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Mind the gap

Between the start-up phase of a social enterprise and its development there is a gap which cannot be filled without the support of intelligent strategies ...

Starting from rice scraps three Indian social entrepreneurs have realized a system to produce and distribute energy in the most rural area of India. They have installed two pilot plants, operative and running, serving 800 customers of clean low cost energy. Despite the activity is promising and there is a huge demand for the service, they have already spent all their savings. They have to face a daunting array of challenges independent of their will: poor infrastructures, customer insolvency, lack of qualified personnel and no supply chain.


Most investors avoid instances like this one, while others await the maturation of the volume of business to invest later in the company. Who then can help the three Indian entrepreneurs to better understand the risks, to reduce the interference of external constraints, to raise the capital they need to grow and at the same time to improve the living conditions of the poor people in the rural through access to the electricity grid?

In this company dilemma called pioneer gap the impact investor comes into play.

Estimates of JP Morgan and the Rockefeller Foundation report a potential profit for impact investors from 183 to 667 billion U.S. dollars, compared with an investment ranging from 400 to 1000 billion dollars over the next ten years. There are now about 200 impact funds in the world.

But what is impact investment? It is a new financial instrument, also of public nature, to raise private loans for social enterprises that are able to make an impact on the commons, in its broadest sense, within risky economic systems. The remuneration is not guaranteed but it is linked to the achievement of a "social" impact such as the reduction of poverty or the creation of more inclusive economies. Impact funds are focusing on renewable energies (see the March 2013 number of Valori), mobility, health and wastes in poor or developing countries.

The metrics of the impact, that is to say the system in which the social impact of an investment is measured, are the subjects of international study. Engaged Investment, English social enterprise committed to the ethical development of the financial market, knows the passion of investors for indexes. Therefore it has launched EngagedX, the first open source and collaborative index, built from the skills of the operators that at present are launching social investments. The philosophy is simple and ascribable to wiki modalities with a core data free: the greater the transparency with which the aggregate financial information are analysed and the greater the transparency expected in return by social enterprises, which are likely to become another object of desire of international finance.


In Italy there are still few actors interested in positioning themselves on Impact investing: Human Foundation, Fondazione Oltre and the newborn Opes Impact Fund are to be mentioned.

Opes is a non-profit fund that reinvests returns in core activities, inspired by the stories of its founders: Fem, Acra, Ctm Altromercato MicroVentures and Fondazione Maria Enrica. It has already gathered leading innovators in its advisory board and convinced Fondazione Cariplo to an initial investment.

The plan of Opes is to support social enterprises in the first phase of their life, where there are both few actors and little capital, in order to bridge the pioneer gap with high risk tolerance interventions.

Elena Casolari, the president of Opes, hopes to collect 8 million euros in order to transform them into investments with cuts from 50 000 to 400 000 euros over the next three years. The mechanism is simple: the starting availability of the Impact funds is of philanthropic nature. In order not to distort the market, Opes invests in social enterprises selected from Acra and Fem (and from other non-profit international partners) through a three-pronged intervention. A part is a donation, aimed at supporting the stages of due diligence and the definition of the metrics of impact, a part is capital, with the purchase of company shares, and a part is a short-term loan associated with an adequate grace period.

Opes will not concentrate on start-up enterprises but on social enterprises that are already underway with at least one pilot project, thus combining the experience of the social entrepreneur with actors working on metrics, on impact and on the validation of the model business depending on the sector of intervention.

While waiting for an Italian legislation introducing tools to promote and support the social enterprise, the first areas in which Opes intends to invest will be health and renewable energies, the first countries will be India and Uganda.

Italian version here