Interview: India in Strong Position as the ‘Laboratory for Innovation’, Says Acumen’s Ajit Mahadevan
Monday, March 30, 2015
Ajit Mahadevan, Country Head, Acumen, tells Sarika Malhotra that the company’s aim in investing patient capital is not to seek high returns, “but to jump-start the creation of enterprises that improve the ability of the poor to live with dignity. In the long-run we do aim to see a return of our capital”. Acumen has been investing in India since 2001 and has backed 26 companies across portfolios, including low-cost maternity care, skills training and education, water filtration enterprises and more. In addition to providing patient capital to investee companies, it has also invested in human capital and a wide range of management support services to help the companies scale up.
Q- How do you see the social enterprise space unfolding in India?
A- India has a long tradition of entrepreneurship, including the social impact space. For Acumen, this has meant a rich pipeline of potential investment opportunities and a strong position for India as the ’laboratory for innovation’ in the sector. The local social enterprise ecosystem is also slowly strengthening, with corporates looking to offer technical expertise and impact investors setting up a self-regulatory body (Indian Impact Investors Council – IIIC).
It is also exciting to see more and more young people, who don’t see any conflict between doing good and making money, becoming increasingly interested in the space. We can see this from the growing number of applications for our global fellows programmes and plus-Acumen online courses. Last year, we launched our India fellows programmes which is structured like an executive MBA and aims to inspire, enable and connect future change leaders, and equip them with hard skills and moral imagination to tackle poverty.
Q- What have been your biggest lessons as an investor in this space?
A- One of Acumen’s major learnings has been that business alone is not enough to solve the problems of poverty. We have continuously seen the importance of leadership when it comes to creating and implementing lasting solutions, and the need for talent in places where there are no structures, little trust and lots of corruption.
As a result, we have been doubling our leadership investments over the past eight years through our global and regional fellows programmes. We have also learnt that we won’t succeed alone. So, we are taking the very best ideas, distilled from more than a decade of investing in companies and leaders, and synthesising and sharing them globally, so that others can accelerate their impact.
Our new report, written in conjunction with Bain and with support from the Gates Foundation, shares models for pioneer firms (that they can use) to scale up agricultural innovations (so that it reaches) millions of smallholder farmers.