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In the Field with RENEW

By Matthew Davis, CFA | Tue Apr 03 2012
We are going to take a brief pause in our series on a New Strategy for Africa, to share some things we’ve learned about being in Ethiopia. Many have written to us asking “What exactly are you looking for?” and “What have you learned?” So, we thought we would try to answer some of these questions.
“What exactly are you looking for when you are working in Ethiopia?”
There are a number of things we look for when we are working in a country like Ethiopia. Overall, we try to create a system and network that allows us to find good businesses. Here’s what we look for, the reasons why, and some helpful hints:
  • Trusted friends/partners: The term “partners” is probably too formal for what I need in emerging economies. Friends are key. Without a network of people you trust, working in emerging economies would be nearly impossible. You cannot rush this. You’ll need to invest your time (often years), and show you are serious (i.e. open an office). Flying in for a week is good, but not enough. And even if you do make the commitment to move, get comfortable with being the new kid for awhile. I often remind myself to “keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open.” Hint: Try to reserve your opinion about something related to the country – even if you have one. Chances are that will change as you learn more. And try to withhold judgment. Mannerisms and customs in foreign countries are unique and different.
  • Helpful tips: A helpful tip like, “shop here for this,” or “I wouldn’t necessarily go to them for that” can come from anyone at any time. Write these tips down and read through them at the end of every week. It’s often hard to find a single point of truth related to investment law, upcoming policy changes, market changes, etc. Even asking the bellman at a local hotel “How’s business this week?” will help you find out who is in town, whether the electricity may be diverted away from your area of town to another, and which roads to avoid. Hint: If you have a bad short-term memory, carry a small notebook and pen in the lapel of your jacket.
  • Relevant documents: “The recent version of this is on-line” is not something you often hear in an emerging economy. But getting the recent version of a relevant document is invaluable. Hint: If I’m in a meeting and someone says they have an updated version of something and they are willing to make a copy…I happily wait.
  • Quality entrepreneurs: This will be the subject of another post, but the bottom line here is we are looking for good entrepreneurs. Once I find a solid entrepreneur, the market opportunity they are pursuing and the business they are running are generally well thought through. I’ll spend 75% of my due diligence on an opportunity speaking with people about them. Hint: Always trust your “gut” over the numbers. If you don’t have a good read on people, hire someone that does. Intuition is critical for opportunity hunting. Also, be a good questioner – meaning, learn the art of getting information about someone without asking direct questions. Direct questions and direct answers are not common practice in many developing countries.
  • Bright spots: I am always looking for success stories: Who has succeeded in this country? Why? What did they do? How did they do it? What’s their story? Just as important as finding the next market leaders in a country is learning from the current ones. Since RENEW began, we have had the pleasure of meeting with some of the most successful business leaders in the developing countries we’ve visited. Hint: I’ve gotten more from a three-hour dinner with someone that has already succeeded in a country, than all the businesses courses I’ve taken.
  • Numbers: I love numbers. The price per square meter for office space, someone’s average monthly electricity bills, the current price of a kilo of sugar, the annual cost to run a 52-bedroom hospital. All of these numbers must live in a spreadsheet because they help me with projections, and vetting financials. Hint: Another good thing to jot down in that wonderful pocket notepad of yours.
  • Recommendations: Always ask – “Do you have anyone you’d recommend for X?” Whether you're looking for a good dry cleaner, or if you are doing your due diligence on someone (see above about asking good questions), I am always looking for good recommendations. Hint: Triangulate recommendation. Use the ‘Colombo approach’ – “One more quick question. Have you every heard about this person?” Listen closely to their answer.
  • Landmarks: Landmarks are used to describe where people are vs. an actual address. I, or my copilot, am always looking for big landmarks – these become your navigation tools. “We are close to Edna Mall.” Hint: You better know where Edna Mall is.
  • Restaurants, vendors, and hotspots: When the power goes out, where do you go to recharge and connect? Continuity of operations is critical. Those that have a rolodex of options will succeed in emerging markets. When I am at a new restaurant I pull out my iPhone to see if there’s a WiFi signal. Then I check how fast it is. Hint: If the food is good and the wall outlet works, it’s an office!
Now, here is the general rundown about the actual opportunities we’re looking for:
  • An established business: SMEs should be existing business that have been running for no less than two years, with an annual turnover greater than $100,000 – start-ups are just too risky.
  • An experienced entrepreneur: Ideally they have worked at a large company in the same industry.
  • A growing business: We’re looking for companies that need expansion/growth capital and are projecting no less than 20% growth.
We are generally sector agnostic, but we like businesses in:
  • Agro-processing
  • Manufacturing
  • Logistics
  • Healthcare
  • Information and communication technology (ICT)
Next week we will answer “What does a typical week look like for the RENEW team in the field?” Until then, please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or follow us on Twitter @RENEWLLC.
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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