Acumen Fund is a non-profit venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty. It was founded in 2001 by Jacqueline Novogratz, author of The Blue Sweater.
Acumen Fund was founded on the belief that while traditional charity and international aid often meet the immediate needs of the four billion people living on less than four dollars a day, alone they will not solve the problems of poverty. Market-based approaches have the potential to grow when charitable dollars run out, and they recognize that poor individuals seek dignity, not dependence, in their lives.
Acumen is now investing nearly $50 million in social enterprises that serve the poor in East Africa, India, and Pakistan, and have provided critical solutions for water, health, energy, agriculture and housing to the base of the economic pyramid. They have enabled:
29 million insecticide-treated nets produced yearly, protecting millions from malaria
More than 2 million people with access to affordable, safe, and efficient energy, leading to decreased risk of burns and smoke inhalation and increased productivity
More than 1 million people with access to safe water, preventing millions of deaths and sickness from diarrheal diseases
More than 35,000 jobs created by investees
Business models capable of bringing affordable, life-changing products and services to parts of the world where markets have failed are now emerging. Many of these businesses create jobs and lead directly to economic growth. Starting a new business is always tough and starting a business in the developing world can be much tougher. Launching a business that focuses on the needs of the world’s poorest often seems impossible. Patient Capital can make the difference in helping innovative business models that address poverty see the light of day.
For Acumen Fund, patient capital is understood as a debt or equity investment in an early-stage enterprise providing low-income consumers with access to healthcare, water, housing, alternative energy, or agricultural inputs. Their typical commitments of patient capital for an enterprise range from $300,000 to $2,500,000 in equity or debt with payback or exit in roughly five to seven years. The patient capital Acumen provides is accompanied by a wide range of management support services nurturing the company to scale. Their aim in investing patient capital is not to seek high returns, but rather to jump-start the creation of enterprises that improve the ability of the poor to live with dignity.
We define patient capital as having the following characteristics:
Long time horizons for the investment
A goal of maximizing social, rather than financial, returns
Providing management support to help new business models thrive
The flexibility to seek partnerships with governments and corporations through subsidy and co-investment when doing so may be beneficial to low-income customers.
As an example, in 2004 Acumen Fund invested $600,000 in WaterHealth International, a company that set out to bring safe drinking water to rural Indians, something long thought nearly impossible. One year after their first investment, they had broken ground on two new water systems. Working with Acumen to modify the design of the water facility, a year later WHI had ten systems in operation, and had started to attract the interest of additional investors. Three years after Acumen’s initial investment, WHI had raised $11 million in private capital and were speaking with banks about financing an additional 20 systems.
Today, WHI has developed over 275 systems that impact the lives of over 350,000 people, and they are still growing. With over $30 million now raised, this is a company that leveraged a powerful business model, dedicated leadership, and the support of patient capital, to create an innovative new approach to tackling India’s water challenges.
Acumen was incorporated on April 1, 2001, with seed capital from the Rockefeller Foundation, Cisco Systems Foundation and three individual philanthropists. Their desire was to transform the world of philanthropy by looking at all human beings not as distant strangers, but as members of a single, global community where everyone had the opportunity to build a life of dignity.
The organization they envisioned wouldn’t simply make grants, but would invest in entrepreneurs who had the capability to bring sustainable solutions to big problems of poverty. They would create a venture capital fund for the poor, supported by a global community of philanthropists willing to take a bet on a new approach. They would call their donors “Partners” and treat them like investors because their approach would be to invest together in long-term change. They enlisted twenty Founding Partners, whose generosity transformed Acumen from a vision to a reality. At the time, they knew they didn’t have any answers, so they simply started with a commitment to learn from their mistakes and let the work teach them.
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