Impact investments are investments made into companies, organizations and funds with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. The Global Impact Investment Network (GIIN) states that this sort of investment provides capital to address the world’s pressing challenges in sectors such as microfinance, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, conservation and affordable and accessible basic services such as housing, healthcare and education. The aspect of this form of investment that makes it stand out from other vehicles of investment is the fact that it is aimed at generating positive impact beyond financial return. In this sense, it is a viable solution to the sustainable growth and development of micro, small and medium sized enterprises. It is a tool that can be used to provide patient capital to entrepreneurs, more so if it is blended with grants.
A study that was conducted in West Africa by Dalberg found that impact investments are primarily made by private equity and venture capital funds, Development Finance Institutions (DFIs), Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs), foundations and institutional investors. “Impact investing in West Africa” noted that the needs of individual enterprises varied depending on factors such as their business model, size and maturity stage as well as human resource capacity. Beyond financing needs, many enterprises require business development services in a way that enables them to develop their ideas and create well managed, financially sustainable operations.
Some of the challenges that stand in the way of achieving the goal of developing sustainable business ventures in as far as engagement with impact investing is concerned include a lack of education, skills and difficulty in accessing information among the entrepreneurs that are required to turn their ideas into bankable projects. Also, the lack of awareness of the actual implications of engaging impact investors prevents many businesses from accepting this type of capital. This is due to the fact that owners of small and medium sized enterprises fear losing control of their businesses. Further, the study noted that the lack of incentives to convert from informal to formal business structures was a hindrance for impact investors in as far as engaging the informal sector in West Africa goes. The high costs that are linked to business formalization which include licences, taxes and other operating costs discourage most informal businesses from making the transition to formality.
The report put forward some ways in which the above challenges can be mitigated for an enhanced and more proactive engagement with impact investment. These include the need for a broader range of flexible products to address the gap for businesses with smaller financing needs. This is particularly necessary for new enterprises where the entrepreneurs’ funding needs are too small for traditional debt or equity financing. In this sense, they propose angel financing or royalty-based debt with manageable levels of interest as well as supporting business development services.
The other solution highlights the need for investors to adapt their investment practices to the local climate. By being more flexible in this manner, they will be in a better position to change their investment criteria, thus opening up their business to a large number of potentially profitable deals. This will also place local entrepreneurs in a position where they can access much needed capital to enhance their business ventures. This sort of engagement will support the growth of informal businesses to formal businesses and further assist them to transition into larger private equity and traditional commercial bank investments.
Last but not least is the proposal to build networks and awareness beyond impact investors to encompass business support organisations, relevant government bodies and development partners with the intention of increasing awareness of existing definitions of impact investing. Other goals of these networks should be to increase the awareness of the benefits of venture philanthropy among grant-making organizations, increase the understanding of equity investments among business owners and focus outreach efforts towards high net worth individuals and highly-educated Africans in the diaspora.
Informal Economy Analyst