This article also appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
I'm a huge fan of entrepreneurs. As we celebrate Global Entrepreneurship Week across 130 countries this week, I want to salute entrepreneurs in frontier markets who take the biggest risks and face the longest odds—yet still find ways of growing firms that build prosperity for the world’s poor. With few assets other than passion and ingenuity, successful emerging market entrepreneurs envision new business ideas and then implement them. But far too often, these entrepreneurs are unable to scale their businesses and reap the social impact that they seek and that the world needs.
For the last four years, I’ve served as the executive director of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE). In 2009, ANDE was established to catalyze a movement like microfinance —but aimed at the next level up. At ANDE, we believe that if we can support small and growing businesses (SGBs)—firms led by growth-oriented managers seeking between $20,000 and $2 million in capital—those businesses will create millions of new jobs and innovative solutions to social and environmental challenges in developing countries. We think that SGBs can lift not just families, but countries, out of poverty.
In 2009, there were many players working to implement business solutions to poverty, but no global network for that aim. ANDE was formed to create a convening body and a collective voice for organizations that invest money and expertise to help entrepreneurs develop and build SGBs in emerging markets. We’ve grown from 34 founding members to 167 members today.
ANDE has a particular niche—entrepreneurship—that distinguishes it from other organizations that focus broadly on private sector development, such as the Donor Committee for Enterprise Development or the Initiative for Global Development. ANDE is part of the impact investing sector and partners closely with groups like the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and its standards body the Impact Reporting Investment Standards (IRIS) initiative, but are both broader and narrower than the GIIN. We’re narrower in the sense that we focus on a specific segment of the impact investing universe, solely SGBs in emerging markets; and we’re broader in that we seek to include not just investors, but the full range of players that contribute to the development of thriving ecosystems for small business development. Our members include capacity development organizations, universities and training institutions, large corporations, grant making foundations, and research institutions in addition to development financial institutions and investment funds.
Our commitment is to strengthen SGB ecosystems in emerging market countries and, ultimately, to build prosperity for poor people in those countries. Although it is a grand goal, we plan to be at this for the long haul and recognize that our successes at first will often be small. We’re still building out our organizational infrastructure and programs with an eye to creating value for those directly supporting entrepreneurs. To that end, ANDE has opened six regional chapters in Brazil, Central America, Mexico, South Africa, East Africa, India, and West Africa to promote networking and knowledge sharing on the ground. And while we feel confident we’re on the right path, anyone who has expanded a small organization to six global regions while on a tight budget has faced unexpected challenges and sleepless nights.
Not as many as emerging market entrepreneurs, though.
Despite the increasing interest in the SGB sector, it’s still difficult for SGBs to find investors and investment funds to find limited partners. In fact, our annual ANDE member survey showed that our members believe that fundraising will be more difficult in 2013 than in 2012. But we’re working on proving them wrong.
Recently we launched the Argidius-ANDE Finance Challenge (AAFC) to generate new tools and models to mobilize finance for promising but risky small businesses. We received nearly 70 proposals and selected five winners who each received 200,000 euros to develop their models to unlock additional finance for SGBs. The most promising of these will be awarded one million euros in the spring of 2014.
This past summer, ANDE also completed the fourth round of its Capacity Development Fund (CDF) competition. The CDF fund seeks to increase the productivity and effectiveness of ANDE members, while creating tools and insights that can help the SGB sector as a whole. This year ANDE provided nine grants totaling more than $474,000 to consortia representing 17 different organizations.
So that’s what we’re doing. If you believe in this sector, what can you do?
Well, it depends on who you are and the size of your wallet. If you are an emerging market banker, reconsider the viability of serving the SGB segment. Conventional wisdom says making loans to the segment is too risky and too expensive due to the immaturity of the businesses and the relatively small size of the loans. Well, 30 years ago, would you have believed that a multi-billion dollar industry could be built based on financing tiny loans to mostly illiterate women? There also are innovative new tools being developed to reduce the risk and cost of serving SGBs, such as: SCOPEInsight, an AAFC winner that has developed a low-cost tool for assessing the investment-readiness of agricultural businesses; or the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, which is proving the viability of making loans based primarily on psychometric testing. You also might be impressed by the success of Equity Bank in Africa. And you would benefit by joining the Small Business Banking Network.
If you are not as well collateralized as a bank, but are still an accredited investor, consider investing in one of the ANDE-member investment funds or donating to one of the capacity development organizations that strengthen entrepreneurs. Collectively, our members cover just about every sector, geography, and investment type you may be interested in. Also, GIIN’s Impact Base and the Impact Assets 50 provide listings of impact funds that include those focused on emerging markets.
Finally, for the majority of us, there are emerging opportunities for direct investment via crowdsourcing. Among others, KIVA, a crowdsourcing leader for microfinance, is now entering the SGB space. In India and China, New Ventures is leveraging a CDF grant to build a crowdsourcing platform for deals vetted by ANDE members.
Finally, regardless of where you are or the size of your bank account, join me in celebrating entrepreneurs this week. With our encouragement, they will radically improve the world.