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An Impact Investment in an African SME, from Start to Exit

By Matthew Davis, CFA | Tue Jun 18 2019
A wise investor once gave me a piece of advice. To paraphrase, he said, “Any idiot can invest money, but few know how to get it back.” When I started investing, I used to get excited about closing deals and reaching the point where capital exchanged hands. After working for months (sometimes even years) on a deal that ended with signed legal agreements and wired funds, I felt like we had finally accomplished something, and as such, would make a big deal about this moment. Thinking that this was the ultimate indicator of success, we’d pour ourselves drinks, take selfies, and issue a press release to mark the momentous occasion! But, in the back of my mind as we were celebrating, the wise investors’ advice still rang true. Soon after the close, we would get swept into portfolio management, the roller coaster of entrepreneurship and doing business in frontier markets: a game not for the faint of heart, especially if you invest in startups and early-stage companies like the ones we back in Africa. Now, seven years later and on the other side of the investment equation with a lot more grey hair and wrinkles around my eyes, we had our first exits. Reflecting on the journey, I thought it might be helpful to share a few observations from our experience investing in a small and medium enterprise (SME) from start to exit.
The first observation is about clarifying the importance of exits. Most investors plan their exits before they invest, using tools like put options, drag-along and tag-along rights, etc. But many of the companies we meet, screen and train in our Investing 101 for companies do not understand exits or why their investment partners might want to exit - even larger companies who are already in discussions with serious investors. We have found that while planning for an exit is important, explaining an exit is critical - and not just to the target company, but to their lawyer, their accountant, their family members, government stakeholders, and pretty much everyone that is within earshot of the deal.
The challenge is that most stakeholders get excited about closing, as I used to. Government agencies report deals closed and FDI attracted in Africa as an indicator of economic growth and success. The development community, also a significant stakeholder which hires firms like RENEW to help educate and invest in SMEs in Africa, love seeing capital come into local businesses. And these are important indicators to measure and track, but so few projects last long enough for the real magic moment, which is usually five years down the road when it happens and not immediately at closing. And thus we are left with a situation where many companies in Africa, especially social entrepreneurs and SMEs that struggle to attract capital, do not understand the true importance of an exit. So let’s explain.
If closing an investment is akin to the start of the game, an exit is when you actually score a goal. I have found that the misunderstandings around exits hurt companies and countries, most notably when the critical time comes to begin exiting an investment. Often this is because the business of investing is a bit of a mystery. I believe there should be an entire training for non-finance stakeholders just on the importance of exits. While the idea that investors seek to make money is intuitive to most, the way an equity fund works is relatively new. It is an unfamiliar concept to many that a fund manager has a fixed period of time to find and invest the money they raised into good companies, and then recover that money in a fixed amount of time with a great return. And, while I believe a closed-end equity fund structure in Africa isn’t the best structure for the investment landscape of frontier markets, it is a common structure for equity investors, and one that stakeholders need to understand so they can work with it and attract more funding to their country. The more equity a country and a company attracts, often the better positioned it is for growth.
Why are exits good? A good investor that builds a track record of successful exits attracts more capital and can make more investments. Companies in which investors exit often attract more capital, grow, create more jobs, pay more taxes, and provide greater value to customers. Countries where investors realize exits attract more capital because investors see that others have done it and local businesses benefit from this reputation.
So exits are not just something that needs to be planned before you close an investment, but something that needs to be discussed regularly with multiple stakeholders throughout the life of the investment and, just as much, projects that seek to leverage private investment to achieve development objectives like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Entrepreneurs should understand that an exit by an investor is not a divorce but a graduation; hopefully a hand-off to the next level, be it to a larger investor, a strategic partner, or back to the owners themselves. Parties should be thrown for exits. Governments should know that an exit from their country is an indicator that their country is conducive to sustainable investing. They should give out awards to funds that exit their investments, because that event alone will attract the interest of serious investors more than any roadshow they do around the world. And development partners should design private sector development projects with timeframes long enough to see exits and chalk those up as major wins that resulted from their support.
Since 2012, RENEW has been operating in East Africa, testing and perfecting an investment model that gets capital into SMEs trapped in the missing middle, helps them scale up and then gets that capital out with a good financial and social return for investors. After seven years of investing in the East African region, I am pleased to say that SME investing can be successful and exits are possible. I hope we see many more exits in the months and years to come, and I hope all stakeholders cheer, not just investors, when an exit happens. It’s the real score in the sport of investing and also enables the impact we are also seeking to achieve as success begets more investments targeting such goals as job creation by SMEs in East Africa.
About the Impact Angel Network and RENEW
Members of the Impact Angel Network seek to realize both social impact and financial returns through investments in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that are engines of economic growth and job creation in Africa but that often lack capital due to their size. IAN members believe that targeting employment through SMEs, dollar-for-dollar, can help reduce poverty in a more sustainable way than charity.
RENEW, with its largest office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, manages the IAN’s investment operations and provides investment advisory and consulting services in support of its investments. RENEW’s work in Ethiopia was piloted with USAID and is currently undertaken with financial support from the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada for a project entitled Accelerating Business Growth (ABG). This project targets sustainable job creation for low-skilled workers, including women and young adults, through a dynamic and growing small and medium business sector in Ethiopia.
Renew Capital is an Africa-focused impact investment firm that backs innovative companies with high-growth potential. Renew Capital manages investments made on behalf of the Renew Capital Angels, a global network of angel investors, foundations and family offices who seek financial returns and sustainable social impact. For the latest on investing in Africa, subscribe and follow us at our social links below.

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