Priya Thachadi | October 20, 2014

Where are we headed? Debates from the Annual ANDE conference

In the last few decades, the significance of the role of markets in solving the global, social and economic challenges has been widely acknowledged. Though this has changed the way traditional development interventions have been modelled and executed, and engaged the private sector more intimately, the challenges for creating market-based solutions for the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) has not eased up. With the rise of hundreds of successful scalable models, there have been as many enterprises failing to develop the right product for the BoP, or continuing to struggle to hit the right revenue model or achieve significant social impact. At Villgro, we have seen these successes and failures over the 13-plus years of our existence in India.

The Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) Annual conference – held annually in New York – brings together a global network of organizations that are driving entrepreneurship in emerging markets. The network's 200+ members provide critical financing and business support services to small and growing businesses that create positive economic, social, and environmental impacts in developing countries.

As a relative newbie (one year and counting) to the impact entrepreneurship space, I was thrilled to see the momentum and energy of this group, who are working tirelessly with entrepreneurs to address the challenges that are facing the poor across the globe.

Kick-starting the 2014 conference with the G7 (yes, it’s G7 now!) International Development Working Group’s report on Private Capital for Social Outcomes, the three conference days featured workshops on solutions to common challenges, networking sessions, and discussions with leading thinkers in the Small and Growing Business (SGB) space.

The Conference threw focus on many questions that face the sector today, some of which I’ve highlighted here, briefly. (I plan to examine each of these in detail in my forthcoming blogs)

Going beyond capital: An essential theme surrounded many of us conference-goers – what is our value-add to entrepreneurs beyond funding? How can funders, investors, accelerators, incubators, DFIs learn from each other’s innovative models on the best way to support an entrepreneur. At Villgro, we are committed to excellence in the quality of non-financial support we provide to our entrepreneurs. Many common threads in successful models reflected our own: Strategic business support with a focus on customer segmentation, customer acquisition, strengthening the business model and route to market, financial planning with a focus on unit economics, capacity-building for entrepreneurs and their teams, assistance in talent acquisition and importantly strong strategic business mentoring to execute these pieces.

Role of intermediaries: The impact sector has seen the rise of intermediary organisations in recent years, from accelerator programs to incubators to technical assistance or capacity-building providers, all of which can be classified as forms of acceleration. The core role of these organisations has been to bridge the gaps between impact enterprises and funders. The rise of the intermediaries leads us to significant questions: What acceleration models work? What are the success factors for effective accelerators? Some common trends that emerged: increased sector specialisation, customised comprehensive support for enterprises, strong networks, collaborations and knowledge-sharing among enterprises.

Engaging corporations: It is no secret that emerging markets offer promising growth opportunities for businesses. With an increased focus on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the discussions at ANDE geared towards the strong need to find innovative ways to engage corporations. Should corporations continue to view challenges around business opportunities like poverty, poor sanitation, unskilled labour, poor governance, through the lens of CSR or should they invest directly in initiatives that create social and economic value? (See Growth for Good or Good for Growth: How sustainable and Inclusive Business Activities are Changing Business and Why companies aren’t changing enough) How can we incentivise corporations to support the impact sector? With global corporations increasing their commitments to sustainable supply chains, how can impact entrepreneurs be integrated into that strategy?

Impact and public policy: The power of entrepreneurship to create jobs and build solutions to poverty has grabbed the attention of governments world over. However, many emerging economies are yet to see a cohesive policy framework to promote impact entrepreneurship. A gaping gap in the impact space has been a strong collaborative advocacy efforts to strengthen government policy: How can governments play a role to support the impact ecosystem, and incentivise large corporations to better support the sector? Given the Indian government’s new CSR legislation, this becomes an even more urgent question for those of us working in the Indian context.

It would be deeply unfair to say, these are the only themes that emerged from the ANDE conference. There were hundreds of conversations and discussions that were invaluable. As someone put it, ‘the quality of discussions in seminars and out in the hallway’ were as relevant. But I am not going to attempt to articulate all of those.

Though I have to mention that I have added cool new terms like multi-dimensional poverty and SIBA (Sustainable and Inclusive Business Activities) to my impact vocabulary. I also discovered that my voice box can survive many hours of karaoke!  And I have the ANDE conference to thank for that.