A Brighter Idea for the Future

One idea lights a thousand candles.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagination and light go hand in hand. A bright idea is commonly depicted with a light bulb, or more specifically, a traditional incandescent bulb – the very same kind that was invented more than 100 years. Our ideas have evolved greatly over the past 100 years, so why has the object used to depict them remained static?

Try to imagine a solar lamp of versatile and sustainable design, a base from which to explore your creativity, adaptable over time to fit the needs of the future. This is a much more accurate representation of the ideas emerging from society today.

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Our generation has reached a new level of awareness about our surroundings and the effects of our consumption on the environment. Sustainability has become a buzzword used nearly as much as progress and economic development. But what does sustainability mean in today’s world? How can we live more sustainably? A large part of the solution lies, surprisingly, with businesses. There is a huge opportunity for businesses that seek to create value for society as a whole, including the environment. The most successful of these businesses are deploying sustainable, market-based solutions to today’s challenges that are both profitable and respect the environment, allowing it to regenerate for generations to come.

On an individual level, many of us are looking to shift to more sustainable lifestyles. We are making small changes in our day-to-day lives ranging from recycling, to eating local produce, to trading in our car for a bike or a bus ticket, to simply using less – less plastic, less water, less energy. These seem like small steps in the scope of the world’s problems, but as more people commit to these changes, the effects multiply. Once we have mastered the smaller habit changes like recycling, have become friends with the produce vendor at our local farmers market, and look forward to our bike ride to work, we can start to take the next, larger steps. What else can we do? How can we contribute to the solutions? Where do we begin?

There are thousands of companies around the world that are enabling this transition to a more sustainable lifestyle that so many of us desire. Instead of focusing on charity as a means to create impact, these companies are creating innovative products that appeal to customers because they are both the best in the market and they provide the average consumer with an easy way to create real impact.

SULI, a portable, multi-functional solar lamp is one such product.

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When consumers purchase a SULI lamp, they are reducing their CO2 consumption and helping provide a lamp to an off-the-grid community. Solar lamps are not a new innovation, however. They have been around for decades and there is plenty of competition. Similarly common is the business model that creates impact by directing a portion of profits to disadvantaged communities. However, SULI takes the concept of conscious consumerism one step further. SULI’s open-source model enables anyone to develop new ways to use the SULI lamp by designing accessories for 3-D printing.

“We want to create a SULI community, allowing us to develop new ideas together, through a model open to everybody, where we can inspire creativity and innovation. This way, every user can be a part of our team – designing, creating, building and sharing new ways to use the SULI light.”

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The SULI model provides customers with the opportunity to create direct impact in a collaborative setting. The SULI team has essentially built the foundation for light innovation – so that you and I can create a myriad of unthought-of ways to bring solar light to more places. The SULI lamp itself will continue to be improved through this community feedback loop – democratizing not only access to a renewable source of light, but also allowing owners of the lamps to create accessories together and be a part of the innovation.

The SULI team has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to support their first massive production. This campaign, similar to the SULI open-source design model, invites the public to be a part of the SULI story and to shape your own reality by co-creating the solution.

Let’s re-imagine the light bulb of our generation as a symbol of new ideas, creativity and collaboration focused on developing real solutions to today’s challenges. What can we create together?

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SULI is currently participating in the 2015 Agora Accelerator. Applications for the 2016 Accelerator open on August 3rd. Learn more here.

Entrepreneurial Success: 7 Simple Actions

enerselva3I joined Agora because I was inspired by its work to promote the development of social entrepreneurs in Latin America. After selecting entrepreneurs generating positive social impact in Latin America, Agora facilitates these entrepreneurs’ access to financial, social, and human capital to increase their success and impact. I am currently advising four social social enterprises in Peru: two in clean cookstoves, one in solar lamps, and one in organic smallholder agriculture.

Having worked in microenterprise, small business training, and consulting in Africa and Latin America, I believe human and social capital are even more important to individual, company, and country development than financial capital. Here are the most important verbs I have identified for successful entrepreneurs:

Prioritize:

  • Don’t attempt too many activities at the same time with limited resources.
  • Determine and focus on your most critical issues and growth bottlenecks.
  • Think before you spend.

Delegate:

  • Clearly define tasks and delegate and communicate them to personnel.
  • Think of everything you do and which of these tasks you could assign to someone else.

pic1Market:

  • Develop a 60-second pitch to interest customers in your product or service.
  • Increase awareness and knowledge of your business with signs, advertisements, and social media.
  • Remember that the customer comes first and that your business is nothing without customers.

Calculate:

  • Keep basic records of sales and expenses.
  • Calculate all costs before setting prices.
  • Separate personal finances from those of the business.

pic3Communicate:

  • Listen carefully to the opinions and concerns of employees and customers.
  • Tell employees clearly what they need to do.
  • Tell suppliers clearly what you need.
  • Tell distributors and customers clearly why they should buy your product or service.

Follow Up:

  • Talking and planning are of limited value without follow-up.
  • Set and adhere to clear deadlines.

Plan:

  • Set realistic objectives and coordinate financial, human, material, and other resources to meet those objectives.
  • Don’t count on good luck to succeed.

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These concepts are simple but can have a powerful impact on entrepreneurs and their communities. This is what I find especially appealing about Agora and its work.

There’s a Lot More to Coffee Than Beans

I set off with Luisa Lombera and Gates Gooding, the founders of a company named Pixán, (which means happiness, soul or essence in Maya), joining them in their quest to find the raw material that had thus far eluded them. Fresh from Agora Partnerships’ Entrepreneur Retreat held in Granada, Nicaragua, we were infused with an invigorated sense of purpose.

Gates and Luisa applied to the Agora Accelerator with the aim of turning Pixán into a flourishing business that will double the income of coffee farmers in the Pixán supply chain. Searching for an opportunity to create impact in the coffee sector in Latin America, they were inspired by the Yemeni traditional practice of making a drink called kishr (or qishr), which is a kind of chai made with coffee fruit, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Luisa and Gates took to the idea and are now looking to produce a beverage made with an infusion of dried coffee fruit, also known as “cáscara” (skin or peel – in Spanish).

In the best of cases, coffee cáscara is used as a fertilizer, though it is too acidic to be effective unless it is altered via vermicomposting. Most producers just leave it to rot in piles, causing residues to wash into rivers and lakes. This acidifies soil, disrupts nutrients levels in waterways, and creates anoxic zones in bodies of water.

However,  coffee fruit is very rich in antioxidants and when properly dried, the coffee cáscara can be transformed into a healthy product. By diverting coffee cáscara to productive uses, negative environmental impacts can be reduced and coffee farmers can earn incomes by selling something they previously threw away. This is exactly what Pixán aims to do and they plan to position their tea-like beverage as a healthy, moderately caffeinated option.

This plan sounds so simple, genius even, which should have told me something. It turns out that drying coffee fruit properly is rather difficult and can result in material that is not fit for consumption. It is also not widely practiced in Latin America, so the odds were against the Pixán team in their search for a supplier of raw material.

Meeting Alumni Along the Trail

-Rob & Noushin of Vega, along with Luisa & Gates of Pixán
Gates and Luisa had heard of someone who had successfully produced dried coffee cáscara in northern Nicaragua, near the border with Honduras. It took some resolve to hit the road after the exhausting Retreat, but we were determined to check out the potential source.

Heading north from Managua, we first stopped in Estelí to pay a visit to Rob Terenzi and Noushin Ketabi of Vega Coffee, 2014 Agora Accelerator Alumni. Just last year the Vega team was also facing the unknown. They had a mission to help coffee farmers earn a fair living, but did not yet have any revenues. Vega cuts out the many middlemen in the coffee value chain by selling “Farmer Roasted Coffee”, enabling farmers to garner the profits they deserve. Vega has built a roasting and processing center in the heart of Nicaragua coffee country that is run by the farmers themselves. Vega empowers farmers with the tools and trainings to roast and package their own beans. The final product is then shipped by Vega directly to customers.

As Vega had successfully raised capital through the Agora Accelerator, hearing their story was just the sort of reassurance Luisa & Gates needed to renew their confidence. The animated exchange between the two couples was heartwarming, and I got the feeling that things were heading in the right direction.

Reaching the Quarry

Continuing further north the next morning, we arrived at the Beneficio Santa Lucila. We were greeted by Rina Paguaga of Café Vidita, a company that grows and processes coffee from the surrounding highlands. A few years ago, Rina had caught wind of specialty coffee purveyors who occasionally served cáscara tea, somewhat as a novelty.  As a result, Café Vidita recently began producing a limited supply of coffee cáscara for export.

-Rina of Cafe Vidita with Gates & Luisa-

An accredited coffee taster, Rina set up a proper cupping for us to evaluate the three vintages of cáscara that she had, two saved from previous years. We spent hours discussing the details of growing and processing good coffee, and I learned a lot about the precision and selectivity involved. It is difficult to obtain the best beans and sustain supply in a cutthroat global market. Characteristics of the coffee plants and growing season factors also affect the taste of tea made from coffee cáscara, adding another layer of complexity.

Rina shared a great deal of advice, and helped the Pixán team flag potential improvements in their plans to find coffee cáscara suppliers. Luisa and Gates hope to work with Rina in the future to extend the cáscara-processing competency to coffee farmers in other parts of Latin America.

Meeting the Patriarch of Nicaraguan Coffee

After lunch we paid a visit to Rina’s father, Jose Rene Paguaga, a 90-year-old gentleman who is a noble figure in the Nicaraguan coffee industry. Still ebullient, he shared stories of how he built a coffee empire, lost it all, and built it back up again from almost nothing. We began to appreciate the strong-willed people behind Nicaragua’s proud coffee tradition and marveled at its recent ascension towards the top of international coffee rankings.

Looking to the Future

Luisa and Gates were excited to have met Rina, and to have tasted Café Vidita’s delicious cáscara tea, and were ready to return home to Mexico to start the next journey: launching Pixán.

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In the past few months, Luisa and Gates have taken large strides towards helping coffee producers get more out of their harvests, and hope to for years to come. The Pixán beverage recently made it’s debut at farmer’s markets and retailers in Colorado.

 

Shared Values: what we look for when selecting entrepreneurs for the Agora Accelerator

Ben Powell - Impact Investing in Action 2013 (1)The Agora Accelerator is designed for entrepreneurs with real potential to make a significant positive contribution to the world. When we select our classes, we look at a number of factors including business model innovation, scalability, and social impact. But the most important factor by far is the quality of the entrepreneur.  Figuring out who are the most promising entrepreneurs for the accelerator is one of our hardest jobs, especially given the tremendous energy and innovation we are seeing among entrepreneurs working throughout Latin America.  We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we have found that using core values as a framework can be incredibly helpful in understanding the power an entrepreneur will eventually wield to propel his/her company to success.

For Agora, we look for entrepreneurs with unambiguous clarity of intention to create great businesses that address key community and environmental needs.  While many entrepreneurs have this intention, we’ve found it’s the ones who embody a few simple core values that are most likely to grow businesses that create change at large scale. These core values also correlate to entrepreneurs who, by their very orientation to the world, are most likely to add real value to other entrepreneurs in the Agora community.

These are the four core values that we hold as an organization and that we look for in our own hiring as well as in selecting entrepreneurs for the Agora Accelerator.

  1. Agency – Agency means believing we can actively influence our destiny, and then having the courage to act on that belief. It is the conviction that you can make a difference, that you have some control over your own destiny; that you are a player, not just a spectator. Entrepreneurs with agency believe the following:  I have a stake in the system and I have the power to change it for the better; therefore, I will. Agency is the fundamental value all entrepreneurs must possess to make any difference in the world.
  2. Empathy –  Empathy means understanding at a fundamental level that we are interconnected, with a shared humanity and a shared destiny. It’s the root of kindness and compassion and the foundation of trust and community. It is basic respect for the dignity of the human race, and for the planet on which we live, and humility in knowing that we may not always be right. It’s a key component of creativity and social problem solving, team dynamics, and effective collaboration and co-creation. It’s an indispensable ingredient for successful business leadership in the 21st century.
  3. Curiosity  –  Human curiosity is the foundation for human ingenuity, invention, and progress. It’s a mindset relentlessly focused on the need to understand ourselves and our environment more fully so that we can more effectively allocate time and resources to our own, and everyone else’s benefit.  A curiosity mindset questions the status quo, recognizes flaws in systems and patterns, and constantly looks for ways to improve the way things are done.  It is the root of our desire to learn and evolve and to question authority.
  4. Perseverance –  Perseverance means not giving up while there is still hope. Entrepreneurship is almost always a slog, requiring day to day blocking and tackling punctuated by frequent crisis and failure. How we adjust to challenge, how we deal with disappointment and stress, how we show up every day is probably the single most important factor to any entrepreneur’s success.  Grand strokes of genius or creativity can launch a company but attention to detail, diligence, discipline, and grit are what grow a business, and a person.

In a world of accelerating complexity, uncertainty and competition, core values remaining unflinchingly constant is key to successfully taking an idea and turning it into an organization.  I’ve found that it pays to work with entrepreneurs who live with strong core values, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Con Ágora Partnerships, uno siempre tiene más de lo que espera

IMG_6309Marcelo Hernandez Mahecha y Alexander Valencia participaron en La Aceleradora Agora 2014. Su negocio, CAIA Ingeniería, provee servicios de consultoría de energía y emisiones para empresas en industrias de alto consumo energético en Colombia. Luego, CAIA brinda servicios para implementar las mejoras recomendadas, a través de innovadores contratos de rendimiento de ahorro energético, que reducen o hasta eliminan las salidas de flujos de sus clientes.

Hablamos con Marcelo sobre su experiencia en La Aceleradora Agora y esto fue lo que nos contó.

¿Cómo era tu relación con tu consultor Agora?

Muy buena – muy cordial y muy profesional. Daryl, nuestro consultor Agora, nos dio muy buenas ideas que nos hicieron cambiar de perspectiva varias veces. Así mismo, debido a que era ingeniero, logró entender rápidamente nuestro modelo de negocio y nuestra oferta de valor.

¿Cuál fue el mejor consejo que les dio su consultor?

¡Nos dio muchos consejos! Recuerdo que nos obligó a contar la historia de nuestro negocio, no solo a enfocarnos en el tema técnico. También, nos dio ideas en cada fase de la consultoría que realmente ampliaron nuestra visión. Por ejemplo, aportó muchísimo a nuestro modelo de negocio ya que durante su revisión de nuestro modelo financiero se dio cuenta que la deuda que adquirimos para crecer es exactamente igual al incremento en activos. Eso nos permitió no solo modelar nuestro crecimiento, sino también tener momentos importantes de negociación con los inversionistas. Finalmente, nos ayudó a generar nuestra estrategia hacia los inversionistas ya que nuestro consultor sabía que tipo de recursos necesitábamos y la mejor manera de contar nuestra historia para poder obtener esos recursos.

¿Qué consejo darían a un emprendedor que esté pensando en aplicar a la Aceleradora?

Le diría que no lo dude, que aplique. La verdad considero que son muchas las razones para aplicar. Primeramente, te da la oportunidad de que alguien externo te ayude a comprender las debilidades y las fortalezas del negocio y como crecer a partir de ahí. Segundo, es un ambiente de gente muy motivada, brillante y comprometida; para un emprendedor, esto es muy importante ya que encontrar ese tipo de gente te ayuda a llenarte de energía y a volverte más fuerte. Finalmente, el contacto con inversionistas y la metodología de los deal discussions (dinámica de Agoradonde un emprendedor presenta su proyecto de inversión a posibles inversionistas) es sumamente útil. Agora ayuda tanto a los emprendedores como a los inversionistas a estar más tranquilos, para un emprendedor, saber que hay alguien atrás que está validando lo que uno está haciendo es sumamente importante.

IMG_6164Realmente es una experiencia que nosotros valoramos muy positivamente, que cambió mucho la perspectiva de nuestro negocio y que nos dio las herramientas para continuar. Después de SOCAP (la conferencia de inversión que asistimos como parte de La Aceleradora) logramos entablar una relación con un inversionista en Colombia y con otros en Estados Unidos. Actualmente estamos negociando con los inversionistas y vamos a ver qué se logra. El acompañamiento de Ágora en estos procesos es fundamental.

¿Algún otro comentario?

Con Ágora uno siempre tiene más de lo que uno espera. Viendo retrospectivamente, el costo-beneficio obtenido a través de la Aceleradora es bien grande. Tiene muchos beneficios a un precio que es muy económico y accesible.

Completing the Puzzle: how the Agora Accelerator helped PACE MD piece together a complicated business model

In Mexico, more than 3 million neonates die in their first month of life, almost 300,000 women from complications at birth, and more than 750,000 children die of diarrheal illness each year. And this is just the beginning. Haywood Hall, founder of PACE MD, discovered that a significant amount of these deaths can be averted with proper training. Mexico suffers from a “Medical Knowledge Gap” in which health care providers lack fundamental training and/or continuing medical education opportunities to provide consistent high quality care.

PACE_MD_3PACE MD is solving this problem by selling continuing medical education and training packages in Mexico and Latin America to improve medical care and system efficiency in emergency situations. They use an innovative model of skills training and certification, knowledge networks, and tele-mentoring to reach from medical centers in major cities all the way out to the last mile of the chain of survival.

PACE MD has trained and certified more than 20,000 medical providers since 2006 and was credited by the Health Ministry of Chiapas with helping to reduce the Maternal Mortality rate in Chiapas 32%. PACE MD is a certified B Corp and Haywood Hall is an Ashoka Fellow. Like many businesses operating in Latin America, PACE MD faced a number of challenges to growth.

Agora had the opportunity to speak with Haywood about his experience in the Agora Accelerator and how the program helped PACE MD to overcome of the challenges it faced.

Which aspect of the Agora Accelerator were you most apprehensive about prior to starting the program?

Haywood Hall: [A Business Accelerator] is a very different orientation from everything that I have been doing so far to build my business. As a physician with background in emergency care, I hadn’t been very involved in the more formal business aspects. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to understand the business parts as quickly as my peers. I also had many time constraints. However, as an entrepreneur, I was excited to get outside the “day-to-day” aspects of my job.

What was the most helpful aspect of the Accelerator consulting process for PACE MD?

IMG_6323Haywood Hall: When I started the Accelerator, I had a general idea of where different components of PACE MD fit together, but I knew we had a long way to go. Participating in the Accelerator taught me different ways to structure businesses, a lot about how organizations run and think, and the many kinds of tools that can be used to run a business. In particular, I learned the importance of focusing on the financial aspects of the business (and how to do so). I had a very low level of financial knowledge before the Accelerator. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but my financial knowledge improved significantly.

Throughout the Accelerator, you had the opportunity to pitch PACE MD to a number of different investors. What did you learn from that process?

Haywood Hall: Prior to participating in the Accelerator, there was a confusing cloud in the air of what our mission was – in terms of its social function versus its business function. I had a lot of trouble maintaining both of those things and sometimes found myself discussing the social impact and downplaying the financial aspects, and vise versa. Through the Accelerator, I had a number of opportunities to practice selling different things to different people. I learned that people need to hear different things and that you need to figure out exactly who your audience is.

As PACE MD’s Agora Consultant, what was the most transformational change you saw in PACE MD over the 8-months you worked with Haywood and the rest of the team?

Joana Videgain: PACE MD significantly strengthened their business model during the Accelerator and showed real change in three major areas.

  1. Pitching the Business: At the very beginning of the Accelerator (at the Entrepreneur Retreat), the PACE team had a conversation with an investor and after an entire hour, the investor still could not understand the different pieces of the business and how they fit together. 8 months later, at Agora’s Impact Investing in Action at SOCAP, Hawyood successfully and clearly presented his entire business model in 10 minutes including an explanation of how their many different programs fit into the company’s theory of change.
  2. Linking the Vision and the Operations: I have seen many companies where the operational team is excluded from the core mission of the business. I worked closely with Haywood to find ways in which the entire team could spend more time together and could focus on the “why” of their work. After a few months, I was able to see the links between the operational team and the visionary teams forming and strengthening.
  3. Building the Network: With improved communications, PACE MD attracted many allies and investors. In addition, through Agora’s mentor and investor matchmaking and multiple opportunities to host Deal Discussions at industry conferences, PACE MD gained a much stronger and more prominent position within the larger industry of impact investing and PACE MD is now part of other programs that will continue to help them grow and strengthen their business.

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The Value of Community Along the Road Less Traveled

Vega is solving a major problem in the coffee industry: 80% of coffee farmers worldwide (20 million farmers) are trapped in a cycle of subsistence farming, earning around $1 per pound of coffee which is ultimately sold for upwards of $20 per pound. Typical coffee supply chains include around 20 middlemen and can take up to 6 months for the coffee bean to reach the consumer.

Vega empowers coffee farmers in Nicaragua to process their own premium beans, and connects them directly with coffee lovers on their online marketplace.

vega-coffee-supply-chain

 

Vega participated in the 2014 Agora Accelerator. We had the chance to speak with one of the Co-Founders of Vega, Noushin Ketabi, about her experience in the Agora Accelerator.

You were more early stage than many of the other companies, but had very high (and fast) growth potential. What value did you gain from the Entrepreneur Retreat?

IMG_6016The Retreat really marked the start of Vega. My cofounders and I had just left our previous jobs, and in the weeks before the Retreat, two of us had moved down to Nicaragua to start in-country operations. Our consultant Mary was an awesome resource, and the cohort structure helped us really get to know our fellow entrepreneurs, and understand their businesses and experiences. The sessions on leadership, investment structures, business models, and pitching were instrumental for us in starting our venture off on the right foot, in particular because we were so early stage. We made friends from countries throughout Latin America, and learned so much!

What did you learn from your peers in the Agora Accelerator that had businesses at later stages than you?

We learned the power of perseverance from our fellow entrepreneurs. Everyone, in the story of their enterprise, had some fundamental experience(s) that was either arduous and/or didn’t go at all as they had planned. Talking to our fellow entrepreneurs and learning how they applied patience and creativity to work through those obstacles taught us a lot. Although we had been planning to start Vega for a while, hearing first-hand actual risks and difficulties inherent in starting a new venture abroad (and that you could tackle them!) was a great way for us to adjust our expectations and apply a realistic perspective moving forward.

Although you did not receive full consulting, how did being part of the agora community contribute to your fast growth rate and success pitching to investors?

Vega_3Our consultant Mary was always there for us whenever we needed her. Immediately post-Retreat, she helped us start thinking through Vega’s mission and values, and define our respective roles as co-founders. This higher consciousness organized us, so we could start functioning like a real company. Mary gave us fantastic advice and feedback as we applied to funding opportunities, and was 110% there for us with anything we threw at her — interview prep, financial projections, comparative market analysis, whatever! We couldn’t be where we are today as a company without Mary or the other Agora staff, who were always on hand to help with any specific questions that we had along the way.

What advice would you give to someone considering participating in the Accelerator?

Vega_1Absolutely apply! From start to finish, being a part of the Agora family has been a wonderful experience. From the first day of the Retreat to today, I feel as though I am a part of a supportive—and awe-inspiring—community of changemakers. When you decide to take the road less traveled, there’s nothing more valuable than finding that community. Also, the connections we made with funders and advisors over the course of the Agora accelerator has been critical to us as we seek our first round of funding and take Vega to the next level.

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Applications for the 2015 Agora Accelerator are open until November 3rd.

Agora Accelerator Provides Birds-Eye View for Entrepreneurs in Latin America

Luciernaga1 (1)Luciérnaga distributes small solar lighting technologies that affordably meet the
lighting and device charging needs for energy poor populations in Central America. Luciérnaga fights energy poverty, delivers clean energy, and strengthens markets. The company has sold 3,400 solar lights, providing 17,000 people with access to light and allowing them to save up to $220 per year.

Luciérnaga participated in the 2014 Agora Accelerator. We interviewed the Founder and Managing Director, Sebastian Africano, to learn more about why he decided to apply for the Accelerator and what value he gained.

Why did you decide to apply for the agora accelerator?

I was in the process of starting Luciérnaga at the time and had many gaps and questions about the business model that I wanted to answer. I was looking for support in different places and wanted increase the visibility of the company.

What I liked about Agora was the focus on Latin America and the fact that Agora had an office in one of the countries where Luciérnaga has operations and where I have worked regularly over the past 10 years. This regional focus makes Agora more aware of the situations and circumstances that are particular to Latin America. Agora also offered a broad diversity of enterprises, peers and colleagues. So I did some more research on the program, applied, and got in.

What were the two things about the consulting that were the most helpful in developing your business model and preparing Luciérnaga for growth?

A)   The process.  Looking at every part of the business model and looking at where the gaps existed was very helpful. The process allowed me to zoom out and view my business model from a 10,000-foot vantage point to identify the strong components as well as the weaker ones that needed to be removed or changed. I saw everything from new perspectives and found a number of blind spots that had previously been ignored.

In addition, having an Agora consultant, Maria, working with me each week provided a new set of eyes that were objectively looking at everything. Maria provided very helpful support in financial planning and modeling in particular. I had someone pulling their hairs alongside of me! Finally, I appreciated having someone who really understood the Central American context and the challenges of running a business in Latin America.

B)   The contacts that Agora has. Agora’s network is really impressive. I made a lot of good contacts from Agora’s partnership with the Mentor Capital Network (formerly known as the William James Foundation) and during my participation at the Biennial of the Americas’ Mexico City Summit where I hosted an Agora Deal Discussion. I also had the opportunity to participate in a business plan competition with the Mentor Capital Network where I had access to even more mentors and feedback on my business model.

IMG_6034 (1)What would you tell someone who is unsure about applying for or participating the program?

Be realistic about the time and financial commitment.

It’s worthwhile because you will be in a community that shares a lot of the challenges that you have in your new business, that shares opportunities, and introduces you to new networks. You will gain access to many new opportunities including feedback on your business model and endless communication/network opportunities.

 

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Applications for the 2015 Agora Accelerator are open until November 3rd.

Thinking Outside the Box in Latin America

“There has never been an example of an economy that has suffered as a result of giving women access to capital, knowledge, networks, and entrepreneurial tools. The only places where women don’t add as much to the economy as men are places they aren’t allowed to. The world has too many problems to only have half our brains working on them.” – Anne Welsh McNulty

Business has provided billions of people around the world with endless opportunities. From personal laptops to affordable air travel, innovative business models have provided us with a wealth of comforts the world over.  However, there are still those who live day to day without products, services, and opportunities that so many take for granted.

More than 20% of Peruvians (6.5 million) do not have access to electricity. 35% (16.7 million) of all Colombians are unbanked, as is 65% of the population of all of Latin America. (1) Nearly 54% (8 million) of Guatemalans live below the poverty line ($1.25/day), while 75% (11.3 million) of the population participates in the informal economy. (2)

Though these statistics may seem daunting at first, three regional innovators are successfully tackling these challenges – Alicia Kozuch, Founder of Buen Power (Peru), Ana Barrera, Founder of Aflore (Colombia), and Sophie Eckrich, Founder of Teysha (Guatemala). These entrepreneurs are harnessing the power of business to electrify remote rural communities, build trust in often uncertain financial systems, and create a direct connection between artisans and customers – all while making a profit and shifting the way their respective industries view success.

Alicia, Ana, and Sophie are all 2014 McNulty Fellows, an annual scholarship award funded by the McNulty Foundation. Each year, the McNulty Foundation selects three outstanding women entrepreneurs accepted into our Accelerator program and funds their participation in an effort to amplify market-driven solutions to pressing issues in Latin America.

LIGHTING UP PERU

IMG_5211 (1)In Peru, the combination of the Andean Mountains and Amazonian Jungle creates a complex geography that often prevents entire communities from connecting to electrical grids. It’s these conditions that motivated Alicia to look beyond the problem and look to a solution.

Buen Power doesn’t just provide an affordable and sustainable source of light to off-the-grid rural communities; the company has built a business model that creates local micro-entrepreneurs by integrating teachers as distributors of dLights. “We are utilizing teachers – since they are going to these remote communities anyway. While they are back in their home cities on the weekend, we train them in solar energy, and provide them with sample lights and specially created picture books which we have designed. They then hold community meetings in the communities where they work – and teach the community members about solar energy and its benefits and offer the lights for sale. These teachers earn a commission on sales. We are also creating other micro-entrepreneurs – by supporting about 50 other locals who buy our products at wholesale and sell at retail in their very distant communities.”

Q'ero girls with dlight - Buen powerAlicia recently received an email from a friend who works in remote Peruvian communities that stated, “Last week, we arrived in Q’ero well after dark. We saw a light in the distance which slowly moved towards us. These three beautiful girls came to meet us with you will never guess what – one of your dLights! What an amazing sight – never before have we been greeted in the dark.”

Alicia recalled, “The story brought tears to my eyes as I could clearly see, from an outside source, that our work was touching lives that we didn’t even know about. What an incredible feeling! It’s these moments that keep me going through the hardest days.”

Buen Power is currently in the process of opening 6 new locations in Peru. Next, the companies plans to replicate this distribution system country-wide. They recently received a $100,000 grant from USAID to pursue their “radical new distribution method for rural electrification”. (3)

BRINGING TRUST INTO FINANCIAL SERVICES IN COLOMBIA

IMG_4547 (1)Ana is thinking big. “Within the next 5-10 years I would like to see that Aflore has revolutionised the way of addressing the unbanked [adults who do not have bank accounts], in such a way that it has inspired others to innovate and develop other products and services to serve them properly.  After spending so many years working at the forefront of financial innovation in large investment banks,  I now believe that it is actually in this market segment where innovation should really happen, and most likely, the only segment where it really matters.”

Besides the unbanked, Ana has found that many of the people in Colombia who do, in fact, have bank accounts withdraw their money as soon as it lands in their accounts. She believes that this problem of financial inclusion is not an issue of access but rather one of engagement. Ana explains that, “Aflore’s main innovation is the channel: distributing financial products through a network of informal advisors. These informal advisors are people that are already trusted in their communities and who are seen as financial role models. We leverage these existing trusted relationships not only to get people to engage in financial services but also to access information about our clients (personal and financial) that allows us to do risk assessments of a demographic that the banks are not attending.”

Jeny, one of Aflore’s first clients, illustrates the success of this business model. Jeny has been unable to get a loan from a bank in the past because she withdraws her minimum wage salary each month as soon as it is deposited. In steps Yaneth, an Aflore advisor.

In addition to being an advisor, Yaneth is also one of Jeny’s closest friends. Yaneth has built a small but successful clothing manufacturing business from her home and has become a trusted source of financial advice for Jeny and other women in her community. When Jeny’s mother fell ill, Yaneth offered Jeny a $100 loan to visit her family. When Jeny repaid this loan, she was then extended a $500 loan to buy a washing machine. Jeny has also repaid this loan and is considering borrowing an additional $1,000 to invest in her husband’s business.

“This year, we are focusing on proving and building the channel. We aim to finish the year with a network of 120 advisors,” Ana concludes. “We aim to put in place an operation that will allow us to scale our business significantly during 2015.”

HUMANIZING FASHION IN GUATEMALA

IMG_5312 (1)The Teysha team “wants to see a fashion industry that values the creators of the goods just as much as the design and look”. They believe “that in order to create a more vibrant and prosperous world for all, we need to know each other better and value each other’s talents more”.

10250257_644211412316537_6710091512219631956_nWith this philosophy in mind, Teysha has built a business model that creates social, environmental, and economic value for all stakeholders, every step of the way. Sophie explains the Teysha business model: “We work directly with groups of artisans to connect them to our customization platform, combining the forces of textile makers, leather workers, shoe makers, to make one of a kind goods. Our customers are able to customize their goods by learning about the various villages and techniques we feature. Through this model, we create a direct connection between the customer and the maker, and create a bridge between cultures.”

10155167_640971995973812_3946401823499050900_nThis model has the potential to revolutionize artisanal fashion in the region because rather than simply analyzing market trends, producing a product, and selling it – Teysha is building a platform to connect the producer and the consumer and empowering them to work together to create a product that uses the skills of the artisans and satisfies the desires of the person purchasing the product. By bringing this human element to the fashion industry, consumers consciousness and product transparency is reaching an entirely new level. Sophie affirms that “we are working to make ethically and authentically made goods the norm within the fashion industry”.

IN CONCLUSION

These three women have overcome countless barriers in incredibly difficult business environments. The McNulty Foundation recognizes the importance of this type of innovation, values the passion, endurance and leadership these women have shown, and is committed to supporting the growth of these game changing businesses.

Anne Welsh McNulty, co-founder of the McNulty Foundation, believes “Women don’t need to be told to be leaders or to find solutions to economic and social problems in their communities. All they need is access to the economic tools and networks traditionally denied to them and they will build the solutions on their own, because that is a human desire, not a gendered one.”

Successful Impact Investment in Nicaragua

photo 1 (1) (4)Aida Patricia is the founder of Oscaritos, a textile business that she started in Nicaragua in 1996 with only 100 dollars from a microfinance loan. In November 2013, Aida completed the repayment of a debt investment from Pomona Impact, an angel investment group founded in 2011. We had the opportunity to speak with Aida and congratulate her on the successful repayment.

Aida, tell us a little about your history with Pomona.

I entered the Agora Accelerator so I could prepare my company to receive investment and had the opportunity to present my company to a group of investors. It was in Granada, in 2011, where we met Pomona. They paid a lot of attention to our company and when we spoke with them, they directly asked us how much we need, and that is how it happened. They gave us a loan of $30,000 that we invested as working capital. This investment has really helped us to grow, in fact we doubled our sales this year. We are working on a report where we document our significant growth and the impact is has had for us and on the lives of our many employees.

How was the process of working with Pomona?

The link was Agora. Agora was always aware of our relationship and served as an intermediary, helping us communicate with Pomona and prepare the right documentation throughout the entire process. Sometimes, as a SME it is hard for us to understand what investors need and their way of thinking. Agora helped us establish the relationship with Pomona and was there every step of the way. However, the relationship became more than just a business deal. Our colleagues told us that it is amazing what we have with Pomona, a relationship was more than just about a loan. They really came to be part of the Oscaritos family. It was a successful investment and we thank them very much for that trust they had in us. I want to send Mark and Rich our deepest appreciation from everyone at Oscaritex. I do not have the words needed to thank all that we have achieved thanks to Pomona.

Richard Ambrose, co-founder of Pomona Impact, added a few remarks on Aida and the investment process:

In our opinion, Aida represents the untapped entrepreneurial energy in Central America that is ready to be unlocked. I credit her and Oscar (husband) for the courage, vision and uncompromising honesty needed to get the business started WHILE delivering on her social mission.  Instead of mimicking the harsh working conditions that many garment manufacturers use to drive production, she built an open-air production facility that invites natural light and fresh air as well as a respectful working environment for her employees.  

Agora was instrumental first in identifying her as a worthy candidate for its accelerator and second in providing the additional training necessary to help get Oscaritos ready for investment.  Throughout the life of the investment, Pomona even received additional support from Agora to assist with some reporting issues that Oscaritos was having trouble completing.  This translated to both cost and time savings for us (Pomona).  Quite simply – Agora continues to impress!

We received the final repayment of the loan from Oscaritos on time and with an equitable financial return. We maintain a close relationship and look forward to collaborating on future projects. Thanks to all involved!

Accelerating Businesses Creating Positive Impact