Latin America impact investors set sights on social returns

by Sophie Hares | @SophieHares | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 21 March 2017 14:00 GMT

A woman has her eyes examined at a salauno clinic in Mexico, September 2016. Alberto Rivera/www.fotografiaar.com

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Investments in areas such as education, housing, healthcare, agriculture and financial technology can help tackle poverty - and build resilience

By Sophie Hares

TEPIC, Mexico, March 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After six weeks at the Aravind Eye Hospital in the Indian city of Madurai, talking to everyone from the janitors to the head of the low-cost eye-care centre, Javier Okhuysen and his partner flew back to Mexico City with a business plan, and opened their pilot eye clinic four months later.

Working to tackle preventable blindness caused by cataracts and chronic diseases such as glaucoma, their company salauno has performed 17,000 cataract operations in the six years since it started, and will soon add an eye hospital to its string of clinics in Mexico.

"Thirty percent of our patients are now coming from Facebook ads (and) 80 percent of them had never seen an ophthalmologist before, so digital media is really helping us to democratise the service," said Okhuysen, who read about the Aravind hospital in C.K. Prahalad's book "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid".

Salauno's tiered pricing system - where some patients pay up to $2,000 for high-tech cataract surgery using European lenses - helps subsidise procedures for lower-income patients who might pay $300 for manual operations using lenses from India, explained the former investment banker.

His start-up drew in financing to expand from the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, as well as Mexican impact investor Adobe Capital. Like others in the growing sector, Adobe scours the market for investments demonstrating social or environmental benefits alongside financial return.

With traditional investment funds now hunting for impact opportunities alongside venture capitalists in Latin America, where Mexico, Brazil and Colombia grab most attention, experts say investments in areas such as education, housing, healthcare, agriculture and financial technology can help drive social development and may contribute to wider resilience.

"In as much as resilience equals smarter, better investing so that it's more long-term, it's more sustainable, there's a community there that's thriving... if we can get the incentives for financial capital to align towards that, that's what we would call the holy grail," said Graham Macmillan, the Ford Foundation's senior program manager for impact investing and inclusive economies.

RETURN NOT ALL

According to a report last year by organisations including the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), a "conservative" $2.3 billion was available for impact investing in Latin America, including $1.2 billion managed by 28 investors headquartered in the region.

Growth areas include agriculture, financial inclusion and health, while 56 percent of impact investors target net annual returns of over 11 percent, according to the report.

Jozef Henriquez, head of resource mobilisation at the Inter-American Investment Corporation, said how the money is used should be "as important - or more important - than the financial return".

"It has to be an investment that not only gives you a market return to contrast it with philanthropy, but hits certain benchmarks on impact," he said.

Involving governments and hammering out regulations to make impact investing more transparent would help develop the sector, said Katia Dumont, ANDE's Mexico and Central America chapter manager, who expects to see more such investment in Peru, Chile and Argentina.

"It's a great way to move forward, especially for Latin America which doesn't see the same amount of donor dollars as say Africa does," said Dumont.

But creating an aggressive business model around many social problems is not always possible and it could take decades to see the full potential of investments, she added.

An eye-test chart in the waiting room of a salauno clinic, Mexico, September 2016. Alberto Rivera/www.fotografiaar.com

MEASURING IMPACT

Seattle-based nonprofit Global Partnerships, which has poured some $235 million into market-based solutions to tackle poverty in Latin America, the Caribbean and East Africa, believes investing in projects that combine micro-finance with education or health can build resilience at a household level.

"We feel that poverty is multi-faceted - you can't just talk about access to credit, you have to talk about who's been served in terms of marginalised populations," said Jason Henning, vice president of investor and donor relations.

Access to health, clean energy and education, as well as technical assistance for farmers, are key areas, he said. "I think all of that feeds into the idea of resiliency," he added.

There may be no shortage of deals to invest in, but creating clearer ways to measure social and environmental impact would help the sector evolve, experts said.

The ANDE-backed report noted that 89 percent of investors in Brazil measured their impact, but only 50 percent did so among Mexico-focused investors.

And years after the term was coined, there is still disagreement over definitions of impact investing. Some argue that non-financial benefits should be the primary driver, while local funds with an appetite for risky, early-stage deals also want high returns.

"I think five years ago, the mindset was you can't have both - you either have a high impact or a high return. We see it very differently," said Erik Wallsten, managing partner of Mexico's Adobe Capital.

His fund looks to invest in companies, including salauno and low-cost home builder Habvita, where doing social good is "part of the DNA", he said.

(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/)

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