Investing Responsibly

The inspiration for this post was my Business at the Base of the Pyramid class at Harvard Business School and it’s something that I have been pondering as I consider being an early stage investor in East African technology businesses.

There are two main kinds of capital deployed to emerging markets to stimulate economic activity for small businesses:
  •  Social(Not for Profit) Capital – This kind of capital is usually issued by governments, charitable foundations or entities like the World Bank/IFC and makes up the majority of investment capital to small businesses from abroad
  • For Profit Capital – Investors looking for returns which are as high as possible from emerging markets to compensate them for the high risk of their investments
I think the best model for emerging markets is a hybrid form of for profit capital from socially responsible investors. i.e. Investors who are looking to make a reasonable return on their investment without exploiting the recipients of their capital. 

One of the key problems of investing in social (not for profit) enterprises is that it does not create the incentives for these businesses to scale into self-sustaining entities. If businesses are accountable to their investors to yield positive unit economics and positive returns they are less likely to operate in a lean and efficient manner. Commerical enterprises are just better designed to create long term value for their shareholders, employees and (hopefully) customers provided they are ethically run.
I think that initiatives such as Root Capital and the Grass Roots Business Fund are trying some extremely interesting innovative models and hopefully we’ll see some positive results from them.

Figuring out a more effective way to deploy capital to emerging markets is a huge problem and I really hope that such innovations make strides towards solving it.

Education and Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets

I’m a believer in two key methods to alleviate poverty and stimulate long-term economic growth for developing countries:
  •  Education – Out of all children in Kenya about 85% of children attend primary school (but <50% finish), 24% of children attend secondary school, and 2% attend higher institutions. At this level of attrition more than half the population has not even completed primary school, which is typical of developing African countries. Access to knowledge and information is a critical part of opportunity creation for people in Africa.
  • Entrepreneurship – This is Africa’s (and Kenya in particular) ticket to stimulating the economy from the ground up. Governments are corrupt and policy is extremely slow and ineffective. Creating and facilitating an entrepreneurial mindset and ecosystem for people in these countries with the drive to create businesses which solve fundamental issues has got to be the way to sustainably get these countries out of poverty.
This is such huge topic and my paragraph above does not really even scratch the surface, but I want to write more often, in bite sized chunks going forward. For each of these issues, work needs to be done at both an infrastructural/country level and at a grass roots level. I believe that we will see quicker more effective results through bottom up initiatives so long as we are able to find and fund the scaleable and effective solutions at this level.

Next post will be about what type of investment could work for developing countries at this level.

Kenya – Silicon Safari

San Francisco has Silicon Valley, New York has Silicon Alley, London has Silicon Round and Tel-Aviv has Silicon Wadi. I think Kenya could have Silicon Safari*, and I’d love to be part of making that happen.

I never really thought I would go back to Kenya, but when I was back home this summer I had a strong feeling that it could be the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa.

A little about where Kenya is today…
Kenya has about 30M people and a GDP per capita of $1,600 ppp Kenya is a leader in mobile innovation in the developing world. Kenya currently has a mobile penetration rate of ~ 50% and is forecasted to hit 90%+ by 2013. M-Pesa (mobile-to-mobile money transfer through text) was created here by Safaricom (part owned by Vodafone) and now almost $30M are transacted every day. This model has been replicated in many emerging markets which look to Kenya as a leader in emerging mobile products – particularly in banking and payments.

In October 2010, Barclays started offering M-Pesa to it’s clients and we are not far from a place where mobile phone ‘bank accounts’ can offer most services provided by traditional banks which have a far lower penetration rate than mobile phones in Kenya. In September 2010, a major carrier (Zain) cut all call costs by 75% and all the other major carriers followed suit. With infrastructure capital costs already paid off, the market is highly competitive and consumers are getting excellent quality of service at constantly decreasing prices.

I’m not the only one who sees potential in Kenya… 
(work in progress)
  • Techcrunch, Sarah Lacy in particular, did a piece in August 2010 about the possibilities of mobile in Kenya 
  • Google opened their first non-sales office in Kenya in 2007 and is tasked with figuring out their entire Africa strategy
The Entrepreneurial Ecosystem is underdeveloped…
  • Talent – Classic brain drain coupled with an underdeveloped local education system particularly in for technical talent is a HUGE issue. 
  • Capital – There is little capital for early stage ventures and few investors on the ground who have the appetite and expertise to invest in entrepreneurs. The path to exit is also unclear with underdeveloped capital markets and low M&A volume.
  • Community – We need to build a community for entrepreneurs and investors to find each other and share ideas and best practices. This is starting with initiatives like vc4africa, and Nairobi’s IHub but these are still in their very early stages
What I’m hoping to do…
I moved to Silicon Valley to see how the most sophisticated entrepreneurial ecosystem in the world works. I am about to start working for an early stage start up, and am going to try and be as involved in the start-up community as possible. I want to learn as much as I can so when I do go home, I know what could be possible for Kenya.

I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do or how I’m going to do it when I do return to Kenya, but what I do know is that I want to build technology businesses as both an entrepreneur and an investor (maybe some sort of hybrid incubation model would work best). The country needs pioneers for the field and I hope to be one of the people to build the bricks of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

* Silicon Safari is a term that I made up! Hope it catches on 🙂 Silicon Savannah was something else I was toying with..

Digital Sky Technologies – The Mini Exit

Digital Sky Technologies (DST) have created a new class of investment in the western world that has caught both the entrepreneurial community and investment community by surprise. They have purchesed significant minority stakes in extremely high profile pre-IPO technology companies such as Zynga, Facebook and Groupon.

They take long positions on these companies by buying large amounts ($100M+) of common stock at relatively high valuations. Traditional investors (venture capital and private equity) would look to invest for preferential equity, board representation and sometimes controlling stakes but DST seem to be happy to take minority common stock with no board representation. Basically, they trust the market leaders with capital to keep doing what they’ve been doing and it’s working out well for them so far. Their $200M investment in Facebook at a $10Bn valuation is already up by 4x, and their $180M investment in Zynga is probably between 2-3x up as well.

I think that the key benefit they are providing to the founders and early employees of these companies is the option to partially cash out without having to prematurely exit or IPO. This has never really been an option for the founders and early employees of these successful technology businesses and it seems to have been mutually beneficial for both DST and the early stage founders.