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Impact & Agriculture: Can we make small beautiful?

An introduction to AIR’s upcoming article series on impact investing and agriculture – Stay tuned for the rest of 2014. 

- Thomas Venon -

Agriculture is a big deal for Africa.

It is a big deal for investors who see there a potentially extremely lucrative solution to the planet’s Gargantuan food needs. It is a big deal for developmental types who know it could mean an escape from poverty for sub-Saharan Africa’s circa 70% rural population. It is an even bigger deal for said rural population.

Some sources indicate small-scale farms contribute 90 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural production. This situation is in stark contrast with that observed in the western world where the number of farms has been melting rapidly. France for example had three million farms in 1970, whilst only 600,000 remain nowadays.

There is of course no question that the advent of the large commercial farm brings about heightened efficiency and leads to more affordable food prices and heightened food securities. It has played an important role in the acceleration of urbanization in the west, as ruined smallholders and redundant farmhands steadily made their way to the factories and offices of the metropolis.

Although this forced re-deployment was hardly ever a pleasant experience for the populations involved, the demand created by strong periods of economic growth, and the fact it took place over a long period of time, often slowed down by state subsidies, helped avoid spiraling unemployment and potential starvation.

One can seriously question whether these mitigating factors are in place in much of Africa, as the continent still has to find its place in the global industrial landscape.

There is little doubt that unimpeded free market forces will force African agriculture onto an accelerated evolutionary path, and obliterate the small, inefficient farming operations. Whilst a better organized, better capitalized agricultural sector relying on larger commercial farms and an increasingly adequate infrastructure is probably desirable in the long term, it would be socially dangerous to allow this process to take place too quickly.

Investors have always been quite wary of primary agriculture investments, their vulnerability to nature’s whims making them rather too unpredictable. Add to this the generally accepted fact that the same investors have a well-documented allergy to small investments, as we have had the occasion to remark upon, and the picture looks decidedly bleak for the small scale, entrepreneurial farmer in search of funds to modernize his operation. In stark contrast, large projects have to fight back suitors with now outdated pitchforks.

A ‘maximum ticket’ metric might be an interesting concept to introduce to agri-focused impact investing funds.

Smallholders could benefit from diversifying away from their subsistence crops into cash crops in high demand in export markets. The guar bean phenomenon is a perfect example of the benefits and very real risks inherent to such an approach. After the appetite of the fracking industry for an otherwise rather dull product sent the market price into an upward spin, farmers were convinced by trading houses to dedicate an increasingly high share of their land to growing guar bean. Over-stocking and the rise of synthetic alternatives however eventually led to a collapse in demand, and to the ruin of many of the farmers involved.

Price volatility is a deadly enemy for farmers. Although it cannot be completely eradicated, there are a number of mitigating techniques. Organized, efficient and transparent exchanges are one way to allow practitioners to make informed decisions. They admittedly hardly constitute good news for the traders who control and thrive on opaque supply chains, but hey, in every life some rain must fall.

Shortening supply chains by allowing for dialogue between end users and producers is another way to placate this issue. Users of some specific agricultural products might be willing to agree on price stability in exchange for supply consistency.

There is no denying that the market can bring solutions to Africa’s poor in the long term. But we do believe that the responsibility of impact investors is to engineer solutions that ensure investment is mindful of the consequences for the livelihood of the many.

Editorial: What price Technical Advisory?

 

—Thomas Venon—

Life is not always easy for the private equity general partner operating in Africa. It is full of conflicts. Take it from a man who has gone through the exercise on a number of occasions; the last thing you want to tell prospective LPs whilst fund-raising, is that you are struggling to deploy monies committed to your first fund. And yet this clearly is the case, as exemplified by a rather endearing practitioner at the recent African Investment Funds forum in Johannesburg, when he revealed how lucky he and his team had been to raise their fund before the crisis, and therefore still had all that cash to invest. Yes, the 2008 crisis.

So why O why, we ask, is it so difficult to deploy money in a continent we know to be thriving with opportunity, and where legions of entrepreneurs are battling it out on the ground?

Well, possibly because the ground is quite a faraway place when you are sitting at the helm of large funds. Most of these entrepreneurs aspire to become millionaires, but sadly their current bank balance often prevents them from building projects that can attract the large tickets our GP friends are comfortable writing. No fund will seriously consider making dozens of small size investments. The solution to that problem is of course to raise small SME specific funds, but managing small amounts is just no fun, is it?

Possibly more annoyingly, all these entrepreneurs more often than not didn’t have the elementary courtesy of attending business schools before deciding to go into business. A decent, standardized business plan, complete with Powerpoint deck and audited accounts is a rare find. And if the aspiring business moguls can’t be bothered to provide these, well then the investment committee can’t be expected to take a shot in the dark. And it certainly is not a GP’s business to go and work with the candidate portfolio companies to make their case investable.

This however does not solve the development minded LP’s problem. If their money only goes to sizable firms who can provide the GPs with undisturbed sleep, the grass-root entrepreneurs will continue missing out, and the runaway economy will continue to create conglomerates, in an interesting parallel with early 20th century America. The US democracy was strong enough to break the conglomerates that throttled the country. Can we reasonably expect the same from African governments?

Well assuming we can’t, something else needs to happen. Since we can’t ship every energetic business person to Wharton or INSEAD, some form of technical advisory service is in order. Now of course TA funds exist, but they tend to be donor funded, and to be depleted to the rhythm of their sister private equity fund. This highlights an interesting phenomenon; unless the donors’ list in the TA fund is the same as the LPs’ list in the private equity fund,a transfer of wealth from charitable institutions to commercial investors is created.

No, decidedly, if GPs want companies to be groomed to the standards they have grown accustomed to, they will need to contribute to the process. We have recently come across a couple of initiatives that could help solve this uneasy equation. Funds could be put together to provide budding entrepreneurs with technical advisory and investment readiness services. A premium would then be added to the valuation at the private equity investment stage to pay for such services, with an added kick for the provision of funds to pay for such. The fund could also help with the negotiation with GPs.

This would allow for the creation of relatively short term horizon funds, which raise money from development conscious investors, provide TA and IR services to entrepreneurs, and return cash to investors once the business has been invested in and is in a position to repay the advanced capital.

Who then should manage such entities? Development organizations, whether backed by governments or businesses, have built platforms providing assistance to communities and business over the years. This could be an interesting way to make these sustainable at a time where budgets on both sides of the public/private divide are under pressure.

Gabon’s call for investments in sustainable development

London Business School Africa Day 2012: Gabon’s President wants to reconcile economic growth with environmental protection

—Thomas Venon—

The 2012 edition of the London Business School’s 2012 Africa Day was by all accounts a resounding success. I feel reasonably certain those who made their way to Regent’s Park on Saturday 19 May would agree that the highlight of the day was the vibrant speech delivered by His Excellency the President of the Republic of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba.

His Excellency’s opening remarks focused on the need to change the way people think of Africa. He described Africa as ‘a continent whose time has come’, reminding the audience of the continent’s claim to having the ‘fastest growing middle income class in the world’, and highlighting the fact that 17 African nations fared better than India in the most recent iteration of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report. A McKinsey report was also quoted as stating that by 2020, 52% of African households would have surplus income.

There is a need for Africans, he insisted, ‘to change the perception we have of ourselves’ and to ‘believe we can define our future’. Africa is at a crucial crossroads in its quest to escape from the clutches of under-development, and President Bongo Ondimba highlighted the crucial role the current generation must play and the fact that ‘it is us that will be judged in 20 years’.

A recurring theme in the President’s remark was the importance of the natural habitat in Gabon’s future. Rainforest accounts for 88% of the country’s land mass. The African rainforest is the second largest carbon sink after the Amazon. Restating his goal to see Gabon achieve emerging nation status by 2025, His Excellency stated he has ‘placed the environment at the heart of our economic development policy’

To reconcile environmental protection with social and economic growth, Gabon will need to invent ‘new ways of collaboration between the State and business’. A first milestone will be to build a ‘clear investment case’ and to ‘reduce the perceived risk for our business partners’ through the creation of a safe and predictable business environment. To this end, special economic zones have been created and ten-year profit tax breaks and VAT exemptions have been granted to investors.

This has however been accompanied by a ban on raw timber exports in 2010, and a requirement for business partners to adhere to the highest environmental standards when operating in Gabon. Gabon’s Government ‘will not risk the well being of our country for short-term gains’. Going forward, each project will be required to offset its carbon footprint. A new agency for sustainable development is now in place, and base stations across the country help monitor the environmental impact of economic development.

Gabon, as many other African nations, is currently benefiting from oil and gas revenues. President Ali Bongo Ondimba is however conscious of the short-lived nature of this situation. Investing the proceeds to kick-start sustainable economic growth is therefore a challenge Gabon simply cannot afford not to meet. His Excellency emphasised the need to develop a skilled workforce suited to needs of businesses, to solve the energy supply issue, and to develop the region’s transport infrastructure. As the continent’s fossil fuel resources are being depleted as fast as oil majors can manage it, this can not however be done at the expense of what might well turn out to be Africa’s most valuable asset: its environmental treasure.

 

Interview: The Tony Elumelu Foundation

A conversation with Dipo Adeoye, Impact Investment Manager, The Tony Elumelu Foundation

—Tine Fisker—-

 

The Tony Elumelu Foundation is an Africa-based and African-funded not-for-profit institution dedicated to the promotion and celebration of excellence in business leadership and entrepreneurship across Africa. The Foundation is committed to the economic transformation of Africa by enhancing the competitiveness and growth of the African private sector.

 

What does the term ‘impact investing’ mean to The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF)?

“The impact investment initiative of TEF is our attempt to showcase Africapitalism, our conviction that the private sector can help transform Africa by making long-term investments that create economic prosperity and social wealth. We would like to encourage Africans to invest in Africa. We want to demonstrate that our money is where our mouth is by financing social businesses. In other words, we want to use the business space to solve social issues. Impact investing bridges philanthropy and financial return.

We focus on three core areas with respect to impact investing: inclusive business, agriculture and infrastructure. In the Nigerian agribusiness space, for example, there is a large opportunity gap, exemplified by farmers from the North who lose about 60 percent of their produce value while travelling to markets in Lagos. 

Our main challenge is that impact investment deals are not available off the shelf, so to speak—you cannot just shop for them. We are frequently presented with two choices: ideas which create social impact but have no financial appeal, or pitches that are ‘business as usual’, but try to wedge in a social impact aspect. There simply are not many ready-made deals that focus on solving social issues with a business mindset.

We avoid this pitfall by adopting proactive strategies to finding impact investing deals and identifying social needs that lead to the development of ideas. We then test these ideas in cooperation with our technical partners. For   example, in our ICT investment strategy, TEF looked to enablers in the form of a business incubator called Co-Creation Hub (CcHub) and we arranged investors-pitch ‘dating’ sessions.  From these efforts about 30 projects were carefully chosen, some of which TEF has already provided grants. If they prove to be viable, TEF has committed to deploying impact investment capital at a later stage.

How would you present your impact investment portfolio?

The portfolio is very young. The Tony Elumelu Foundation is merely two years old and the impact investment initiative is even newer, and we typically look at impact in the social sector such as education and ICT (information, communication and technology). Our deal sizes range from $50,000 to $500,000, although we engage in larger deals when we can bring partners together. Our preferred deal structure is equity, with a range of 15% to 20%, although some rates can be lower if the social impact is great. In addition to this preference, we engage in debt structures and with sponsors. The inaugural impact investment of TEF went to a farm-livestock business in Southern Tanzania, Mtanga Farms. The 2,200-hectare operation will launch a seed potato industry and ensure new varieties of potatoes in the region, which will benefit 125,000 farms. It is the first cross-border impact investment in Africa.

We aim to be engaged all over Africa, although it might be necessary to streamline our focus areas in a few years.

What are your thoughts on the need to train impact investing professionals?

As impact investing is a nascent field, there is a strong need for experts to be developed. But it is important to be mindful about developing a balance between experts of both the financial and the social sector.

Do you engage in measuring impact? How do you evaluate investments?

We are continuously working with GIIN, The Global Impact Investing Network. They assess our portfolio and put forward recommendations, which naturally happens after the investment has been carried out. Long term, we aim to develop ways of analysing the potential impact of proposals before deploying resources in order to target the deals that are likely to have the most significant impact, and we are cooperating with GIIN on how to approach this matter as well. I am in regular contact with their professionals and we bounce ideas off each other. As the industry is new to everybody, knowledge sharing is imperative in order to develop frameworks that can guide the field.

TEF is based in Nigeria, what is the potential for impact investment locally? Nigeria is often thought of as a capitalist business environment, does that influence your work?

There is definitely a more ‘strictly for profit’ mindset in Nigeria, more so than in other African countries. The bulk of impact investing deals currently come in through East Africa, primarily Kenya and Tanzania. It should tell you something that our first deal as a Nigerian-based organisation was made in agriculture in Tanzania. It is our goal to work as a catalyst for driving these deals in ‘our’ part of Africa as well.

How do you plan to merge the ‘for profit’ mindset, or ‘instant reward’ mindset with the ‘patient capital’ mindset that frames impact investing?

We work with Africapitalism as a framework for everything we do. Africapitalism is about creating value long term, which will mitigate issues related to peak investment exit strategies. These exit strategies often have a negative impact on the entrepreneurial venture in question. It is still early days for impact investment, but momentum is certainly building.

What are your thoughts on the future of the impact investing space?

Impact investing is important for foundations such as TEF, but I also see it as an integrated part of private equity funds’ portfolios as there is a strong need to focus funding where great impact can be made. I think the future returns will depend on business quality and creativity especially. Creative impact investing largely drives the innovative pay-per-use infrastructure system of the Edubridge project in India. I think we will see more of its kind in the future.

Right now there is a large spectrum of returns in the field. NGOs engaged in impact investing went from providing grants to providing returns at about 2% whereas TEF expects returns in the range of 15% to 20%. Such expectations are not new to the private equity field and hopefully, we will see more of those players in the future; perhaps going from 30% returns on their ‘normal’ deals to about 20% on impact investing deals will be the financial sphere’s contribution to increasing social impact.

Editorial notes: Recent partnership with Co-Creation Hub Nigeria

The Tony Elumelu Foundation recently partnered with Co-Creation Hub Nigeria (CcHub), Nigeria’s first open living lab and pre-incubation space dedicated to catalysing creative social technology ventures, in an effort to encourage innovative ideas that could help transform the social technology space in Nigeria. The partnership will contribute to the growth and development of Nigeria’s emerging tech industry by providing managed seed funding to 20 technological ideas/ventures targeting the social challenges of the average Nigerian. According to Dr. Wiebe Boer, CEO of TEF, the collaboration will improve the Nigerian impact investing space over time. For more information, click here.


 

Editorial – Financial crisis & Olympic frenzy

Financial crisis & Olympic frenzy: An impact silver lining?

—Thomas Venon—

The world at large is going through a rough economic patch. Unsurprisingly, this translates into a sharp fall in the risk appetite of traditional investors, leaving frontier markets investment managers and entrepreneurs alike struggling for capital. This could present an opportunity for impact investors to play an increasingly important role in the way business is financed and conducted in developing nations. When financial markets are thriving and capital is abundant, no private equity manager worth his salt will allow his quest for IRR to be meaningfully hampered by impact considerations. Scarcity is however a strong catalyst for creativity and blue sky thinking. The need for capital could drive highly talented investment managers to consider developing impact investing products to tap investors willing to take on risky investments so long as they contribute to their impact goals. There should be no shame in taking advantage of a temporary crisis in the fortunes of full-cream capitalism to further a noble agenda.

Of course we could not fail to include some level of Olympic flavour in this summer issue. We recently attended an event hosted by the Royal African Society at the Africa Village in Kensington gardens. The subject matter was defined as ‘Beyond the Games: Sport for Development’. Moderated by Oliver Dudfield Sport and development adviser to the Commonwealth secretariat, the panel discussion featured professional Nigerian footballer Sam Sodje, Charlie Gamble of TackleAfrica and Robert Morini, Head of International Development at UK sport. Having resiliently battled through of a long list of the wonderful things UK sport is doing for the third world, the audience was treated to a fascinating debate of the potential for sport-based ventures to advance development agendas. TackleAfrica for example distils AIDS awareness educational content through football coaching programmes. Sam Sodje’s foundation strives to steer Nigerian youths away from a life of crime by encouraging them to engage in sports. Sport has been, and increasingly is big business in the developed world. Unlike other businesses, it possesses the ability to focus energy and has an invaluable influence on youths across the African continent. The provision of sporting facilities, whilst potentially being a sustainable business proposition with a large audience, could prove a significant impact play if coupled with an educational agenda. Food for thought?

The Actis Energy Impact Model

Private equity tackles the impact measurement challenge

The Actis name will be familiar to many of our readers: the pan emerging market private equity firm manages $4.5billion invested in 65 portfolio companies across Africa, India, China, Latin America and South East Asia. Africa alone attracts 43% of Actis’ investments in terms of value.

Our first editorial highlighted the need for effective impact measurement systems. It came as a welcome opportunity to meet with Actis to discuss their new energy impact model for our second issue.

Back in 2004 when it was spun out from British development finance institution CDC, Actis’ remit was to seek financial returns for its limited partners and by so doing prove the case for the emerging markets as an attractive investment destination.

In such challenging and fast developing countries introducing the highest standards of Environmental, Social and Governance best practice was essential. At that point there were two full time specialists in house, one of them being ESG Director Mark Goldsmith. Goldsmith was able to present us with an historical account of the evolution of the impact agenda at Actis, noting that at a time when most people believed there must be a trade off between profitability and responsible investing, “having an in-house team was in itself unusual in the world of private equity”. Now it has started to become the norm.

From its very beginning Actis was sensitive to the need to prove the beneficial impact of its investments (what Actis calls ‘the positive power of capital’). While this attitude is increasingly mainstream, Goldsmith insists that Actis’ culture of integrity and strong governance has been a differentiation point with LPs, CEOs of investee companies and governments. “Constant management support, as well as the firm’s Development Finance Institution origins, has played a key role”, commented Goldsmith.

The introduction of the United Nations’ Principles of Responsibility Investment and the subsequent adherence of many limited partners now mean that elsewhere in the industry general partners have to stop and take notice.

Realising the importance of their ethos – and the need to ensure that principles were turned into practices that could be measured and assessed, Actis took the decision to be more open about its ESG agenda and started researching best practices across its sectors of activity, seeking to identify which impact metrics to track.

The firm’s investments in the energy sector seemed a good place to start, as the value created by energy infrastructure projects is closely related to impact; for example the electrification of a nation, which is often critically low, leads to increased revenues. Social impact of an energy asset which can transform quality of life with domestic access to lighting, greater productivity in manufacturing and an end to the harmful use of bio fuel in the home all contribute great benefits to citizens. The fact that the energy sector is typically subject to high levels of regulation also meant information was more readily available.

Actis duly proceeded to create an impact measurement model in collaboration with Forum for the Future. Based on Forum for the Future’s five capitals model. Actis added a specific focus on the Governance area. Six areas, then, are assessed, as detailed on Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Actis Energy Impact Model

When building the model, Actis was faced with a challenge: management teams at portfolio companies often saw the collection of impact data as a painful process of doubtful value. It was imperative to identify impact metrics that could drive thought and discussion at both the investment and the business level.

The key to this was to identify drivers of long term value – a terminology Actis prefers to non–financial value – that could be used as part of the 100 day plans Actis puts in place at portfolio companies. Associate Santiago Alvarez explains many impact measurement schemes are designed by entities sometimes far removed from the businesses themselves, which “means the criteria selected are not always relevant to the businesses involved”.

Creating an all-encompassing impact reporting system is extremely challenging given the specifics of each sector and stakeholders’ differing reporting needs. Development Finance Institutions, foundations, private banks, general partners and business managers will all want to focus on different metrics.

A choice had to be made and the Actis Energy Impact Model is centered on metrics relevant to the company and investment manager – however many will be equally helpful to the report needs of limited partners. The Actis Energy Impact model is used throughout the investment cycle. Santiago Alvarez explains that at the pre-investment analysis level, Actis typically does not have access to all the required information the model requires. Once an investment is made, the model is however put into place at the portfolio company.

It is crucial to understand the Actis Energy Impact Model is not just as a reporting tool, but very much part of the value creation process. The model is forward looking. The idea is not only to gauge where the company stands on the various metrics used, but where Actis wants to take it while it is invested. If Actis does not think it can add long term value at a particular company, it will not make an investment.

The feedback received from both limited partners and portfolio companies has so far been very positive. The initiative, whilst clearly valuable on its own, cannot exist in isolation. Developing meaningful impact measurement systems can only be achieved through dialogue between impact investors, investment managers and entrepreneurs. In this spirit, Santiago notes that Actis is more than willing to share its methodology and engage with other stakeholders to work towards the design and wider implementation of such models. More information is available at www.act.is

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