Well-run microfinance banks are now starting to attract new and interesting sources of growth capital from investors including Legatum, Unitus Equity Fund, AAvishkaar Goodwell, Vinod Khosla, Accion Investments, Sequoia Capital and many others. This is great news as the “elephant in the room” issue for microfinance is that globally microfinance is currently serving at most 15% of the demand. That is, 85 out of 100 families who could benefit immensely from microfinance have no access to microfinance. And most of those served are only provided basic microcredit business loans, not a range of helpful financial services. The only way this supply/demand gap is going to be narrowed any time soon is for global capital markets to be tapped … there just isn’t nearly enough philanthropic dollars to fund this expansion.
As I’ve written about earlier, I see microfinance banks as providing a new and large-scale, low-cost distribution channel to the world’s poorest families (aka as “base of the economic pyramid” of “BOP”) for products/services which provide opportunity for these families to step out of the multi-generational disease of extreme poverty.
The question is who is going to provide the most helpful and widely available new products and services for these distribution channels? History has shown us that it won’t be the current large incumbent corporations which almost never innovate and have a very difficult time prioritizing investments in emerging market segments due to the high opportunity cost compared with their current businesses. So most of the innovation is going to come from entrepreneurs forming new companies to bring their innovations to market.
So who is going to fund these entrepreneurs? Most of the venture investors (like those listed above) start investing once a venture is off the ground with product in the market. These investors want to make an initial investment of at least $1-3 million and often higher as their investment funds are structured for these size of investments. [This is often referred to in venture speak as Series A round or later.]
What about an entrepreneurs first $25,000, $100,000 or even $500,000 capital to build out a solid business plan, attract the right key talent, build the first generation product offering and other investments required in order to attract these institutional-type investors? These monies are often called seed or angel investment monies and are critical for the bootstrap and startup phase of any business which is seeking to build a meaningful high-volume business with necessary upfront startup investments.
Traditionally, these seed funds either come from the entrepreneurs own savings and some of their close friends and family members. Essentially, people are betting on “you” the entrepreneur. Another source of seed capital is from individuals who seek out very early stage venture investing opportunities. These “angel investors” often invest on the order of $10,000 to upwards of $100,000 in promising new ventures. Often the angel investors also become active advisors and networkers to help an entrepreneur get their business off the ground.
This seed/angel pool is working ok (not, great) for established business segments like technology and pharmaceuticals, but there are very few seed investors for businesses targeting the BOP market. Additionally, many of the highest potential entrepreneurs focusing on BOP businesses live in the markets where they will be building their businesses and have both limited personal and personal network resources as well as limited options for angel investor capital.
There are a few pioneering organizations which are targeting early seed stage investments in BOP businesses including Ashoka, Echoing Green, Acumen Fund and Mercy Corps’ Phoenix Fund. All of these funds are backed by philanthropic monies so they are quite limited in their fund size meaning that they can make either only very small investments or a few larger ones. They are also not setup to help their investees raise additional necessary capital which is often crucial to realizing the business (and impact) potential of these businesses.
Hence, there is a significant funding gap for seed level investment capital necessary to build the next high potential social businesses. I believe this provides a significant opportunity for developing venture-oriented seed funds which focuses investment in high-scale potential BOP businesses. Please post comments if you are aware of any additional seed investment funds in this category.