Guest Articles

December 20

James Militzer

Vote for NextBillion’s Most Influential Article of 2021

As another pandemic year ends with the rapid global spread of a new COVID-19 variant, it’s becoming clear – if it wasn’t already – that the hopes for a return to normalcy that many of us felt at the start of 2021 were unrealistic. With vaccine access growing gradually (yet unequally) around the world, and new treatments for the virus continuing to move forward, better days are still ahead. But in the meantime, both communities and the businesses that serve them are left in a sort of limbo: balancing the need to continue adapting to the pandemic’s evolving challenges with the understandable desire to put this crisis behind us.

This balancing act can be seen in the articles we’ve selected for NextBillion’s “Most Influential Article of the Year” contest in 2021. As an open forum for emerging markets business, we publish around 150 original, guest-written articles each year, covering enterprises, innovations, challenges and opportunities across multiple sectors and geographies. In December we run the numbers on our past year of content and select the 12 most-read articles to include in the contest, inviting readers to vote for the article that impacted them the most. This year, to our surprise, only a single article dealt specifically with COVID-19, in contrast to our 2020 contest, in which eight of the 12 pieces had a pandemic focus. But as in real life, the virus lurked in the background of many of these articles, as businesses in low- and middle-income countries continue to respond to the countless ways the crisis has reshaped their markets and increased the urgency of their missions.

We’ve listed the 12 articles in our 2021 contest in alphabetical order below, and we invite you to vote for the one that affected your thinking or informed your work the most. To vote, scroll to the bottom of this page and make your selection. You can also vote at the bottom of any individual article in the contest. You can vote up to one time per hour during the two-week voting period, which runs from Dec. 20 to Jan. 2.

Short summaries and links to each article are below – feel free to share them widely and vote repeatedly. And thank you for reading and writing for NextBillion during this confusing, frustrating – yet somehow slightly encouraging – year. Have a happy holiday season, and best wishes for 2022.


SELCO, a pioneering off-grid solar company based in India, just celebrated its 26th anniversary. Christine Eibs Singer at Sustainable Energy for All and Richenda Van Leeuwen at ANDE, both former board members at SELCO, share 10 lessons from the company’s decades of experience in the sector, which may be helpful to other impact investors and social entrepreneurs working in off-grid energy.

Half of the global population lacks access to clean, modern cooking services, costing the world’s economy approximately $2.4 trillion each year due to the adverse impact of open-fire cooking on health, climate and gender equality. Lachlan Harris, lead engineer at ATEC*, explains why electromagnetic induction stoves are the best option to address this issue. He explores the advantages of this technology in terms of energy efficiency, safety and scalability — and discusses how a pay-as-you-go model can help solve the affordability challenge.

The global transition from basic mobile phones to smartphones has impacted nearly every sector, including financial services. Bryan Pon from Caribou Data considers whether this shift will help or hinder access to mobile money and digital finance for women in emerging markets — a group already less likely to be using these services. He shares the findings of a comprehensive study on how payment system design could impact gender bias in digital finance, and discusses the ongoing popularity — and under-recognized advantages — of old-fashioned USSD codes in mobile money.

In recent years there has been an increased focus on systems change in the development sector, in response to growing awareness of how underlying systemic causes are perpetuating many global challenges. María Boa-Alvarado at CIMMYT, Lennart Woltering at One CGIAR and Marcos Sanjuán at CRS-El Salvador discuss the benefits of this approach, as applied to the issue of land degradation in Central America. They explore how their organizations are using a systems thinking tool, the iceberg model, to better understand the root causes of this problem – and to provide lasting solutions.

Life would be easier for the average African if technology were utilized to its fullest potential. According to Jasmine Nnenne Mbadugha at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the continent’s digital potential can be seen particularly at the intersection of big data and artificial intelligence. She explores how Africa can leverage these two emerging technologies to support economic development and play a role in the global digital revolution – and how it can overcome some key challenges it will face in the process.

Almost 4 billion people across 71 countries are impacted by inefficient, dirty cooking fuels. Yet as Phil LaRocco at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs points out, progress toward addressing this long-standing global crisis has stalled. He argues that the “Systems Strategy” proposed by the influential NGO the Clean Cooking Alliance and the global consulting firm Dalberg is not enough to change the sector’s current trajectory. Instead, he urges clean cooking stakeholders to embrace a coherent, ecosystem-wide strategy, outlining three potential alternative approaches.

Official development assistance isn’t enough to bridge the SDG financing gap, or to unlock the growth and impact potential of African agricultural enterprises. Blended finance is often cited as a solution, but according to Brian Milder of Aceli Africa, it’s falling short both in terms of impact and private capital mobilized. He explains the reasons for these limitations, and examines the perspectives of both donors and lenders to show how catalytic capital can be leveraged more effectively.

As gender lens investing moves into the mainstream, investors and enterprises need support in getting buy-in for this approach – and in implementing it effectively. To that end, the Gender-Smart Enterprise Assistance Research Coalition is working to build the evidence base for investing with a gender lens, with support from the Performance Measurement and Improvement team at the William Davidson Institute. NextBillion spoke with Lisa Willems at AlphaMundi and Rebecca Fries at Value for Women about the momentum that’s driving gender lens investing, the challenges it faces and the work the new consortium is doing.

The minigrid sector faces a dilemma: Most rural customers need electricity in the evenings, yet most minigrids generate their power during the day. This requires them to store unused power in expensive batteries, complement their solar power with diesel generators, or reduce production. As Seth Silverman and Tom Chaplin at Factor[e] Ventures explain, cold storage providers could offer minigrids reliable demand for their surplus power – yet these partnerships aren’t happening. They explore the obstacles, and some potential solutions.

When a crisis hits a financial system or economy at large, the microfinance sector is usually among the worst impacted, since it caters to the most economically vulnerable segments of the population. As Sudip Bandyopadhyay at Inditrade explains, that’s what happened to Indian microfinance when COVID-19 struck — yet the sector has shown remarkable resilience in weathering the pandemic. He explores some effective measures Indian microfinance institutions and policymakers have taken to address these historic challenges.

As global finance leaders gather for this year’s World Bank and IMF meetings, they’re meeting against a backdrop of existential crises, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change and widening inequalities. Dan Barker at Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth and Mackenzie Wallace at the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program explore why these crises raise the need – and the opportunity – to build an inclusive financial system for all. They share four principles to guide this process, and discuss the crucial roles policymakers, financial services providers, academia, community groups and NGOs can play.

Businesses around the globe have been embracing environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting to demonstrate responsible corporate citizenship and attract investors. But as David A. Fuscus of Xenophon Strategies, Inc. explains, this data is often inconsistently reported and unaudited, and nearly impossible to compare across companies. He shares the results of a recent survey on corporate reporting, and explores how widely used standards and increased transparency could better gauge a company’s actual progress toward more sustainable and responsible practices.
James Militzer is the editor of NextBillion. 




Agriculture, Coronavirus, Energy, Finance, Impact Assessment, Investing, Technology
blended finance, clean cooking, COVID-19, energy access, ESG, financial inclusion, gender lens, impact investing, impact measurement, microfinance