MNCs and Social Enterprises: Learning from Each Other?

By Yasmina Zaidman, Director, Strategic Partnerships, Acumen

MNCs and Social Enterprises: Learning from Each Other?

As investors in businesses that are impacting lives, we at Acumen see the potential for business to make a difference, but we also know that taking this impact to scale will require creative new partnerships.

At a Summit in Nairobi last May, we and our partner Dow Chemical launched the Technical Assistance (TA) Initiative – a first for us in several respects.

One, the TA Initiative is our first formal effort to provide targeted managerial and technical expertise to the social enterprises in our portfolio. Two, it is our first time partnering with global companies in a structured way to provide this support. And three, it is our first time bringing multinational companies and social enterprises together to identify common ground and complementary strengths in the development of more inclusive and sustainable markets.

Since our first summit just one year ago, we have already seen the potential for far-reaching impact of this approach. So far, five social enterprises across East and West Africa have received financial and technical support to help scale: d.light, Sproxil, Sanergy, Western Seed, and Virtual City.

This week, from May 5-7, we are reuniting in Nairobi with more social enterprises and new corporate allies including Unilever, Barclays, Apollo Insurance and Ernst & Young, among others, hoping to catalyze even greater collaboration to accelerate the development and distribution of crucial products and services in agriculture, water, sanitation and energy.

But why is this kind of collaboration important? How can multinationals help social enterprises reach scale? And what’s in it for them?

For social enterprises, access to grant funding to address specific business needs such as R&D and professional services has been key, but is likely only the tip of the iceberg. Dow, for example, has also provided expertise from its global supply chain and engineering teams. According to Alden Zecha, CFO of participating social enterprise Sproxil, Inc., “Participating in Acumen’s TA Initiative has provided Sproxil key tools to launch new market initiatives which will have significant long-term impact.”

For multinational corporations, an important benefit has been “the chance to learn from pioneering entrepreneurs on the ground,” in the words of Bo Miller, President of the Dow Chemical Company Foundation. Jeremy Awori, Managing Director of Barclays Kenya, added, “Barclays has an extensive, well established local presence in Africa and we see this summit as a great opportunity to deepen our knowledge of the pioneering enterprises that are strengthening this economy.”

Rebecca Marmott, Global External Affairs Director for Unilever, also pointed to the opportunity for business partnerships. “Unilever is looking for ways to build more inclusive business models across everything we do, and we see the kinds of social enterprises that are coming together for Acumen’s Technical Assistance Summit as ideal partners,” she said.

In the second year of the TA Initiative, Acumen will be working with Business Fights Poverty to dive deeper into the experience and insights of participating social enterprises and multinational companies. We hope to increase our understanding of the opportunities for collaboration, in order to focus on those with greatest promise. We aim to assess the benefits of collaboration, to help make the case for more social enterprises and multinational companies to get involved. And we plan to identify ways of overcoming barriers and collaborating more effectively.

As we embark on this learning journey, we would love to hear your stories.

Acumen has invested over $30 million across East Africa since 2007, focusing on a wide range of sustainable, scalable businesses—in agriculture, housing, health, water and energy—that use market-based approaches to deliver products and services to millions of low income people from both rural and urban communities. We hope that greater collaboration between these social enterprises and multinational corporations will bring the benefits of more inclusive, sustainable markets to even more people in the years to come.

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