Tag Archives: small and growing businesses

From the Mayan Biosphere to the World

The Pat family is demonstrating how it is possible to insert a rural indigenous community into the global economy and to preserve the environment at the same time.

I have to admit that I have often regarded ventures of this type as exercises in nostalgia rather than as serious business propositions. Also, too many of us in the development community are in a constant quest for scale and large numbers instead of measuring the intensity of impact for those affected. This project made me look at things in a new way.

The Pat family lives in the Mayan community of Tankuche of about 1,000 residents in the state of Campeche in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. They have taken what was formerly a hobby –beekeeping – and turned it into a business that produces as much as 10 tons of pure organic honey a year. The bees are raised on communal and public lands within the Los Petenes biosphere reserve, and their cultivation requires the preservation of the ecology of reserve, thus aligning economic incentives with conservation. Don Vidal, the father of the Pat family, is currently in the process of formalizing the company as a cooperative, which will allow for easier access to financing. Getting past the bureaucrats who delight in making things as difficult as possible is just one of the many challenges he has to overcome.

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Don Vidal is a highly spiritual man and a visionary. He wants to provide an example to the rest of the village of how hard work can help people raise themselves out of poverty. His whole family is entrepreneurial. His wife, Isabel, is involved in providing healthcare, formally and informally, especially to pregnant women in the village. One of their daughters, Josefa, runs an outsourced garment operation employing women of the village and their other daughter commercializes the honey in Cancun. Their son, Rogaciano, currently manages the beekeeping with the help of three employees. Last year, with some public funding and a reinvestment of profits, the family began constructing a collection center. The center still needs about $50,000 to install the bottling operation and to build the warehouse and shipping center that will allow the family to manage not only their own production, but that for another 32 family producers, 8 of whom already produce with Vidal. The idea is to eventually incorporate as many honey producers in the village as possible.

The commercialization of the Pat family’s honey is being assumed by Mercado delaTierra, an entity formed by The GreenSquids, a company created by architect turned social entrepreneur Enrique Kaufmann who is dedicated to developing sustainable businesses in rural communities. The GreenSquids in turn has participated in Agora Partnerships’ Accelerator program and remains an active member of the Agora community. The GreenSquids is also working on a comprehensive community development project in the Mayan community of Nuevo Xcan in the state of Quintana Roo.

Mercado delaTierra is positioning the honey as a premium, pure organic product. Honey can also be differentiated by qualities such as acidity, color, and flavor derived from the type of flower that produced the pollen. Mercado delaTierra has already signed a contract with Thrive Market to distribute the honey in Thrive’s California stores and is seeking additional contracts for the remainder of the Pat family production. Due to declining U.S. production of honey, attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the causes if which are still being debated, honey prices in the U.S. have risen more than 80% since 2006 and about 65% of US supply is now imported. In addition, much of the product marketed as honey is impure or adulterated.

However, in Campeche, the very biodiversity of the Los Petenes reserve appears to protect the bees from natural enemies. There is a great opportunity to increase production. With a small amount of additional financing for the collection center (anyone thinking crowdfunding?), this business can be taken to the next level. This would indeed produce a sweet result for the Pat family, their village, the biosphere, and very satisfied honey lovers all around the world.

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.

Continue reading A Brighter Idea for the Future

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


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.

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

Retreat 2014: Accelerating the Shift Toward a New Economy

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John Kohler, Co-Founder of Toniic and leader in the field of impact investing, stated it bluntly: “I’d rather fund a medium business plan with excellent people, rather than a great plan with medium people.” When it comes to entrepreneurship, particularly at the early stage, the founding team of entrepreneurs plays an absolutely indispensable role. They are the ones making the decisions, taking the risks, and creating businesses that have the potential to shift the way that business functions in society. They bring a unique energy that is truly indispensable, an energy that could be felt powerfully throughout the week of January 27 in Granada, Nicaragua during the Agora 2014 Entrepreneur Retreat.

IMG_6030 (1)The Entrepreneur Retreat serves as the launch event for the Agora Accelerator, an intensive, 3-stage program designed to give entrepreneurs access to the knowledge, networks, and capital they need to scale their business models and their impact. The 2014 Retreat was designed with the intent of strengthening three key components of the early stage ecosystem: the community, the business, the individual. The agenda challenged the entrepreneurs to dive deep into both their business models and their own decision-making as leaders. However, as the week came to a close, the development of the community became a top priority for many present

IMG_4441“Back home we are already feeling SAUDADES, a word in Portuguese that describes the feeling when you miss people who, for some period of time, were a part of your life, and for whom you will forever have wonderful memories,” Raquel Cruz, Co-Founder of Brasil Aromaticos, recalled. “I want to convey my gratitude for the opportunity to be with people so special. People who are ahead of the times with their businesses; who are creating both profit and impact…and above all, people who know that it is always possible to do more. I feel honored to have been in a group of people who believe, share their dreams, and are ready for action AGORA (Agora in Portuguese means NOW)”.

At Agora we believe that building this community is critical to accelerating the shift in business from business that focuses solely on profit creation to models that create value for all shareholders. Each of the entrepreneurs in our Accelerator is taking an enormous risk. They are challenging traditional models and building new approaches in some of the most difficult environments in the world. They are creating platforms for marginalized farmers to access and share invaluable data; they are employing prisoners to produce hammocks in high demand; they are bridging the gap between tourism, indigenous communities, and the exquisite natural beauty of Mexico; they are revolutionizing mobility in Brazil with the first ever electric car sharing program; and they are re-foresting Mexico by selling and re-planting carefully-extracted, live Christmas trees. These entrepreneurs are are doing it because they truly believe it is possible to build a dynamic, competitive, and inclusive economy that creates value for all and walks the often misunderstood line between purpose and profit. The Agora Retreat is just one step on the journey of these modern-day pioneers towards accelerating the full impact of that collective vision.

IMG_4382“I returned to Mexico with a complete paradigm change,” 2014 Entrepreneur Kitti Szabo, Co-Founder of La Mano del Mono, concluded. “Now I can dream big.”

 

 

 

 

Agora Entrepreneur Turns off Lights, Aims to Innovate Solar Energy Sector in Guatemala

quetsol - out of the dark(GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA) Today, Juanish Rodriguez, founder of the Guatemalan solar company Quetsol, will be turning his lights off until he can turn lights on for millions in his home country.

Via the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, Quetsol is seeking the $50,000 it needs to launch a Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) solar power kit. The new model bridges the gap between the high price of solar technology and the severe energy needs of Guatemala’s poorest rural communities without access to electricity.

To get a sense of this technology’s potential, do the following: Imagine a woman—let’s call her Juanita—lives in an indigenous community three hours by foot from an electrical grid. She wants power in her home so that her children can read and she can spend time with her family at night without inhaling kerosene fumes. She has heard that solar power can reach anywhere—she cannot access electrical lines, but the sun is within everyone’s access—but cannot see how she can scrape together the upfront cost to purchase solar technology when her family can barely afford candles.

Now imagine a scenario in which Juanita gets solar power into her home right away without needing to pool together her next six month’s savings. From each month’s earnings, she decides how much to contribute to her electricity and buys it only as she needs it. Imagine a solar company that allows Juanita to invest in a permanent energy solution at the speed that she can afford because they believe income grows after a home has electricity.

This last scenario is the one that Mr. Rodriguez will be unplugging his own lights to make a reality. The PAYG model is the innovation that the solar industry has been lacking when it comes to reaching the world’s poorest communities. It makes solar a realistic energy source for the 2.6 million Juanitas in Guatemala, and 1.6 billion throughout the world, who rely on candles and kerosene to light their homes. By eliminating the high upfront cost that prevents millions of people from purchasing solar, PAYG opens up renewable energy to thousands more. And by providing an easy financing option—pay-when-you-can vs. pay-on-this-date—it will get this solar into more homes, faster.

In fact, Quetsol expects to see sales increase by 1700%, distributing 100,000 kits and reaching over 505,000 people in the next five years. While Quetsol’s current solar kits save clients 20% of their previous candle and kerosene costs, the new model elevates this to 44% savings. The most promising aspect, though, is that a Pay-for-Service model like this one have the potential to be replicated as easily and successfully as telecommunication companies have done so throughout the world.

So, one last scenario to imagine: A new generation of utility companies that drive rural development and protect the environment at the same time.

The first prototype is currently being tested, but Indiegogo is the critical next step forward. Contributors will be able to directly sponsor a family if the campaign goal is reached. The minute that the campaign goes live, Mr. Rodriguez will sit in a pitch-black room and refuse to turn on his lights until the goal is reached. Visit Quetsol’s website and Indiegogo page to help them turn on the lights for Juan and, more importantly, for thousands of Guatemalans.

WHO: Quetsol
WHAT: QUETSOL’S TURNING LIVES ON ACROSS GUATEMALA Crowdfunding Campaign
WHEN: February 18, 2013
WHERE: http://www.indiegogo.com/Quetsolturnliveson

  • Founder and CEO of Guatemalan solar power company Quetsol to sit in a dark room until crowdfunding goal is reached via Indiegogo
  • Campaign goal will allow Quetsol to launch Pay-As-You-Go solar technology to Guatemala’s poorest communities that lack electricity
  • Quetsol intends to distribute over 100,000 solar kits to Guatemalans in the next five years and pioneer a sustainable utility company movement for the world’s most marginalized communities
  • Visit www.quetsol.com for more information
  • View the following pitch Juan gave at the 2012 Unreasonable Institute –http://www.vimeo.com/47107967

How Tegu is using Social Media to Fight Poverty in Honduras

Tegu founders Will and Chris Haughey

MARKETING, MEDIA, & DEVELOPMENT
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – social media terms now dominate the language of mainstream marketing. Companies around the world have adopted a barrage of digital tools to debut new products, gain feedback from consumers, and, more generally, communicate in interesting and compelling ways with their consumers. Though social media has emerged as the go-to toolkit for traditional profit-seeking companies, could it also be one of the key components of impact-oriented businesses to fighting poverty in the developing world? Agora entrepreneurs Will and Chris Haughey, along with their wooden toy company, Tegu, seem to think so.

TEGU, MAGNATES, & HONDURAS
Will and Chris launched Tegu (short for Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras) in 2009 out of the desire to create jobs in Honduras and to become the employer of choice in the impoverished nation. The company, which now employees 56 people in Honduras and six in the United States, has reinvented the traditional wooden block by incorporating magnets into its design. This simple addition allows for more play possibilities beyond simply stacking blocks one on top of the other.

Tegu Products

“Our first priority when we started Tegu was to address unemployment in Honduras,” Will explains. “The more products we sale, the more jobs we create. If we can engage people with our story, then we can engage people with our products. Engaging people in our products and story ultimately results in more employment opportunities for people living in Honduras.”

LIKES, FOLLOWS, & VIEWS
Will admits he had limited experience in the social media space before starting Tegu. In fact, he did not create a Facebook account until 2008. However, over the past two years, Tegu’s social media accounts have grown appreciably. Currently, the company amasses over 3,600 Facebook likes, more than 1,800 Twitter followers, and nearly 30,000 views on its branded YouTube page. Though Tegu’s digital presence is strong across multiple platforms, Facebook has emerged as the centerpiece of its digi-strategy.

“We like to use Facebook to highlight new products and share images of what we’re doing in Honduras,” Will notes. “We currently have two products that were named on Facebook. We posted a new product and asked our followers to help us name it. We took their suggestions and acted on them.”

Tegu product named by Facebook fans

Will adds that Facebook has been a critical outlet for receiving feedback from customers, ultimately helping the company craft even better products. Just a quick scroll through their page reveals countless company “@mentions” by followers and a stream of shared photographs and videos from customers around the world. Tegu often responds to many of the posts as a way of keeping the conversation active, a process Will describes as “ongoing.”

A LAB COAT, NATIVITY SCENE, & THE MONA LISA
One of Tegu’s more innovative digital marketing campaigns involved showcasing the varied and often unexpected ways the magnetic blocks can be configured. The campaign, titled “Tegu Live,” employed Livestream, a live streaming video platform, as a means of interacting with their digital audience.

Over the course of the campaign, participants could communicate with a Tegu Genius on Tegu.com (via Twitter, Facebook and Livestream). Once navigated to the site, viewers found a mysterious man in a Tegu-branded lab coat, a stark white table, and a jumble of multicolored Tegu magnetic blocks. Viewers typed in their requests, watched as their vision was assembled by the unnamed “Genius,” and, in a matter of minutes, the mass of blocks was shaped into a helicopter, a ship, a checkered board, the Nativity Scene, and even the Mona Lisa, among other creations.

 

FACEBOOK, ENGAGEMENT, & IMPACT
“Using social media is a great way to engage people in your company or product,” Will concludes. “For us, when people are engaged and buying our products, then they are helping us to create critical employment opportunities for people living in Honduras. In that respect, using social media is an important part of achieving our aim of serving the poor through profit.”

 

 

Three Key Camps at the Heart of the Impact Investing Movement

Ben Powell, Founder and Managing Partner of Agora Partnerships

If you are like many people, you are new to impact investing, have a mild notion of what it is, and believe that it could be important, maybe even revolutionary. But this notion is tempered by massive confusion surrounding the term.

Understanding the different agendas of the three key camps under the impact-investing umbrella can help you navigate this complex conversation.

Impact-First Investors (also called “Social-First”)
The origins of the term impact investing begin with a handful of foundations and non-profit organizations (incidentally, nearly all of which were founded by entrepreneurs). These groups believed that investing in entrepreneurs was a better way to solve social problems around the globe rather than the project-based approach that has dominated development assistance since the 1960s. These foundations wanted to get affordable, “patient” capital to real entrepreneurs who could then turn it into measurable impact. For this group, which includes most of the founding members of ANDE, the primary purpose of impact investing is social – to serve the needs of society, as quickly and tangibly as possible

A good example of an impact-first investor is Kevin Starr at the Mulago Foundation, author of an excellent recent post on the dangers of impact investors chasing returns over impact. His definition of impact investing is:

The practice of putting money—loans or equity—into impact-focused organizations, while expecting less than a market rate of return

Return-First Investors (also called “Finance-First”)
This is a group of mostly mainstream investors interested in creating products for their clients that allow their money to generate a triple bottom line return – meaning a market rate of return and a measurable (or at least ratable) social and environmental return. Much of the attention around impact investing has been focused on these big players like JP Morgan and Prudential. The hope is that traditional finance companies will unlock billions in investment capital that also demands to know its social impact.  Return-first investors are trained in closing deals that make money. For them, the defining feature of an impact investment is that it can favorably compete with the financial returns of a traditional investment. Ignia Fund is a good example of this approach, as is the official definition of impact investing from the GIIN.

Entrepreneurs and Field Builders
The third group doesn’t consist of investors at all, but of non-profits and some foundations that are focused on entrepreneurial eco-system development and supporting the field at the entrepreneur level. This group includes many of the founding ANDE members and smaller start-ups.  As a whole, this group believes that the key drivers of development are entrepreneurs, not investors, and that now is the time to focus our efforts on entrepreneurs. For this group, impact investors are key allies, but they lament that not enough of them are yet willing to pull the trigger, especially with smaller, angel deals, where their impact can be greatest.  The basic allegiance of this group is to the entrepreneurs on the ground. An impact investor might ask, “How can I find good deals that created blended value?” The entrepreneur camp, on the other hand, asks, “How can we help entrepreneurs make better decisions that result in increased growth and increased impact?” B Lab is a great example of this camp.

A working definition of impact investing for this group is Agora’s own:

The practice of investing in impact entrepreneurs.

Working Together
While each group has its own motivations and agendas, they must all rely on one another if we are to put ourselves on the path to a more sustainable capitalism for the 21st Century. Whether these groups can coordinate their resources effectively and work together is one of the most fundamental questions facing the movement today.

CO2 Bambu: How Bamboo is Impacting Education in Rural Nicaragua

CO2 Bambu founder Ben Sandzer-Bell

Rural Education
Rural education in Nicaragua is struggling. Official UNICEF figures narrate the story in grim statistical detail. With a net attendance rate among rural primary school students of 70.5%, only 19.1% among rural secondary school students, and a startling 6.1% among the rural poor, the Nicaraguan education system is in trouble. Enter Nicaraguan entrepreneur Ben Sandzer-Bell and his innovative construction company, CO2 Bambu, who offer a solution to the inaccessibility of education in Nicaragua.

CO2 Bambu, a company selected to be part of Agora’s 2011 Accelerator Class, constructs sustainable housing for marginalized populations in remote areas of Nicaragua and post-disaster regions (e.g., Haiti) using guada bamboo as the primary raw material. However, in January of this year, the “eco-struction” company entered a new realm of impact – the field of public education.

Boats, Mules, and Bamboo
“There is a deficiency of rural schools throughout Nicaragua,” Sandzer-Bell states. “The Ministry of Education here typically focuses on urban areas when it comes to education.” Sandzer-Bell explains that government schools are built using heavy, bulky blocks of concrete. Transporting these materials to remote rural regions can be extremely difficult, if not impossible in some instances. As a result, literacy and attendance rates lag in areas like the Raan Autonomous Region of Nicaragua’s North Atlantic coast.

The Raan Autonomous Region

CO2 Bambu’s team felt it was possible to modify its current model for creating low-cost, durable homes and re-orient that strategy towards constructing schools in remote regions like Raan.

“There are very few roads in Raan,” Sandzar-Bell states. “We had to transport materials by boat and mule to the construction site.  It was difficult at times, but because bamboo is lighter than concrete, it was possible.”

The two-room structure was completed the first week of January and declared open for business the following week.

The school CO2 Bambu completed earlier this month in the remote Raan Autonomous Region in northern Nicaragua.

Innovation through Bamboo
The current presidential administration in Nicaragua has a keen interest in making access to education more readily available to rural communities. CO2 Bambu’s “light-weight” approach to school construction could be the answer to Nicaragua’s “concrete problem.”

As a result, on Jan. 10, the structure was handed over to the Ministry of Education as an example of what could be possible in rural areas throughout Nicaragua with a different approach to construction. CO2 Bambu hopes to build more schools like the Santa Maria project in the future.

“Our goal in 2012,” Sandzar-Bell states, “is to capture several contracts through the government and repeat this in other rural regions throughout Nicaragua. We’re one step closer.”

Former Agora Fellow Starts Impact Business: Pitaya Plus

We are very proud of former Agora fellow Chuck Casano who has gone on to found his own Nicaragua-based impact business, Pitaya Plus.

Pitaya Plus is described as “the one and only Pitaya juice, smoothie, and dry fruit company in the world.” More commonly known as the dragon fruit in Asia, Pitaya carries an array of health benefits such as being rich in Vitamin C, Calcium, and magnesium.

Pitaya Plus works with local organic pitaya farmers to create jobs and promote sustainable farming methods in Nicaragua. The company is making an impact through hiring single mothers from impoverished rural communities providing necessary income to support their families.

Today, Pitaya Plus products can be found in natural health food stores throughout the US. Check out the video below to learn more. Great work Chuck!

The Story of Pitaya Plus from Pitaya Plus on Vimeo.

What a Miniature Golf Course Taught Me About Development

Every journey starts with a single step. My journey started with a decision to plunk down about $200 to join the American Miniature Golf Association. The primary perk of membership was a thick binder that contained “all you needed to know” to run a successful miniature golf operation. Other than a short-lived quesadilla delivery business run out of my college dorm, this $200 was the first real cash I had ever invested in a business idea. The binder became my introduction to business – a window to new world of landscape design, glow-in -the-dark golf balls, and, yes, windmills. A year after the binder arrived, we opened up City Golf Puebla while Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” played from our speaker system under the shadow of the Popocatepetl volcano in the central valley of Mexico. (The volcano later erupted, spewing volcanic ash across the golf course — but that’s another story.)

I have a lot of stories about City Golf. It was where I cut my teeth as entrepreneur. I made a lot of mistakes, and I also learned a ton — but I learned one lesson above all others: If you want to make a contribution to the world, there are few, if any, better ways than to start a business and turn it into a force for good. If you can’t start one, then invest in one, with your time or money. This insight eventually led, in 2005, to my founding Agora Partnerships at Columbia Business School and then partnering with one of the most relentless and entrepreneurial spirits in Latin America, my co-founder Ricardo Teran.

A few years later, as the global economy was tanking and the punditry was solemnly assigning blame, I decided to put a quotation from Teddy Roosevelt on the back cover of our second Annual Report::

It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic is of altogether secondary importance, and that, in the end, all progress is accomplished by the man who does things. 

This blog, which we are re-launching today, is about people who do things, things that improve the world, and how can we help them to do their work better and bigger. Our focus is on a particular type of person — one we call an “impact entrepreneur” — and their particular journey. An impact entrepreneur is a for-profit business entrepreneur who is actually so serious about their business as a force for good that they explicitly imagine, design, and run their business to maximize total impact — for all the key stakeholders. They are the kinds of entrepreneurs in the U.S. who run B Corps or join member organizations like Social Venture Network — and they are absolutely fundamental to solving humanity’s most vicious problems. In developed countries, these entrepreneurs are on the rise. In the world’s poorest places they are under-valued and under-supported. We aim to change that.

We are living at a time of incredible change and opportunity. One of the biggest things we need to change is our own attitudes and understanding about the interplay between early stage impact entrepreneurship, impact investing, and global sustainable development. There’s a lot of buzz about these terms, and our hope is to give you our perspective on this exciting and emerging industry, telling you what we are learning as we work with some of the most remarkable early stage entrepreneurs in Latin America.

Our hope with this blog is to communicate, as best we can, what we and others in this movement are doing, learning, planning, and why. We aim to bring in authentic and thoughtful voices from across our emerging industry — from foundation leaders who are building the field to factory line employees who can tell us how this work has made a difference in their lives. The entrepreneur is at the center of our work and will also be a centerpiece of this blog. Our goal is simple: further knowledge — and action — to advance the cause of sustainable impact entrepreneurship across the globe. Thanks for reading and for being a part of our community and our journey.

Ben Powell
Founder