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- FIND A BALANCE WITH MONITORING AND EVALUATION AND REPORTING: With BF projects, implementers will serve two masters that require robust and specific reporting. Obtaining timely and accurate financial statements from portfolio companies and other non-investee SMEs was a challenge. Lesson Learned: During the project planning stage, be careful what you sign up for in terms of reporting. Try to create as much alignment and overlap between the reporting requirements for your different clients to lessen the burden.
- PERSIST ON THE OUTCOMES, BE FLEXIBLE ON THE ACTIVITIES AND OUTPUTS: Investing in Africa is relatively new for Western governments and investors. We’re learning that some approaches that worked for one country could be unsuccessful in another. Lesson Learned: Make sure your donor partner and your investors are flexible and allow you to pivot as you begin implementation and apply lessons learned throughout the project, even if that means adjusting how you get there. Further, be diligent in documenting your failures and reviewing them to extract lessons learned. For many investors right now in Africa – the early ones like those supported by blended finance – this can be extremely valuable for the larger community and can catalyze more capital.
- DON’T BE AFRAID TO TRY SOMETHING RADICALLY NEW: Building on the idea of flexibility, be willing to try something totally radical. One component of the project from the planning phase to expand our reach in Ethiopia was “investment hubs” in larger cities outside of Addis Ababa to educate SMEs on investing, sourcing deals, and creating valuable business networks. Due to unrest, logistics and a lack of local partners in these cities, there was little traction. Instead of continuing down a failed path, someone came to a more radical idea to reach the masses; an edutainment show – Chigign Tobiya, which is like Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den meets American Idol, customized for Ethiopian culture. We soon went from minimal touchpoints in four cities outside of Addis with only a few stakeholders, to a reported 40 million viewers that raised excitement for entrepreneurship and the formation of local angel networks. Lesson Learned: Be open to trying something radical if the status quo is not working and you may just end up unlocking impact at a larger scale than you thought possible.
- MONEY TALKS WITH POLICY REFORM: Due to the sheer volume of SME transactions we closed in Ethiopia, we became a de facto expert on investing in a country where this is very hard to do. This gained us credibility and a seat at the table when the Ethiopian government was updating their investment code. Our track record of bringing FDI into the country allowed us to help influence several changes that will have a significant impact on the investment and entrepreneurial ecosystem.
- STAY THE COURSE, DON’T GET PULLED AWAY FROM YOUR SWEET SPOT: It’s tempting to chase grant dollars and get pulled into work beyond your sweet spot, or your general good investment sense. For example, it’s easy to become infatuated with social enterprises that have a compelling story, but no real investment case. Lesson Learned: Be disciplined with your investment model and don’t sacrifice longer-term sustainability of the business for near-term soft funding and praise.
- EXTEND THE TIMELINE: SMEs take a long time to realize impact and growth from investments. You might invest in a company in year four of a five-year project and, as a donor, never see the benefits of that initiative. The market and the country are also very dynamic, and the entire private sector might be in an economic slump right at the end of your project, which hurts your numbers. Lesson Learned: Work with your donor to find ways to either extend the project or the reporting period to get a truer sense of the long-term positive impact of a blended finance model.
- 80/20 RULE: FOCUS ON A FEW GROWTH COMPANIES, VERSUS TRY TO HELP EVERYONE: Not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur, and blended finance interventions need to realize this. You’ll figure out quickly which entrepreneurs have the capacity to take on financing. Lesson Learned: 80% of the impact and the results will come from 20% of the SMEs you support under the model. Focus on the 20% and those who are equipped to grow and create impact at scale.
- BE PREPARED TO EDUCATE ALL STAKEHOLDERS, MULTIPLE TIMES – YOU’RE LIVING IN THE “MIDDLE”: Some of the reporting, forms and requests we received made no sense in the greater context in which the project operated. Some, in the donor community, have said we are only making rich people richer. Some SMEs thought we were grantmakers and approached us as such. Many investors are ignorant to Ethiopia’s private sector potential. The bottom line: you must constantly educate because development is so conditioned to fall in line with specific expectations. Lesson Learned: Be prepared to be a project manager and an educator to all program beneficiaries involved – all the time.