of leaders who have the audacity to envision and work toward a better future. Acumen’s Investment Principles, released in 2019, will take what we have learned from 18 years of investing patient capital in social enterprises to guide the now multi-billion-dollar impact investing sector in standing with the poor. As of 2019, Acumen Fellows Programs are connecting and cultivating a pipeline of emerging leaders in eight regions around the world, including three new programs in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Spain. Beginning in 2020, Acumen Academy, a university reimagined, will offer anyone, anywhere, the tools, resources and lifelong accompaniment they need to take on our most urgent challenges.
It is in times of turmoil, when the world most needs us, that we have the opportunity to be our best selves. Never has Acumen had a more capable team with the experience needed to heed this call. Never have we had a more remarkable community of Partners serving as sounding boards, mentors, board members, advisors and ambassadors. We could not be more grateful for this community.
The year 2020 will be radically different. As Acumen reaches out in new ways to strengthen and grow our community, we hope you’ll embrace the challenge with us.
With hard-edged hope,
Founder & CEO, Acumen