Can Venture Capital Save The World?
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Bahawalpur in eastern Pakistan is known for magnificent palaces built during the British Raj, but in the dusty part of town where most of the 400,000 residents actually live, four dozen farmers have gathered in the decidedly unpalatial concrete building that houses the local branch of the National Rural Support Programme Bank. Their darkened, sun-creased faces testify to the toll of tilling soil in one of the hotter places on Earth (at 11 a.m. in mid-June it’s already heading toward 105 degrees); many twist their hair into head scarves, and all don cotton tunics known as kurta.
Suddenly the front door swings open and a tall woman with piercing blue eyes and brownish blonde hair struts in, dressed in a red tunic and baggy pants. Accompanied by the bank’s president, Rashid Bajwa, Jacqueline Novogratz whips out her red notebook and gets down to business. “What kind of livestock do you have?” she asks one client. “How many male calves? How much money are you saving at the bank? What do you do with that cash?” An hour later, the notebook now filled with minute details of how, exactly, the farmers intend to pay back their loans, as well as whether their daughters go to school and what they want their children to do when they grow up, Novogratz walks out of the bank, satisfied. “I’m feeling optimistic about rural Pakistan,” she tells me, as a pickup truck, loaded with field hands, rumbles past a mosque. “Farmers are making good money.”
Novogratz plays the role of auditor because, as CEO and founder of the Acumen Fund, helping people starts with financial due diligence. In April Acumen sank $1.9 million into the bank in exchange for an 18% stake, one small investment in a decadelong experiment in charitable giving. Instead of shoveling aid dollars to causes or governments that give away life-sustaining goods and services, Acumen espouses investing money wisely in small-time entrepreneurs in the developing world who strive to solve problems, from mosquito netting to bottled water to affordable housing. It’s a new twist on the old adage about teaching a man to fish, except that Novogratz wants to build an entire fish market.