"Ultimately... investing in girls is the best investment you can make." Credit: Suzanne Biegler
Six years ago, colleagues at the UK’s Department For International Development and the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect team came me to with their idea for what would become the SPRING Accelerator. The aim was to identify and support businesses that could improve the lives of adolescent girls and young women - whether as leaders, consumers, or otherwise. We wanted to use human centered design (HCD) to build a base of examples that would help investors see that businesses that focused on women and girls were smart bets.
As SPRING’s Investment Director, my role was to help to source the businesses and help them get investment ready, as well as identifying potential investors and educating them on the opportunity to make impact.
Since its launch in 2014, with the financial support of DFID, USAID, and DFAT, the brilliant HCD expertise and talent of fuseproject, and the deep girl expertise of Dr. Rebecca Calder and her team, SPRING has supported over 75 businesses in 9 countries across South Asia and East Africa, impacting the lives of almost 600,000 girls and young women - nearly three times what we set out to achieve.
Now, as SPRING Accelerator comes to an end this summer and we release our new investor toolkit, I want to share with you some of my key insights and observations from five years working on this ambitious vision.
1. Ventures with positive impact for girls and women can be good business.
And impact and investability can go hand in hand. Some of the most successful ventures to participate in the SPRING Accelerator integrate impact into the core of their business model. Ugandan-based motorcycle taxi company Safe Boda, which has received investment capital from investors including southeast Asian transport unicorn Go-Jek, has secured a competitive advantage by being attentive to the needs of girl riders - from helmets, to driver training in gender equality and respect, to an app that allows parents to track the driver and know whose bike their daughter is on. Khalti, a mobile wallet company in Nepal, enlists girls as “Smart Chhoris,” training them in technology and financial literacy to grow their status as experts within their current and future families, while simultaneously growing Khalti’s customer base.
2. Girls don’t need to be the primary customers of a product or service to benefit from it.
Kenyan social enterprise Tiny Totos works with daycare providers in informal settlements in Nairobi to upgrade standards and deliver improved care to young children, but it has positive flow-on effect for their older sisters too, freeing them up to pursue education and other opportunities. Rwandan company EarthEnable sells clean, affordable flooring which benefits the health of the whole family - but which especially impacts girls, who spend more time at home, do more cleaning, and are more likely to sleep on the floor.
3. The right investors may not be obvious.
One of the challenges of working on a project like SPRING is that there isn’t yet a well-developed set of investors focused on improving girls’ lives. This meant that finding investors for many of our ventures meant looking for alignment on other axes: be it poverty alleviation, education, healthcare, environment, or geography. Smart Paani, which provides access to clean drinking water for girls in post-earthquake affected schools in Nepal, had capital from investors focused on clean water. Kasha, a mobile e-commerce company in East Africa focused on women’s health products, started with women and then sharpened their opportunities to go younger.
4. The public sector, philanthropists, and NGOs all have a crucial role to play.
Working with early-stage organizations requires patient, courageous early-stage capital - and grant and aid money are essential to helping impact-driven business to grow until they reach the point that they’re commercially viable. Public sector and non-government organizations also have an important role to play in helping investors identify the products and services that will have the most impact. Finding solutions that will have a positive impact for girls and young women isn’t a one size fits all exercise: it requires understanding the different barriers and opportunities girls face depending on where they are. Often the people who are able to offer the best insights about that are outside the investment ecosystem, in NGOs. They need to be engaged to make sure capital goes to the right places. And many NGOs are now also launching into impact investing initiatives more directly, recognizing the multiple roles they can play.
5. Real change means shifting systems, markets, and culture.
For all the successes of SPRING, we’ve learned that the catalytic change we’re working for can’t be created without bigger systemic shifts in the markets and culture.
No business, product, or intervention can create the kind of positive impact we need if it’s not acceptable for girls to ride a bicycle outside in their village, if girls don’t have access to mobile technology because their parents are concerned they will be interacting with boys, or if boys are prioritized over girls for access to education or nutrition. To influence in these arenas, you need to work on social norms and cultural change alongside business solutions.
Ultimately, I believe that whether you’re interested in economic growth, political stability, climate change, or social change, investing in girls is the best investment you can make. We know that for every year a girl stays in education, she has more economic opportunity, gets married older, has fewer children, and has more autonomy in the trajectory of her own life. Driving this forward is going to take all hands on deck: R&D, patient capital, grants, development institutions, investors, businesses, corporates, and the rest of the development and investment ecosystem coming together. If we can do it though, the dividends will be enormous.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn and was republished with permission.