January 22

Kyle Poplin / James Militzer / Scott Anderson

Weekly Roundup: Acumen’s SolarAid Acquisition, Davos Deja Vu , the Grumpy Gates Critics

Acumen Acquires SolarAid; We’re Likely to Acquire More Off-Grid Knowledge

This week, nonprofit social investment firm Acumen announced it had purchased the Research and Impact division of SolarAid, a charitable organization that has contributed much to the understanding of off-grid energy markets and efforts to bring clean power to the underserved.

SolarAid’s Director of Research and Impact Kat Harrison (also a NextBillion contributor) is joining Acumen as its new associate director of impact. Acumen will harness SolarAid’s research to build on its portfolio of energy firms with low-income consumers in mind. But it won’t be hoarding the knowledge. Acumen plans to continue SolarAid’s transparency agenda, distributing the research and data, particularly in Africa, to the public. And there’s much to hold the interest of a social entrepreneur or investor in the growing off-grid sector. Upcoming SolarAid projects “include the first large-scale study on the impact of solar lights on poverty reduction, supported by Google, and an investigation on the impact of solar lighting on education outcomes in partnership with Stanford University, supported by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID),” according to an Acumen press release.

Since 2007, Acumen has invested more than $17 million in 15 off-grid renewable energy companies working across India, Pakistan and East Africa. And during the past year, Acumen added nine new social enterprises to its clean energy portfolio.  

SunnyMoney, SolarAid’s social enterprise and one of the largest sellers of solar lamps in Africa, was not part of the acquisition and will continue its operations.

– Scott Anderson


Davos Deja Vu

Haven’t we seen this movie before? Each time the world’s business and political elite gather in Davos for the World Economic Forum, the proceedings seem to follow the same script:

  • Anti-poverty activists release headline-grabbing reports on the mind-boggling wealth enjoyed by the Davos crowd.
  • Online commentators make snarky comments or issue stern lectures aimed at plutocrats pretending to care about the poor – making a point of mentioning their proclivity for champagne and caviar.
  • The plutocrats themselves endure a round of very serious conversation about the problems our world faces – with the gloom and doom lightened by predictions of one impending tech-based transformation or another (this year it was apparently virtual currencies’ turn in the spotlight).

Yet year after year, those global problems seem to escalate – remember shaking your head in disgust over Oxfam’s 2014 report that 85 rich people owned as much as the poorest half of the world? This year it’s down to 62. Does anyone think this trend will be reversed by 2017? How about by 2030? It’s hard to see how another round of meetings, studies and critical articles will make any dent in this alarming trajectory. Indeed, the sense of futility around the event has become so pronounced that even protesters have stopped bothering to show up

But not everyone is as cynical about Davos’ importance – or about the world’s prospects. As Devex founder Raj Kumar argues, “Poverty is down, longevity is up. In the broad sweep of human history, things are decidedly getting better.” And as ImpactAlpha and NextBillion’s own Scott Anderson point out, Davos is still the site of some exciting announcements in the social enterprise and investing world.

What do you think? Can the global elite help solve a problem that they, to a large extent, benefit from? Is inequality even that big of a problem, relative to other pressing issues –- and is an (imperceptibly) rising tide actually lifting all boats? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

James Militzer


You Can’t Be Anti-Business and Pro-Poor

“Is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?” That’s the naivete-betraying subtitle of a report issued – not coincidentally – as Bill Gates and fellow billionaires rubbed shoulders at Davos.

The answer to the question is a resounding no. Then again, is any foundation always a force for good? And good for whom?

Don’t get us wrong. The Gates Foundation is not above criticism. And the report, which was issued by the social justice organization Global Justice Now, raises interesting questions about the Gates Foundation’s power to shape the global health agenda (which NBFI Editor James Militzer discussed last week) and its lack of accountability.

But the crux of the report is that the Gates Foundation favors business, not the poor. That charge seems not only unfair but jarringly out of rhythm with long-sought efforts to bolster economies in the global south.

The report says the foundation “invests in and collaborates with pharmaceutical and agricultural corporations,” the Seattle Times summarizes, and promotes “a more industrialized version of agriculture, where small farmers might boost their harvests by using fertilizer and high-tech seeds.”

We fail to see the problem. At the end of the day, how will people in the global south thrive without economic development? How better to spur economic development than to collaborate with firms that have the resources and will to develop economies?

It’s one thing to come out against global inequality, which is what Global Justice Now opposes, but it’s quite another to relegate any and all profit-seeking companies to the moral low ground.

It’s not only possible to be for both business and the poor, it’s virtually impossible to be against business and for the poor.

– Kyle Poplin



Top Image credit: World Economic Forum via Flickr.

impact investing, off-grid energy, research, solar