Social Business · Social Impact Investing

Businesses focused on the world’s poorest

I am increasingly convinced that businesses focused on serving the world’s poorest 4 billion citizens are a very good investment whether you are looking for financial return and/or positive social impact return. That is, for those of us who seek to end poverty, the scale and sustainability potential of businesses focused on this “market segment” have enormous potential for doing good AND doing well. We don’t live in a zero sum world.

Due to the recent increase in non-charity capital flowing to entrepreneurial microfinance banks, we are seeing continued and exciting new growth levels in access to microfinance for the world’s poorest. Correctly, I would argue, most microfinance banks are focusing primarily on client base expansion with basic microcredit products. One of Unitus‘s microfinance partners, SKS based in India is now adding more than 100,000 new client every MONTH! This is creating a new large-scale, relatively low-cost distribution channel for delivery of products and services to the world’s poorest families.

The initial benefits of having microcredit loans have been HUGE for these poor households. Even while paying loan rates similar to their middle class fellow citizens (ranging from 25-75% in various countries), most borrowers are comfortably paying back their loans with significant growth in net income. And this occurs with generally nothing more than the loan … that is, no business training, no additional education, etc. That is, the women (most borrowers are women) are putting their existing knowledge and skills to work with a very positive income growth result.

I believe that there are at least two additional categories of significant benefit for these poor families which are on the verge of taking off: (1) products/services which increase the earning potential of the families; and (2) products/services which increase the purchasing power of the families. The first category includes many new opportunities which enable families to earn more for the same labor input and/or protect their existing assets. Examples include skills training, micro-franchises, new tools, supply chain integration, insurance products, savings products and many other products/services optimized for these families. The second category includes leveraging the aggregate demand of these families to attract the R&D, manufacturing and distribution investments to bring new, better and cheaper products to these families thereby enabling their money to purchase more. Examples include affordable mobile phones and better/cheaper food and other staples.

And when you combine these new economic growth and stabilization products/services with a the microfinance financing mechanism, you open up even more opportunities. One example would be a small scale renewable energy electricity generation system which could be operated as a business by a micro-entrepreneur (e.g. micro utility), financed by a microfinance bank and resulting in decreased cost of energy for a family in a rural village.

These new businesses serving the world’s poorest have huge scale potential … that is, an extremely large potential customer base. This means that if operated well even a small profit per customer could result in a large total profit over time. So, you’ve now got an attractive destination for capital combined with potential for significant social impact.

Now, I know that some people are concerned that these businesses will end up earning profits from these poor families and they feel this is morally wrong. I ask though what a better alternative is? For I think it is at least as morally wrong for us to withhold (or delay) the benefits of opportunity for these families in the name of protecting them from potential abuse.

Please post your thoughts in comments.

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