Caroline Ashley

Podcast Interview

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BFP: What do you do?

CA: I am a freelance consultant focusing on promoting and facilitating inclusive business in developing countries. Inclusive business combines commercial return with strong development impact.

At the moment I am working on two large projects (in addition to smaller bits of work): first, I am the Learning and Results Manager for the Business Innovation Facility, a 3-year DFID-funded pilot project which supports the development of inclusive business initiatives in five countries; and second, I perform the same role for a similar project funded by Sida, the Swedish Development agency, called Innovations Against Poverty, which will be launched on 28th April 2011.

The main difference between these two projects is that the Business Innovation Facility provides advisory support to help companies overcome the constraints they face in launching their inclusive business initiatives, while the Innovations Against Poverty programme provides mainly financial assistance in the form of grants.

In my role I focus on measuring and understanding the results of initiatives supported by these two facilities, and on drawing out lessons that are useful to other companies, or to donors for designing effective ways to facilitate inclusive business. I am developing a monitoring and evaluation framework for companies and for donors, to help them track their results. I also facilitate the exchange of ideas and insights, as editor of the online Practitioner’s Hub.

BFP: What is the best part about your job?

CA: I love the opportunity to work with such a wide range of inclusive business initiatives. I can be working with a peanut processing plant in Malawi one day, a business developing online education for Zambian schools the next, and then with a pilot to provide services to smallholder farmers in India through mobile phone technology. Talks with a start-up company backed by mixed funding from social and private sources can be followed by discussions with a major multinational company. This variety keeps the work interesting and practical.

BFP: What challenges have you encountered?

CA: The challenges faced by companies we support are a bit different to what I expected. I thought entrenched mindsets might be one, and the challenge of making business ‘inclusive’ would be the focus. Actually, people who come to us have plenty of vision and inspiration and the challenge that we help them with is often working out the business model, the revenue, pricing or distribution system, that will make it viable.

For my own role, developing monitoring or results-tracking there are inevitable challenges: how to track results in a way that means something, actually tells us what difference a business makes to low-income people and why it succeeded (or didn’t), but in a way that is manageable for the company, feasible for us, and proportionate in the resources it uses. As we all know, monitoring can just be a drain.

BFP: What are some of the “tricks of your trade”?

CA: My approach to results-tracking is to make it useful to the company – it might still be time-consuming, but if it is useful in clarifying ‘what does success look like’ and ‘how will we know it when we see it’ then the effort is worth it. When they wrap up a morning’s workshop by saying ‘this will help us deliver results’ then it is no longer just abstract procedure. Another trick is in language: I talk to donors about ‘monitoring and evaluation’ and to companies about ‘results’.

For me it’s also important to find a way of helping companies to tap into the experience of others and to learn from their peers in a forum that they trust and understand. It is surprisingly difficult for companies to share their experience with each other in an accessible way – case studies or presentations by the company are often seen as being too self-promotional; whereas reports produced by independent observers such as consultants, are more analytical but often too lengthy and overly technical. One of the objectives with the Business Innovation Facility Practitioner Hub is to overcome this problem by providing a very accessible platform for sharing and learning.

BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?

CA: Inclusive business combines commercial and development thinking, so some experience in both business and development is of course useful. I don’t think it matters whether you start out in development and then start engaging with business, as I did, or vice versa. What matters is being open to both. People who do well in this field are those that thrive on working with lots of people from varied backgrounds and enjoy communicating with people on both sides of the conversation.

BFP: Finally: what do you hope to get out of being part of this community?

CA: I find it very useful to see what’s on other people’s radars, and to know what’s happening in other sectors. The range of topics that crop up on Business Fights Poverty reminds me that the niche I work in is only a small part of the business in development universe and that there is a lot going on elsewhere. I am looking forward to the knowledge zones that will be launched soon – I expect they will provide the opportunity to cover subjects in a lot more depth, which should be very interesting.

Editor’s Note:

Thank you to Simon Berry for taking the time to do this interview. Read Simon’s latest blog here.

We’re always looking out for members to feature. Help us by taking two-minutes to update your profile, or by nominating someone for Business Fights Poverty Member of the Week.

Read previous Member of the Week interviews here.

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