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The challenge: Can social impact investment serve the “bottom of the pyramid”?

20 July 2016

DCR 2016Today’s post, by Julie Sunderland, Director of Program-Related Investments, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is published in collaboration with the 2016 OECD Development Co-operation Report: The Sustainable Development Goals as Business Opportunities.

It’s not surprising that the private sector faces challenges in serving bottom-of-the-pyramid customers: the largest and poorest population groups. By definition, bottom-of-the-pyramid populations don’t have much income, making margins slim. In addition, the often weak infrastructure and distribution channels in developing countries make the transaction costs of reaching these customers high. Much of the procurement of basic goods and services for the poorest populations goes through government-managed development co-operation channels, which are often bureaucratic and opaque to companies.

Nonetheless, there is still great potential for the private sector to serve bottom-of-the-pyramid populations. Capital flows into the private sector, both via investment and revenue, dwarf flows from philanthropy and development co-operation combined. The private sector’s commercialisation and manufacturing capabilities can allow for scaled production and delivery of affordable, life-saving products. The private sector can bring critical knowledge, capabilities and resources to solving social sector problems, and its capacity for research, development, innovation and entrepreneurship can be applied to generate transformative technologies and new business models.

Social impact investment can help to realise this potential. When done well, it can address market failures that keep the private sector from investing in social sectors. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we’ve seen in practice how patient, flexible risk capital can support innovative models that provide affordable, accessible, quality products and services to bottom-of-the-pyramid populations. When done badly, however, social impact investment can distort markets and prop up unsustainable businesses.

For social impact investment to become a credible bridge to a private sector focus on bottom-of-the-pyramid populations, it needs to address three challenges.

Align incentives for social and financial goals. Except for the limited resources allocated to corporate social responsibility, private companies and investors are driven by financial goals. While a new class of impact investors may be willing to sacrifice some financial returns to generate social impact, investment capital at the very least needs to be repaid out of the cash flows generated by the business activity. One of the current challenges for making social impact investment work effectively, therefore, is identifying (and working creatively to expand) the opportunities for aligning revenue/profit generation with the achievement of social goals.

A great historical example of such alignment is the proliferation of cellular technology. Mobile phones have had significant social impact in fields as diverse as disease response, financial inclusion and technical assistance. Mobile phone companies have also provided excellent returns for their investors. Yet most social goals will lack the natural alignment with scale and profit evidenced by mobile telecommunications. Social impact investment has the potential to bridge this gap through risk reduction mechanisms, such as guarantees; through the application of low-cost scaling capital to validate nascent distribution models; and through company-building equity investment in technologies that hold promise similar to that of mobile phone technology.

Change the economics of reaching bottom-of-the-pyramid populations. Capital-intensive, complicated or transaction-heavy business models that might work elsewhere will not be sustainable in bottom-of-the-pyramid markets. The private sector can develop new technologies, products and business models that are adapted to the needs of bottom-of-the-pyramid populations, allowing for rapid uptake and producing high sales volumes, even if margins remain slim. For example, there are innovations that have the potential to cut delivery costs, ranging from sachet-sized consumer products to agent-based distribution models and pay-as-you-go financing. Social impact investment can support the further development and demonstration of these new business models by leveraging and, ultimately, crowding in private sector investment.

Cultivate top-tier, on-the-ground investment and entrepreneurial talent. Access to capital is often cited as a primary limitation to the growth of small and medium enterprises, and to social sector businesses. Yet access to talent may be a bigger and more persistent constraint as promising models replicate and grow. Social impact investment needs to develop two levels of talent: strong intermediaries and fund managers who are good at allocating capital and building companies; and strong entrepreneurs and managers to lead social sector businesses.

Over time, improving secondary and post-secondary enrolment and education, and increasing entrepreneurial expertise in local markets and among diaspora, will allow talent to flourish. Social impact investors can speed up this process by taking the risks and investing in emerging intermediaries and entrepreneurs, recognising that while they are learning they will be developing experience and networks. A handful of successful cases can encourage others in the private sector to seek out and further develop untapped human capital.

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