Record-Breaking 2017 Closes Gap Between Impact And Return-Driven Investing In Africa

By Tom Jackson Published: February 8, 2018, 3:33 am
record-breaking - agri-tech company - Investor That Backed Uber And Airbnb Invests In New York and Nairobi-based Agri-Tech Company. Photo: africarenewalInvestors increasingly backing African agritech companies like AgroCenta and Farmcrowdy. Photo: africarenewal

African startups had a record-breaking 2017 when it came to fundraising, securing a total of $195 million, according to the recently released Disrupt Africa African Tech Startups Funding Report.

An increasing number of startups are raising money, across more countries and a diverse array of sectors.  Yet the investor profile is also changing. Whereas in the past impact firms like Accion dominated the space, solely return-driven investors are now increasingly entering the sector, such as Greycroft Partners, Rand Merchant Investment Holdings and 500 Startups.

Yet it is not just a question of new firms entering the market. Existing African investors are also changing the way they work. Erick Yong is chief executive officer (CEO) of GreenTec Capital Partners, which has invested in the likes of Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Ghana’s AgroCenta, and Rwanda’s ARED.

He believes the gap between “impact” and “non-impact” – that is to say firms that are solely focused on deriving the biggest possible return on investment is diminishing as impact funds move towards more sustainable investments.

“Among impact funds themselves, more and more funds are focused on economically sustainable solutions and seek profitable opportunities, as opposed to just grant financing,” he said.

“We believe the trend will continue towards an increasing amount of investors seeking a double bottom line – doing well while doing good, seeking profitability along with some measurable impact.”

But it isn’t simply a case of impact investors becoming more careful about where they put their money and how sustainable their investments are.

Speak to impact investors and they will argue that there is little difference between themselves and traditional venture capitalists. They all want the same thing, to make money, they say.

In any case, is there any such thing as a “non-impact” investment on a continent as underdeveloped as Africa.

Moreover, there is evidence of investors that previously would have paid little attention to “impact” changing the way they work.

Impact investing has been growing rapidly in recent years, according to research by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN).

Asset managers, including 477 institutional investors, 300 money managers and 1,043 community investing financial institutions are considering environmental, social or corporate governance (ESG) criteria across $8.19 trillion in assets, with the embrace of ESG criteria increasing by 69 percent from two years ago.

Danai Musandu, an investment associate at South Africa-based impact investment firm Goodwell, believes that impact investing is not disrupting traditional investing, but rather creating new pathways for mainstream investments by shifting the perspective on value creation and showcasing new innovative opportunities in the “least likely” or “riskiest” avenues.

“These avenues have broadened the scope of financial returns to include non-financial aspects. The substantial growth of the impact investing sector suggests that the positive returns associated with wider ecosystem socio-economic benefits are becoming increasingly desirous,” she said.

“The next generation of investors has planted the seeds for growth in the industry by making financial decisions that are specifically earmarked for expansive, inclusive growth. Now more than ever, considerations of ESG criteria have become prevalent in defining the new “normal” for the investment profession.”

This is especially relevant to sub-Saharan Africa, where companies are coming up with scalable business models that both yield positive returns and have a positive ecosystem impact. Musandu said it is millennials that will increasingly push the marriage of the two.

“As millennials get older and wealthier, funds expect there to be an even greater push for impact investing. The impetus is also coming from younger employees at banks, insurers and foundations who see investing in areas such as education, gender equality, fighting hunger and climate action as compatible with making a healthy return,” she said.

This is born out by a recent survey of 800 high net worth individuals for a recent U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth and Worth report, in which many millennials said they had already made impact investments.

“This push factor has set the stage for future portfolios and funds to focus their attention on areas that will attract the most significant capital. In that sense, millennials are forcing the culture of impact investing upon the wider industry,” Musandu said.

At the heart of all these developments is inclusive growth – including the majority that is currently excluded by creating opportunities for low-income segments to generate more income.

“It is not to be confused with poverty fighting measures such as welfare and other ways used to redistribute the benefits of economic growth. Inclusive growth is economic growth that is created differently, by including and improving economic activity that is previously conducted in the informal sector and by creating new economic activity within and among segments of the economy that are unserved by the current formal economy,” said Musandu.

“An inclusive economy is the economic activity that enables citizens and businesses to create and retain value within their own communities. Businesses and investments in these opportunities can actively foster inclusive growth.”

It is this inclusive growth – encouraged by developments in mobile technology in particular – that holds the key to making money for impact and return-driven venture capitalists alike. In its development, the lines between the two are becoming so blurred that soon they may not exist at all.

Tom Jackson is co-founder of Disrupt Africa, a news and research company focused on the African tech startup ecosystem.

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