April 1

Scott Anderson / Kyle Poplin / James Militzer

Weekly Roundup: A New Africa Accelerator – What Moms, Kids and GE Get Out of It

Find a way to harness the reach and know-how of a very big business, the drive of many small businesses and nonprofits, the hard-won experience of a handful of Silicon Valley business leaders and eager impact investors toward a shared goal of reducing maternal, newborn and child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa.

It sounds like an unwieldy Rube Goldberg machine, precariously balancing profit motives and health outcomes. But it’s a mechanism that GE and Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship announced this week that builds off years of solid work in accelerating enterprises.

The newly launched healthymagination Mother & Child Initiative intends to help social enterprises refine their business plans, manage their human capital and prepare for growth. Qualifying organizations may be for-profit, nonprofit or some form of hybrid, and have established operations and/or a product or service in the marketplace. But they all must be operating in sub-Saharan Africa with solutions or technology that address access, affordability and quality of care for maternal and/or child health. The goals of the accelerator project mirror those of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #3 to reduce global maternal mortality rates and lower preventable deaths of newborns and children younger than 5.

Thane Kreiner, executive director of the Miller Center, described the partnership as “an experiment” that uses the methodology behind its Global Social Benefit Institute, which lays claim to accelerating more than 560 social enterprises worldwide.

“What we hope will come out of the partnership is an opportunity to use social enterprise acceleration processes as market sensing and market shaping opportunities for corporations,” he said.

GE wants to expand its health product reach in Africa and there are few better ways to do that than to work directly with companies, nonprofits and entrepreneurs dealing with access, supply chain, distribution and investment challenges. (That’s the market sensing part.) Many of the businesses and nonprofit organizations likely to apply also will be looking to serve hospitals and clinics with equipment and/or community health workers. That means they will need training, or at the very least familiarity, with the portfolio of diagnostic health products that GE sells. (That’s the market-shaping aspect.)

The accelerator part of the program starts with a three-day, in-person workshop in Nairobi, followed by a six-month online program accompanied by extensive mentoring from Silicon Valley-based executives. Silicon Valley types won’t necessarily understand the on-the-ground context of an entrepreneur living in Ghana, Sierra Leone or South Africa. But an American business manager does know how to ask the right questions and how to prioritize tasks – skills that are common and valuable to all entrepreneurs, Kreiner said. Providing global mentorship also helps the mentor gain market knowledge and build leadership skills, he added.

GE is sponsoring the program and 15-to-20 participants will be selected. GE and the Miller Center will jointly decide the finalists. The deadline to apply online is May 18, 2016.

I hope this kind of paradigm will encourage more corporations to consider the variety of dimensions (in which) they can work with social enterprises to help their businesses.”

Also this week, the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI) released research comparing the performance of early-stage ventures participating in accelerators with those that were not accepted. The report, released by the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs, uses data from Emory University’s Entrepreneurship Database Program that looked into 15 different Village Capital programs.

It clearly pays to participate, at least in the accelerators studied in the research: “The average rejected entrepreneur increased new investment by $6,274, the average participating entrepreneur grew investment by $54,236” one year after completing a program. Another key takeaway: Particularly when working with idea-stage entrepreneurs, less intervention seems to be better than too much. “The percentage of time spent working with other entrepreneurs and/or mentors (versus working on their own) was 53 percent for the high-performing programs and 83 percent for low-performing programs.”

Both TechCrunch and DevEx looked at the GALI research this week.

The models and the understanding of how business accelerators tick are (pun intended) accelerating. But when it comes to maternal and child health and other vital social priorities, they can’t move fast enough.

– Scott Anderson


When old-school is cool

Technology is transforming global development. That’s why it was interesting to read recently about some interruptions in this inevitable march to the future.

Melinda Gates recently said a few weeks ago that if she had superpowers, she’d get “more time,” especially for women in developing countries, who spend more time doing unpaid work than men. She pointed out that the opportunity costs are staggering. That’s why our ears perked up when we read about a beacon of hope: the old-fashioned washing machine.

The widespread availability of electricity in the U.S. led to the introduction of small, simple washing machines in the 1940s, Nirgunan Tiruchelvam writes in “The Edge Markets,” and those time-saving machines were a key reason so many stay-at-home women were able to join the workforce. “There are uncanny parallels between the U.S. in 1940” and emerging Southeast Asian markets, where “electricity is available far and wide,” says Tiruchelvam. And firms like Haier Electronics Group, LG and Samsung are looking to capitalize with the introduction of washing machines designed for the emerging market.

Washing machines have been around a while, but not as long as rats. However, the rodents – heretofore known for their ability to thrive in sewers – might just be hitting their stride. Last year, they got some much-needed good press for their ability to sniff out land mines. Now, giant pouched rats are proving to be geniuses at identifying tuberculosis. And they work cheap and fast – cheaper and faster than lab technicians. They’re so good at their job, they’re called HeroRATS. (And that’s not an April Fools joke.)

We also read recently that some common drugs already in everyday use to treat psychosis or depression, have proven effective in fighting deadly new viruses. Dr. Jamel Mankouri, of the University of Leeds, where the discovery was made, said it was a breakthrough “with massive importance in health care, animal welfare and economics.”

We appreciate the technological transformation taking place around the planet, but it’s worth noting that solutions don’t always need to be discovered; they can be rediscovered.

– Kyle Poplin


Facebook’s focus on Emerging Economies – are mobile payments Next?

It’s no secret that Facebook views emerging markets as key to its future growth. Consider the following:

  • It recently announced that Facebook Lite – a pared-down version of the app built for the slower Internet connections in emerging countries – had hit 100 million monthly active users just nine months after its launch last June. And last fall, it rolled out a new ad format called Slideshow that adapts video ads for markets with slower, 2G connections.
  • Its product chief recently revealed that its product development plans are shaped by the ways Facebook is used in developing countries where connections are often poor. The company even slows its employees’ mobile Internet speed to 2G for an hour each Tuesday (on a voluntary basis), to familiarize them with the challenges that lower-income customers face.
  • In spite of recent setbacks in India and Egypt, its Free Basics service soldiers on in its attempts to provide free access to a limited number of (Facebook-selected) websites in places that lack widespread Internet access.

That’s why a revelation that made headlines across the tech world this week should also raise a few eyebrows in the mobile financial inclusion space: According to source code uncovered by The Information, Facebook is planning to activate a feature that would turn its Messenger app into a mobile wallet that could make digital transactions and even pay for physical goods in stores. Many analysts speculate that the company is preparing to join fellow tech luminaries like Apple and Google in the mobile payments business – though whether it would be a competitor or partner is unclear.

If it does follow the path blazed by Asian chat apps-turned-payments providers like WeChat, Facebook could find itself uniquely positioned to reach customers in emerging countries. Messenger already has a 700-million strong global user base and, like mobile payments pioneer M-PESA (but unlike potential competitors like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay), a Messenger-based payments app could work across different handsets and operating systems.

However, Facebook has declined to comment on the story, and the reported presence of source code for these features doesn’t guarantee that they will actually be released. But if they are – and if the company stays true to form and makes them relevant and usable in emerging markets – this could be a significant development.

– James Militzer


Top image: We Care Solar developed a “solar suitcase” to lower maternal fatality rates in Nigeria. The firm participated in Santa Clara University’s Global Social Benefit Institute. Now more than 1300 are deployed throughout the world. Image by Liz Hale via the We Care Solar Facebook page.

Investing, Technology
business development, digital payments, impact investing, mobile finance