THE BLOG
02/16/2011 07:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Winter 2011: A Growing Sense Of Urgency

The year 2011 has many of us around the world trying to catch our breath and make sense of all that is happening at home and elsewhere. Think about the Middle East and North Africa! Egypt has unleashed a global recognition that change is possible -- and people want to be a part of that change. And if any words stood out among the protestors, they were Dignity and Freedom. This is a year influenced by social media, rising food prices, unstable markets, unpredictable weather and the growing understanding that we are all impacted directly and indirectly by all of it.

For Acumen, the confluence of events has reinforced our own growing sense of urgency. In 2011, Acumen Fund turns 10 years old. (We are celebrating our anniversary this November 9th and 10th in New York City.) This is a year of reflecting on what we've learned over the past decade and planning for the future. In Acumen's next chapter, we intend to expand our geographic presence and accelerate our efforts to invest in innovative companies, leaders and ideas for ending poverty around the world.

There is a lot of work to be done. I'm thrilled to announce our new India Country Director, Meghna Rao, who brings a wealth of operational and investing experience to Acumen. In her new role, Meghna is focused on doubling our India portfolio from $25M to $50M in the next few years as well as demonstrating outsized impact and growing our local community. And the team has just moved offices from Hyderabad to Mumbai.

Click to see my talk at TEDWomen.

Amitabha Sadangi (in orange) of GEWP is creating increased income -- and choice -- for smallholder farmers.

GADC, our first investment in Uganda, is improving livelihoods in a region recovering from decades of strife.

Having just returned from India, I'm excited by the progress of many of our investments, and the learning that comes from using the market as a listening device. Global Easy Water Products (GEWP, our for-profit drip irrigation investment) and its sister nonprofit IDE India have served more than 330,000 farmers. Founder Amitabha Sadangi points to metrics that include higher income levels for the farmer (for some, an increase to $5-6 a day, from a start point of $1-2) combined with a 50 percent reduction in water use, lower electricity costs to the farmer and higher land productivity. Moreover, GEWP has seen sales triple in the past three years and is operating profitably.

What farmers gain most of all from the increase in agricultural productivity, of course, is choice. Interestingly, farmers tend to follow regional patterns for how they use profits. In Maharashtra where I visited, farmers typically invest in upgrading their farms (new equipment, better seeds and fertilizers). In Karnataka, according to Amitabha, farmers will more likely invest in their children's education. Culture matters - and listening to the preferences of different groups will teach us how to better address real needs.

One of our newest agricultural investments is GADC, our first investment in Uganda. GADC is a commercial cotton ginnery with operations in Gulu District in Uganda, a part of the country plagued by 25-years of civil strife and horrendous violence (it is estimated that war left 1.4 million citizens in the north homeless.) Acumen Fund co-invested with Root Capital to enable GADC to purchase conventional and organic seed cotton from smallholder farmers. Already, we're seeing significant progress among the 30,000-plus farmers, and GADC has plans to expand its operations and enable a beleaguered people to work on solving their own problems. GADC is now exploring opportunities to introduce sesame and other crops to its farmers to further enhance their agricultural livelihood and redevelop the agricultural ecosystem of the region.

In 2011, we are actively exploring expansion to a new geography: West Africa, starting with Ghana and Nigeria. Our colleague Catherine Casey moved to Accra, Ghana in January to examine possibilities for establishing an office that would work with the local business community, secure funding and, if feasible, make one to two investments this year. Key to this is not only the local business community and pipeline of potential investments but also our ability to raise significant funding for operations and investing. I am actually writing this letter from Accra, where Catherine and I have been meeting with committed entrepreneurs, thought leaders and students. I've been struck by a sense of optimism about the future, and look forward to learning more in these next months -- and thank everyone who has been so generous and kind with their time.

Finally, the first weeks of 2011 have reminded me at every level how fragile our lives are, and how the work of using patient capital to release the energies of low-income individuals is so connected to our collective human journey. In late January, we had a truly special event. George Mathew, the irrepressible Artistic Director of Music for Life International, brought together more than 250 musicians and singers to perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall for the flood survivors of Pakistan, and for Acumen Fund specifically. The musicians and singers all volunteered their time, and many flew across the country. As the musicians played, projected pictures that I took of the flood survivors last summer seemed to float above the orchestra.

I will never forget that evening and feel profoundly grateful to George and the orchestra. The last two weeks of December had been extremely difficult ones for my family and community. On December 21st, the universe took Acumen Fund's dynamic, 27-year old volunteer chapter leader Jessica Fashano, and less than a week later, we lost my darling 24-year old stepdaughter Zoe. We will forever feel their loss, but are determined to keep the spirits of these incredible young women alive through our work, and the way we live our lives.

Grief releases love and it also instills a profound sense of connection. While in India, I went running in Bandra West near our new offices in Mumbai. The area's promenade is along the part of the sea that recedes a quarter mile from the land each dawn, leaving muddy, rocky fields where hundreds of men walk to find space where they can wash and use the toilet in public view while trying to preserve some sense of dignity. While I've seen this scene countless times, on this particular morning I thought of each individual man, the hardships they face daily, the suffering and losses they each know, the cruelty of their lives. I know if I met them in one of our companies, many would smile at me and tell me good things about their situations. And I suppose that is what life holds - seemingly unbearable pain and exquisite beauty, numbing loss and gorgeous new life all mixed in a swirl of hope and anger and possibility and despair, all bound by how much we need one another.

Life is a mystery. In December, I was honored to speak at TEDWomen. I ended that talk with a simple phrase: "Our lives are so precious and our time on earth is so short. And all we have is each other." Those words proved truer than I could have imagined when I first shared them.

I could not feel luckier to work with our global community and feel a deeper commitment than ever before to the very philosophy of Acumen's work which is embedded in the recognition of and commitment to a world in which every one of us is equal and deserving of a chance to do and be all they can dream. Thank you for being a part of it.