You have to listen when Minayo Sagala speaks. She talks in contralto, her accent is impeccable, and she uses phrases like ‘born, bred, raised, married and procreating in Kenya’. Her other name is Maureen but I didn’t get that from her; she prefers Minayo. She has practised law for over ten years but has never set foot in a courtroom to practice as an advocate. She specialises in corporate-commercial law practice, and social change has always been a point of focus for her, she says. Which is why after her pupillage and job at top-tier law firm Anjarwalla & Khanna in Kenya and affiliated ALN firm in Tanzania, she chose to work for Acumen. She believes in dreams coming true, and quotes Lupita Nyongo’s ‘your dreams are valid’ at least twice. She’s hardwired to teach, which is why she asks questions after every presentation. She did after our interview and I almost flunked, because I wasn’t really paying attention when she was introducing what her organisation does – I was still trying to decide if hers is alto or baritone… But we both decided the concept of Acumen, for which she is East Africa’s sole in-house counsel, is not the easiest to define, and so got into her element and explained away.
I now know Acumen isn’t an investment fund; are you an NGO?
We are a pool of resources that is used to support social enterprises – that is, businesses that are focused on making a positive social impact. These enterprises have to be targeted at low-income communities, and their focus is to provide critical goods and services to those in the low-income bracket at prices they can afford. What tends to happen in the regular market is that low-income communities are somehow forgotten – they are either priced out or have few or no goods and services that are modelled for them. What Acumen does is support businesses that are targeted at making sure these people are served. We call this pool of funds, patient capital for the reason that we sort of give these businesses some runway to roll out the product while giving the business space to return the funds over a specified period that can be up to 7 years. We don’t invest on terms like say, banks do; instead, we walk the journey with you for a while to help you achieve your social objective.
In response to your question therefore, I would not call us an NGO in the traditional meaning of the word. You could say we are, in the sense that we are not government; but what we are is a fund that invests with an aim to make positive social impact. While we would like for the businesses we invest in to turn a profit, we are not solely profit-driven ourselves. We want to change lives, and so we lead with the need to make positive social impact.
Could you give an example?
One of our investments provides sanitation solutions in the Mukuru slum. Someone came up with a business model where one pays to use a toilet; the waste is harvested and used to produce biofuel. That type of investment allows the community members to have dignity while going about their business; the beauty is that it is a business model that can be replicated anywhere. This what Acumen does – partner with businesses that are serving low-income communities to access critical goods and services that they might have otherwise struggled to.
What else do you do?
Outside of the business, we also invest in people, for which we have a leadership programme. There is the Acumen Global Fellows Programme, where we have experts from different sectors who give up a year of their professional lives to support businesses that Acumen has invested in. For instance, a highly skilled accounting professional will come and offer skills to a growing business that needs that kind of expertise in the region.
Recruitment for the Global Fellows Programme happens at a global level (out of our New York Head Office), but we also conduct regional leadership programmes in East Africa, India and Pakistan. The East Africa Fellows Programme is structured such that as a fellow you do not have to leave your job to participate in the programme. Instead, we have East Africa Fellows stay on the job and work on their ‘change initiatives’. We will then partner with you on your leadership journey to enable you rise into a position of influence. In essence, we are building a network of influential leaders – who I like to call change activists – in different roles and sectors. We facilitate the East Africa Fellows to adapt their leadership styles (create transformational leaders as it were) in a manner that creates positive social impact.
In our investing experience, we have come to learn that leadership is indeed lonely. This is why Acumen facilitates sessions such as the annual regional CEOs Summit, where social enterprise leaders get to bounce ideas off of each other, share challenges and get perspectives that they wouldn’t otherwise get on their own.
Are you a transformational leader?
Definitely! I come from the space where I believe that we are all leaders in the things that matter to us. Allow me to deviate a little. We all have priorities that we want to champion and achieve. In most cases, what holds people back from realising their priorities in life, is resources. This is what Acumen does for people – partnering with them through providing resources, and helping them fill gaps in skills and objectives. Investment for us is not simply an end; it is a means. We are looking for social change, which is not a one-stop objective but an interactive and collaborative process.
Who funds you?
We focus on three things: businesses, people, as well as ideas and knowledge. I have already spoken about the businesses and people bit. The ideas and knowledge bit of it is that when we work with social change activists, there are lessons we learn – that we want to share with the world. We have a dedicated team that measures the impact of our investments. We ask people pointed questions like, ‘have you felt a change in your life’?
We have people telling us things like, ‘my day used to end at sunset, but now I can put in that extra hour at work because I know I will get to the house at 7 or 8 p.m. and cook using solar lighting or my energy efficient cook stove”. There is also the now-common story of someone who has previously had to use a flying toilet, but who can now have some privacy as they attend to nature. Sharing this with the industry, learning what businesses designs work and why others do not, that comes under our ideas and knowledge segment.
Learning from all these, we encourage others to partner with us to make change.
Telling people’s stories like this influences and inspires hope, and this is how we get people to partner with us financially and even with skill or expertise. At the same time, we encourage entrepreneurship, which allows one to own the solution to one’s own problems, instead of waiting for someone to solve it for you. Our business model is designed in such a way that we team up with our values aligned partners who want to fund social change – who will channel their resources through Acumen; we will consolidate it and based on our investing criteria, make investments that will create the best social impact.
You are not just funders then…
We are also implementers. It is important that we walk the journey with our business partners. We, however, don’t prescribe; we facilitate. Among the things we look at is if an enterprise is financially viable, its business model can be replicated, whether the entrepreneur(s) share(s) Acumen values, and whether they are open to practising good corporate governance – in the interest of running a sustainable business. Once we find that there is an alignment of values and priorities, and we are able to fund you, we then decide on the best structure – it could be debt, equity or convertible debt. We then move to the next level, which is technical assistance to create as much business efficiency as possible.
Sometimes we sit in the board of directors of a business, not to run it but offer particular expertise. Other times, we simply leverage our networks to help the enterprise access that expertise.
How do you identify beneficiaries?
We do have dedicated portfolio teams, made up of individuals with experience in investment, who go out and scope for business opportunities in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia) and consider them against the investment criteria I previously described. At the same time, we do have people referred to us, or who have somehow learnt about us, who present proposals for partnership in creating positive social change.
What you do is properly government’s responsibility. Do you have partnerships with government or other stakeholders?
Social services are indeed traditionally a government arena. But we also have to recognise government’s limited capacities to provide these services. There is space for the private sector in East Africa to work with government, and what we do is enable that partnership, by supporting enterprises that are providing requisite solutions. That is one way. We are also currently thinking through how to make this model more sustainable, and have adopted a systems approach. We want people to understand effective social services from a systems perspective. We are bringing together different players who can provide solutions to a given problem by addressing the entire system by engaging different sectors.
For example, in lighting up the country the government might have a capacity limitation in quickly reaching all areas of the country with electricity from the national grid; this is where we come in by completing that last mile for them – working with social enterprises that offer either mini-grid or solar lighting solutions in unreached parts of the country.
We also collaborate with peers, investors and leaders. Collaboration is a huge part of what Acumen does. We need people and institutions to support the work we are doing in creating access to critical goods and services. One can never be exclusive in what one is thinking if one is to be effective.
What has the reception been like? In other words, how suitable are your ideas for the Eastern Africa situation?
We recently had applications open for our East Africa Fellows Programme; more than five hundred people applied, and from that number we can only take twenty for the next cohort. That is how interested people are to plug in to what Acumen is doing in the region. Remember, we don’t come with the solution; we partner with people who have creative ideas for meeting various challenges. Our experience has been that people are intrinsically decent and creative; they just need a helping hand.
From the impact studies we have done, the data says there has indeed been positive change. At our last count, the figure of lives changed in East Africa is 82 million from a Sh2 billion investment, in the span of seven years. It is sustainable, it is a step in the right direction, and there is space for more. Acumen prides itself with having been audacious enough to do ‘risky investment’ provide a benchmark for other impact investors who are now looking to or are now investing in East Africa.
Another of your focal areas is housing. How much success have you had?
Our priority sectors in East Africa are currently energy and agriculture, but we have also in past focussed on health, water and sanitation, education and housing sectors. A bit of Acumen’s work is having the audacity to go into markets that have failed and explore how the low-income communities can still access critical goods and services. What that means is that sometimes the value that comes out of our investment work is lessons, rather than an actual investment. What we learnt in the housing sector is that achieving an affordable unit that is accessible to the low-income communities is currently very difficult in East Africa. To provide a decent and affordable unit that has the basics is still above access for our target consumers. However, we have remained open to working with social enterprises that seek to make critical goods and services in housing (such as affordable sanitation and energy) available to low income communities.
Your voice would make you one kick-ass presenter. Have you ever harboured any such dream?
(Long laugh) Well, like Lupita says, every dream is valid! I have done a lot of public speaking in my career, and even from my school years, so I guess I have had a lifetime of that.
Who is Minayo?
Wife, a mother of two and a social change activist.
What is your most profound belief, besides religion?
I am a believer in everyone knowing about the law. You do not have to practice it, but understand that law is at the heart of social change. The Kenyan Constitution, for instance, is a contract between Kenyans and also with their government about how they will relate. At the very heart of that is law. There is nothing more social than the law. I also believe that everyone is a leader in their own right; only that priorities may differ. I believe moments define leadership, when people champion causes, question things, offer direction, etc. I believe in social change, and in impacting lives positively.
Apart from contracts, do you read anything else?
(Laughs) I read a lot of philosophy. I educate my self on ethics, about what is wrong and right. I read to understand stuff. I read to interrogate my growth. In reading philosophy, I form my own informed thoughts about what society is/should be, what leadership is… questioning is an important part of my life, as I believe it should be everyone’s.
Tell me something about our politics .
I must of course begin with a disclaimer: these thoughts on politics are entirely my own… I have often heard people say that they don’t like politics or don’t want to be involved in politics. I wonder what for them politics is, if not interactions between people and between people and their government, about the means by which every individual is able to fairly actualise their own potential in a manner that benefits both themselves and the community. I believe that every East African should form and have a personal understanding of what government is, its mandate, its role and what the citizen’s place is in all of these.
As citizens, we have surrendered to government certain of our common rights such as the right to personal security, engaging in a legitimate livelihood venture within a conducive environment, and protection of property. In order to facilitate government in this mandate, we have through our votes and taxes provided certain individuals with a pot of resources, the public kitty. We have a moral expectation on our leaders to manage these resources in a way that benefits our common good and not their personal interests. It is the continued blatant and unchecked mismanagement of public resources for personal gain by our leadership that takes away our access to critical goods and services and in some instances wholly disenfranchises especially the low-income earners. Therefore, it is our right as citizens to demand accountability for the management of public resources and to send packing, including by resounding rejection at the ballot for, corrupt leaders.