October 19, 2020
Member Spotlight: I-DEV International

From its global newsletter to its major annual events, ANDE members have access to a multitude of platforms for promoting their work and co-creating knowledge with other members. The ANDE Member Spotlight is a series of short, interview-based blog posts highlighting an ANDE member organization and any new projects, recent investments, or ongoing research with interesting learnings that add value to the ANDE community.

I-DEV International is a leading business strategy & investment advisory firm specializing in emerging markets. ANDE spoke with Patricia Chin-Sweeney, Co-Founder and Director, to learn more about I-DEV’s latest initiatives and how ANDE members can get involved.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, I-DEV International and the role that it plays within the SGB ecosystem.

I-DEV International was established in 2009 as a global strategy and investment advisory firm. Jason Spindler and I started it with the premise of combining our backgrounds — mine in business and investment banking, along with the scrappy grassroots approach from Jason’s experience in the Peace Corps, and both of us seeing what did and didn’t work in terms of traditional models for development at that time. Over the last decade, I-DEV has worked in 45 countries across five continents, with over 350 SGBs and startups, many of which were portfolio companies of impact investing funds. We’ve done a lot of work with impact investors as well as USAID to the World Bank, looking at things such as how to improve and optimize market-based solutions and programs to address poverty, enterprise development, investments, agribusinesses and access to markets. We worked with CEOs and the C-suite staff to figure out how to improve upon what they were doing and unlock the opportunity for innovation and scale. Some of the unlocking part is not always the sexy innovation part, but it’s also a foundational part of strengthening that needs to happen. In that same regard, it’s helping SMEs and startups in emerging markets to be well equipped for scale.

Last year, our entire team, except myself, was in a terrorist attack on our Nairobi office, and we lost I-DEV’s co-founder, Jason. It was at an interesting inflection point because it was I-DEV’s 10-year anniversary — at that point, it’s natural for any organization to assess their impact and the type of work that they want to continue doing going forward. That’s still something appropriate to spend time on to really figure out and do properly. We were eager to advance our role in SME support as a trusted advisor but also as an investor, as we see this ongoing gap in strong paired funding and tactical business support. However, in light of last year and the market right now, some of this is still on hold. I can really sympathize with the companies who are facing challenges in light of COVID, as we were forced to face similar challenges only a bit earlier- and it is a long path to recovery!

Thank you for sharing about your co-founder, Jason. Could you share any new opportunities or initiatives I-DEV is undertaking during your second decade?

Within the last year, I started writing a book with the working title Frontier: Innovation for a Better World. What began as a reflection on why Jason and I created I-DEV and our work with investors to SMEs, turned into understanding the different perspectives gained, roles we played to bring diverse stakeholders together toward a common goal and that others might benefit from this knowledge! Jason and I both had similar paths — we cared about social and environmental issues before going into banking and management consulting, and then transitioned to working at the intersection of impact and investments to drive win-win solutions. The book is a reflection on I-DEV’s start — working in agriculture and fair trade to a mining town in Northern Peru, with Green Mountain Coffee, Fair Trade USA, Eileen Fisher and others — to moving toward supporting startups and investors who were great pioneers in tech, logistics, energy and more, but who still needed extra support related to investments.

Separate from the book, much of our work has shifted to our I-DEV Africa entity for now, and is really focused on helping good companies in the region (and their investors) optimize for high-impact growth and connect with other investors. We’ve been working with African Leadership Academy to Founders Factory Africa in this regard, and are also soon releasing a report via the Green Mini Grid Facility, a DFID (now FCDO) initiative focused on funding and knowledge sharing to strengthen access to finance and sustainable growth for the mini grid and productive use of energy sector.

Is there a way that ANDE members could get involved with this initiative?

The book should not just be about I-DEV and our journey, but the lessons learned and insights from the greater sector. We’ve had the pleasure of working with so many exceptional colleagues and other organizations. It’d be great to speak with other ANDE members to share what they’ve seen that works and doesn’t work (and what is still missing and critically needed to drive catalytic results), because we’ve all seen both sides and we’ve learned a lot over the years. This evolution- and what ‘unlocks innovation and impact’ to drive long-term results is important to recognize so that we continue to move in the right direction for the industry. In the spectrum of development, or anything happening in frontier markets, we’re still a very niche category that warrants far greater attention. That’s one of the things that I-DEV is focused on right now.

How has COVID impacted your work or what impacts have you seen within the sector?

It’s true we don’t clearly know what the future will look like. But the good thing about I-DEV, and the broader ANDE network, is that we are used to working in uncertain contexts where we don’t really know what it’s going to look like. We’ve always had to have an approach of what’s your Plan A, what’s your Plan B, Plan C, and just in case, a Plan D, because we’re probably going to have to use some elements of all of those. This is just another exercise in resilience, persistence, and staying creative.

COVID-19 has also had an interesting impact of investments. We’re seeing investors really commit to their portfolios, providing bridge loans and additional rounds of capital to help them get through this uncertain time. The other silver lining is that COVID has pushed companies to optimize for resilience and get creative or be more innovative about how they are being resilient. For better or for worse, companies and organizations are being prompted to reevaluate and optimize for the future, where we will anticipate a slightly more remote-working, digital and tech-friendly operating environment.

Realistically, many of these companies needed to move that way, though I don’t think tech is the answer to everything. The latest innovations and technology are not always ideal for a social enterprise or SGB, because of the learning curve and expenses in adopting these new systems. One of my favorite memes during COVID was a survey that asks: What was the greatest driver of digital transformation for your organization? The options were a) your CEO, b) your CTO, or c) COVID. And not surprisingly, COVID was by far the biggest influencer for this push in companies — not just in terms of just digital transformation, but also in terms of innovation meeting resilience, and some of that is digital while a lot of it is not.

On a less positive trend, COVID has been a bit of a distraction, slowing some direct investors such as angels and high net worths from investing in new incredible companies (and impact funds) when capital is needed most. There is also a lot of concern that the development finance institutions that provide a lot of critical public capital have been slow to respond with relief or resilience capital beyond very narrowing focused emergency response, e.g. PPE and direct covid-related funds, that is sorely needed to prevent setbacks in SDG progress. Many in the markets we work in are far more concerned about the business and SME setbacks from COVID than the direct health impacts.

Building on the innovation theme, what are some best practices for ANDE members when it comes to unlocking innovation?

One of the things that still does not get enough attention is talent development. It comes back to impact-meets-business leadership development, and the impact-plus-business perspective on being an effective leader in our space to make sure that companies and organizations we’re working with grow and have long term sustainable models.

I-DEV has been engaged with the Frontier Market Scouts (FMS) program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies for years. The FSM program was started about a decade ago by the Dean of the University at the time, Dr. Yuwei Shi. Many ANDE members have been guest lecturers and Adjunct Professors for the program, as were I and Jason.

Last year, we were able to raise scholarship funds to send six Jason Spindler Scholars — rising leaders in the impact investing and social enterprise world — to join the FMS in Monterey, California. For most of them, it was their first US visit, as they were all from Africa! During the two-week intensive program, scholars shared projects they were working on and showcased some of the challenges faced in analyzing a company or in designing a program.

Ivy Macharia — one of the scholars who used to work for I-DEV and now works for Acumen — discussed a company called Solaris, which is an analytics platform for lending in off-grid energy. She talked about analyzing a company like Solaris and deciding to invest in that company, and what their strategy should be going forward. The program got a lot of positive feedback about the Jason Spindler Scholars’ participation because they provided a current local perspective to a mix of people. Many of the participants outside the scholars haven’t had this exposure to other markets, so the training had a mix of participants.

Since then, Yuwei and I have been exploring how a new vision for a program that takes lessons learned from great programs like Frontier Market Scouts but is linked more closely to frontier markets, and more specifically focuses on the intersection of business and impact. In light of COVID, this would be a hybrid of online and live courses to build knowledge and skills, then paired with a strong community of young rising, business and impact savvy leaders. Once you participate in the program, you remain a part of this incredible active network of global leaders in the impact investing and social enterprise space. We’ve explored hosting this program under the Jason J. Spindler Foundation or a new entity because we envision it being complimentary to and in partnership with Middlebury as well as other schools, including local universities, for example, in Africa or Latin America. By managing the program independently of one university, we can gain further reach under a lean structure and do what we’d long imagined as a program that is not only offered in California but in Nairobi or Johannesburg and other major regional and frontier hubs for our field.

We want to offer this program to different partners and to ANDE members, so they can send their most promising rising leaders to gain a bigger picture perspective and critical skills from the thought leaders and seasoned professionals in the space. Ultimately, we want this to be offered around the world to attract more diverse participants and a course that can physically go into the markets we’re focused on and from which we require a local immersive perspective. We’re building out the details and structure now, and would like to engage ANDE members on what they find valuable and are interested to support.