Tag Archives: social enterprise

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.


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.

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:

Continue reading Entrepreneurial Success: 7 Simple Actions

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.

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

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.

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

Retreat 2014: Accelerating the Shift Toward a New Economy

IMG_6749 (1)

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.”





So, You Want to Start a Social Enterprise?: The Seed

You’ve heard the buzz, and you want to start a social enterprise. That’s great – but where do you begin? Just as every tree begins with a seed, every enterprise begins with an idea. Maybe you already have an idea. If so, congratulations – you’ve come to the right place! This is the first post in an ongoing series on how to get your social enterprise off the ground.

Identify the Problem   

What is a social enterprise? Basically, it’s a solution. The successful impact entrepreneur identifies a problem that no one else has solved, and then solves it. The first step is to identify a problem. How do you identify problems? Look around you. Talk to people. When in doubt, a good place for inspiration is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Does everyone in your community have food to eat, water to drink, and a place to sleep? Maybe you can help with employment, health, or physical security.

Create a Solution

You’ve identified a problem. The second step is to create a solution. Now, before you run off and come up with The Next Big Thing, do some research. Maybe you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There may be a business model out there that you can adapt, and it may not even be used in a social enterprise. Look at Grameen Bank. Mohammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank

didn’t invent finance – he just adapted it to the bottom of the pyramid. Or look at Sustainable Harvest. David Griswold didn’t invent coffee exporting – he just adapted it to include local farmers. Consider that your solution may not require revolutionary innovation – it may just require inventive adaptation.

Be Sustainable

So – you’ve identified a problem and created a solution. This means you’re already ahead of the curve, but you’re not done yet. The third step is to make your solution sustainable, whether that means your solution is practical and scalable (in the business sense), or minimal in its impact on the environment and resources. (Ideally, it’s both.) For example: mosquito nets in Africa. For decades, aid agencies imported mosquito nets to Africa. The aid agencies identified a problem (malaria, which, untreated, causes the deaths of nearly 1 million people in Africa every year), and then created a solution (distribution of mosquito nets). But their solution wasn’t sustainable – if funding dried up, aid agencies would no longer be able to distribute mosquito nets. This presented an untenable scenario.

Workers producing mosquito nets at A to Z Textile Mills in Tanzania.

A more sustainable solution to the malaria problem would be to develop and grow mosquito net production in-country.  A to Z Textile Mills, a Tanzanian company that received start-up capital from Acumen Fund in 2003, is doing just that. A to Z is not only addressing the malaria epidemic, it is lowering shipping costs for each bednet, and creating jobs for Africans.

Problem leads to solution leads to sustainability. And, if you’re lucky, Jacqueline Novogratz mentions you in a TED Talk (at 12:20).

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.

Agora’s 2011 Accelerator Class – A Summary


The 2011 Accelerator Class and Representatives from Agora Partnerships

In January, Agora Partnerships selected its first Accelerator Class consisting of nine entrepreneurs committed to creating social value through business. Through the successful expansion of their businesses, Agora entrepreneurs are creating jobs for low-income workers, selling products and services that benefit the poor and improve people’s lives, helping protect the environment, and generating economic activity beyond their businesses.

In July of this year, Agora Partnerships held its first impact investor conference. Here are just some of the results of the 2011 Accelerator Class five months after that inaugural conference.

The 2011 Accelerator Class: A Snapshot 

Key Metric: Collectively, Agora entrepreneurs are seeking to raise US $4.2 million in private investment. Earlier this year, Agora set a goal to raise US $2.1 million (or 50% of target capital) for the 2011 Accelerator Class. At present, Agora has exceeded that initial benchmark having already raised US $2.39 million in impact investments and is confident that it will achieve or surpass its next target of US $4.2 million. Below are some updated facts and figures from the 2011 Accelerator Class:

  • Number of Companies: 9
  • Total Actual Revenue of 9 companies at Start of Program: US $2.35 million
  • Total 2013 Projected Revenue: US $25 million
  • Total Incremental Revenue: US 1000%
  • Average Sales at Start of Program: US $276,000
  • Total Investment Sought: US $4.2 million+
  • Employee Total at Start of Program: 250+
  • Projected employee total 2013: 650+
  • Indirect Employments: thousands
  • Amount in Closed Deals: US $2.39 million
  • Deals in Due Diligence: US $3.52 million
  • 5 of 9 companies engaged in due diligence or with closed deals
  • 9 investors engaged in due diligence or with closed deals
  • $10 in private investment per $1 invested in Agora.


2011 Accelerator Class by Industry
Geographic Spread of 2011 Accelerator Class

The 2011 Accelerator Class consists of companies pursuing innovation in agroindustry (23%), manufacturing (22%), biotechnology (11%), low-income housing (11%), artisanal products (11%), energy (11%), and recycling (11%). Geographically, Agora Partnerships supported entrepreneurs from such Latin American countries as Nicaragua (45%), Guatemala (33%), Honduras (11%), and Costa Rica (11%).

Impact Beyond the Numbers

Agora entrepreneurs are seeking impact investment to accomplish the following:

  • Become more carbon neutral
  • Develop world-class manufacturing capacity in Central America
  • Construct affordable, sustainable housing for low-income families
  • Bring solar power to rural households to take the place of candles and kerosene
  • Extend much-needed job opportunities to rural Mayan women in Guatemala
  • Provide sustainable housing to those whose homes have been destroyed by natural disaster
  • Develop low-cost, high-productivity organic pesticides & fertilizers to revolutionize the region’s agricultural sector
  • Provide products and services to a diverse range of customers from rural Nicaragua to New York’s Upper East Side.

Agora’s entrepreneurs tackle these critical needs because it’s both the right thing to do and because it’s good business. We support them because they represent a more efficient method of combating the scourges of poverty, inequality, and climate change than any other method we have seen.

Quetsol, headed by Agora entrepreneurs, brings renewable lighting solutions to rural Guatemalans.

The 2012 Accelerator Class: A Look Ahead

Over the next three years, the 2011 Accelerator Class will be on a collective path to, among other goals, generate over 1,000 new formal economy jobs, build more than 3,500 affordable bamboo and cement houses in rural Nicaragua and Haiti, and supply solar-powered electricity to more than 40,000 low-income houses.  Agora’s global selection panel is meeting Monday, December 12 to determine which entrepreneurs will be apart of the 2012 class. Here are some of the projections:

  • Number of Companies: 14
  • Employee Total: 265
  • Average Employees: 20
  • Projected Employee Total 2014: 670
  • Average Employment Growth Percentage: 600%
  • Revenue at Start of Program: US $5.2 million
  • Average Sales at Start of Program: US $370,000
  • Projected Aggregate Sales 2014: US $21.8 million
  • Average Sales Growth Percentage: 1068%
  • Investment Sought: US $5.3 million

Agora’s entrepreneurs see themselves not simply as business leaders but as agents of change in their communities – citizens who are using business as a force for good to address pressing social and environmental problems. It’s our job to amplify those efforts and to help these entrepreneurs realize their true potential.

Antony Bugg-Levine: “My biggest failure at Rockefeller Foundation”

Antony Bugg-Levine
Antony Bugg-Levine

Last week I sat on a panel at Columbia Business School’s Social Enterprise Conference moderated by Antony Bugg-Levine. As some may know, Antony’s influence on the creation of the impact investing industry has been massive. In his capacity as Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Antony convened the meeting that coined the term “impact investing,” helped design and create the Global Impact Investing Network, co-authored the book Impact Investing, and funded the creation of the global impact investing rating standards (GIIRS), selecting the best team to do it, B Lab. In the middle of this flurry of field building, Antony and his team found time to invest millions into the sector, including arguably the most visionary, brilliant investment ever made by the Rockefeller Foundation: $250,000 into Agora Partnerships.

This particular panel was different from any other that Antony has moderated over the years. It was his last act as a Rockefeller Foundation employee. He’s now the CEO of the Non Profit Finance Fund. This was his last official duty in a job that, more than almost any other, helped to generate momentum around the idea of using investment capital to create social change.

As the panel drew to a close, I asked Antony to answer three questions. What was his proudest accomplish at Rockefeller, what was his biggest failure/disappointment, and what is the one thing we should all keep in mind when we think of impact investing and it’s future? Here’s a slightly redacted excerpt with a few comments.

On his proudest Accomplishment:  “We did not invent the concept of impact investing. We stand on the shoulders of others who have pioneered the integration of investment with social purpose for decades. But by popularizing a single name for this activity we’ve created a rhetorical umbrella under which a broad group can huddle and begin to work together and collaborate.”

“I get excited when I see the low-income housing finance fund manager in New York and the rural supply-chain lender in Africa realize that they are part of the same movement as the green-technology investor, and that they can all benefit from working together. We’ve also clearly tapped into excitement and energy among a new generation of students and early-stage professionals who are embracing the idea of impact investing with gusto.”

On his biggest failure at Rockefeller. “When I started this work at Rockefeller, I thought impact investing was about product development, about getting infrastructure like GIIRS and the Global Impact Investing Network launched and supporting a few interesting deals and funds. Now I realize that this is actually about supporting a movement that can create a fundamental mindset shift in how society mobilizes resources to address our social and environmental challenges.  Product development is a five-year task. Movement building is a generation-long challenge and is going to require much bolder vision, patience and ambition.

On the most important thing to keep in mind about impact investing: “If impact investing is just about product development, then only those people working as impact investors can participate. But when we realize impact investing is about fundamental systems change, it becomes a movement in which everyone has a part to play.”

“We need to transform our education system, rewrite our laws and regulations, develop new ways to measure value, and reconsider how we all save and invest, even if that just means depositing whatever savings you have in a local, community development finance institution rather than a nameless international bank.”

My take away listening to Antony is that he, like many of us, has changed his own thinking during the course of his work. A lot has changed in the global economy in the last 5 years. It’s increasingly clear the operating system we have used to decide what constitutes a good investment is in need of a major upgrade.  We all started off thinking we were part of an industry, “development” in my case, professional philanthropy in Antony’s. But we now realize that everything we are talking about – whether it’s enabling infrastructure to support impact investors in Rockefeller’s case or to support impact entrepreneurs in Agora’s case – absolutely everything we are talking about is part of a much larger evolutionary process to fundamentally change the way we view our role in society and our stewardship of the planet.

Impact investing is not part of a sector or industry, and certainly not an asset class. It’s part of a broader movement to create a more sustainable and successful capitalism that creates broad-based wealth and attacks our toughest challenges.  Investors are a key part of this movement. And thanks in large parts to Antony’s efforts, their ability to be a part of this movement has grown tremendously, which is a great thing.

For me, Antony’s departure feels like a milestone of sorts. Of what? Of growing maturity, clarity, and professionalism in our industry, for sure. But even more than that it’s a sense that the urgency and ambitious around  impact investing – what it can and must do — is now beyond the power of what investors can accomplish themselves.  The urgency is to create massive shifts in attitudes and behaviors, to collectively increase our intelligence about our interaction with the rest of the world –  and not just among the privileged few who have even heard of the term impact investing, but among everyone. With Antony leaving, SOCAP reliably packed, ANDE at over 130 members, I declare the beta phase of impact investing to be over. Fasten your seat belts; this show is just getting started.

Built to Last

I met Ben Sandzer-Bell, founder of CO2 Bambu, a few weeks into my internship with Agora when he dropped by our office between meetings with potential funders and USAID representatives.

What struck me instantly about Ben was the sheer enthusiasm with which he tackled my questions. When asked about CO2’s partnerships with local microfinance organizations, he hopped up and grabbed a marker and started rapidly diagramming on a nearby whiteboard. When asked for details on how bamboo actually functions as a building material, he pulled out a slab of flattened bamboo and told me we could keep it for the office. When asked about projects in the pipeline and what might be pursued were funding available, he really went to town…

Ben rattled off five fully-baked project ideas in minutes; I ultimately had to stop him from going on. Each, be it related to schools in Nicaragua, warehouse infrastructure in Haiti, or otherwise, was undoubtedly necessary and would surely address urgent community needs. So impressed were we at Agora with the ways CO2’s efforts could materially affect local livelihoods, and so impressed were we with the scope of Ben’s vision, that when we learned Global Giving – a platform which enables tax-deductible donations and facilitates project progress reporting – would be running a fundraising challenge this August, we were quick to turn to Ben and ask if he was up for partnering with us.

Global Giving hosts nonprofits exclusively, so Agora is acting as CO2’s sponsor (given the company’s for-profit status). In the arrangement, the majority of funds raised (97%) will go to CO2 for the proposed project, and the balance (3%) will go to Agora to cover support costs. CO2’s goal is to raise $15,000 to build a battered women’s shelter in Muelle de los Buyes, an impoverished rural region of Nicaragua from which many of CO2’s best workers come (CO2 is responsible for bringing jobs to areas of Nicaragua with over 80% unemployment). CO2 would complete the project for free because the area desperately needs this safe haven and because CO2 needs its bamboo buildings to be visible to the community and local government in order to prove their structural viability. Why the emphasis on bamboo? Bamboo’s exceptionally strong and flexible poles are able to withstand the extreme forces of hurricanes and earthquakes, so it’s an ideal material for the disaster-prone region. And bamboo can be harvested and replenished with low environmental impact, a key point for an area facing significant deforestation.

If CO2’s project hits at least a third of Ben’s $15,000 goal from 50 unique donors, Agora will gain a permanent spot on the Global Giving platform. This would be incredibly strategic for us: in our quest to improve our entrepreneurs’ access to financial, human, and social capital, we’ve come to recognize that there are an increasing number of platforms through which our entrepreneurs could be raising lower amounts of funds, more quickly, in smaller increments. These platforms present an opportunity for social engagement (with the online ‘crowd’) unique from what we offer through events like our Entrepreneur Retreat and Investor Conference. An ongoing Global Giving spot for Agora would position us to do spot fundraising for other entrepreneurs in the future, as well as potentially raise funds for Agora-run initiatives.

For more on CO2’s project, please check out their Global Giving listing. And please consider donating to the cause. CO2 is about building for the long-term: creating jobs that last and contributing to Central American development in a meaningful way. Help CO2 move forward with their vision, and help Agora gain a permanent position on Global Giving so we can move forward on our promise to increase the flow of capital to our talented entrepreneurs.