The many shades of impact and returns

In Kenya, Apollo Agriculture uses technology to help smallholder farmers get what they need to increase crop yields.

We, Accion Venture Lab, are by definition an impact investor. Our overarching goal is to invest in and provide support to seed-stage innovative fintech startups that increase access to, improve the quality of, or reduce the cost of financial services for underserved customer segments at scale. Grounded by this intention, our first and foremost step in screening for a prospective investment is to diligently assess the company’s potential in creating such impact. If our impact considerations are satisfied, we then move to carefully assessing the returns potential of the business. We only proceed with full-on due diligence if we see a strong promise of both impact and returns. Finding companies that we think can generate both is not a walk in the park, but we have yet to find ourselves in a situation where we need to consider trading one for the other.

We were therefore intrigued by Mara Bolis and Chris West’s take on the state of impact investing, “Marginalized Returns”, on SSIR that impact investing has been inundated by a false narrative that there is no tradeoff between social impact and financial returns. Our experience so far has given us a more nuanced perspective on this. We have seen that both social impact and financial gains can indeed go hand in hand. Last year we made two successful exits from Varthana and Clip, startups that not only scored on our financial impact goals but also delivered “market-rate” returns.

We share Bolis and West’s sentiment that while impact investing offers a spectrum of financial and social returns, too many impact investors have predefined expectations of financial return that are both too high and too short term. However, we believe that the question should not be whether setting certain financial returns target means that social returns need to be sacrificed.

Here are a couple of our thoughts:

Impact investing is not one big monolith of an asset class

It’s worthwhile to note that impact investing is a nuanced space instead of a one-dimensional initiative. Stage, geography, sector, and other factors play a key role in determining potential impact and financial returns. The earlier the stage you invest, the riskier it is, and the longer the expected returns would be. Some sectors, such as education, are inherently more complex. Investing in a startup in South Sudan would present different economics than investing in one in Mexico. We commend Omidyar Network’s thoughtful Returns Continuum framework that helps the breakaway the conversation from impact-returns tradeoffs.

We see a need for the industry to move away from a single umbrella to define impact investing and to develop and agree to a better framework to define the multi-dimensional nature of the space.

Impact investing is still at a nascent stage — and so is the way we evaluate its performance

Being relatively nascent, impact funds have been raised based on GPs’ own narratives rather than vintage performance. Our northern star so far has been “market returns”, while many actually still struggle to define what that means or how that is applicable to them. How do we think about what is actually an “acceptable” rate of return for different types of investments — and how do allow for room for a figure to percolate up and down? How does the market hold funds accountable while there is there is little benchmark information?

The notion of a “subsidy”, a factor that also determines the rate of returns, is also a nuanced one. Our beyond capital support for our portfolio, ranging from bespoke strategic projects on developing a credit risk process to fundraising advice and strategic communications support, could be categorized as a “subsidy” — although for us it’s a way for us to enhance a company’s chance of success and generate returns.

We agree with Wharton Social Impact Initiative’s Nick Ashburn and Katherine Klein that there isn’t yet enough rigorous research to refuse or to refute Bolis and West’s hypothesis. Today, there is still not much public data available on impact funds’ portfolio-level performance, and we are fully behind the assertion that there needs to be a greater transparency in reporting social and financial returns.

Shifting the perception: Acknowledging that the underserved can be a profitable customer segment and that technology enables new business models to better serve them

In our effort to provide better access to financial services for underserved segments, we try to move away as much as possible from the timeworn perception that they are a destitute population in need of a helping hand. Instead, we see them as an empowered population with needs, wants, preferences, and drive to improve their wellbeing. These customers represent real market opportunity waiting to be tapped. We hold this view against the companies we invest in. A company’s keen understanding of their target customers and how they come up with innovative solutions to serve these customers’ needs and solve their persisting pain points in a way that is significantly better and attainable is what is most appealing for us. Unilever made a big breakthrough in emerging markets by offering low-cost, single-use sachets of consumer goods such as shampoos and deodorants that were previously too expensive for the rural populations.

We see a similar wave of innovations going on within financial services, and they are particularly driven by the advancements of technology and connectivity. Across the world, fintech startups and other financial services actors are taking advantage of the rapid adoption of mobile phone, digitization, the increased capacity of computing power, and so on, to come up with solutions that enable them to offer savings, credit, payments, and insurance to previously excluded customer segments in a way that existing players weren’t able to. In Kenya, Apollo Agriculture uses remote sensing technology, data science, and mobile money to more efficiently and affordably finance the fertilizer and seeds that smallholder farmers need to increase crop yields. In Mexico, Konfio’s entirely digital platform allows for low-cost customer acquisition and rapid credit assessment which enables the company to offer lower rates for micro and small business loans compared to traditional brick and mortar lenders.

Coming up with an offering with a strong value proposition that is affordable for underserved customers while making the economics work well for the company is not an easy feat. But this ability is what differentiates game-changing innovators from the rest of the pack, and for scalable impact to be achieved. Over the three years of us making active investments, we have reviewed over 1,300 potential deals and have only invested in 31.

Broadening the definition of impact

We question the definition of a “social enterprise” and the notion that only companies with such label are able to generate social impact. Many of our companies probably don’t see themselves as a social enterprise, but we invest in them because we believe in the inherent value of their offering for underserved segments. We also view impact achievement as beyond solely impacting end-customers’ well-being. How a company’s innovation can help us learn, raise a broader awareness, or influence other stakeholders is meaningful to further drive the sector.

Instead of the ever-percolating question of whether there is a tradeoff between impact and returns, we strongly believe that such binary view is not helpful for the industry. Rather, we’d like to engage actors in the space on thinking further of how we can create an industry-level spectrum of both impact and returns achievement — while being mindful of the wide variety of initiatives in the space.

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