When Patricia Chin-Sweeney began exploring avenues for her consultancy in East Africa, she looked for big contracts from global development finance organizations with an eye toward poverty reduction on a big scale.
Once landing in Kenya, however, Chin-Sweeney discovered many local entrepreneurs with not only innovative ideas for solving their own problems, but also the technical know-how to execute them. With this on-the-ground knowledge, she and partner, Jason Spindler, quickly shifted the focus of I-Dev International from advising foreigners helping Africans to Africans helping themselves.
“Africa is really the last frontier – there are a lot of development finance institutions pushing into East Africa, but we realized the private or corporate and emerging impact-investing sector was the most effective and efficient channel through which to promote change and innovation,” said Chin-Sweeney in a phone interview from Nairobi with AFKInsider. “There is such a range, from agricultural businesses to renewable energy to tech everything.
“What’s great about East Africa is that there is also a real entrepreneurial spirit, especially with the kids coming out of college – they have a lot of buy-in.”
One of the very first contracts I-Dev took in Africa was advising Water for People, a global water and sanitation non-governmental organization bent on developing market-based sanitation businesses across the world. Water for People had a sanitation project on the outskirts of Blantyre, Malawi, where urban and rural uses mix – and often clash – that had failed to gain much traction among community members.
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In the 21 low-income areas of Blantyre more than 52 percent of Malawians live below the poverty line. Water for People has estimated that only 41 percent have access to water that meets government standards. Only 60 percent have access to improved sanitation facilities.
Working with the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation, which has heavily invested in sanitation solutions, I-Dev sent two consultants to Blantyre to review the existing latrine use and needs of the area, and to conduct reviews of potential entrepreneurial partners in a profitable sanitation business. Both the I-Dev consultants and local stakeholders agreed that construction constituted the biggest problem in the usage of sanitary facilities: Most were traditional pit latrines – meaning they were unlined, without any slab or ventilation; and some lacked doors or privacy walls, keeping local villagers relying on the bush and local water sources to dispose of waste.
After putting their heads together, the consultants and business owners embarked on a plan to use modular cement bricks, which are installed at lower labor costs and without mortar, install pour flush latrines attached to or inside certain houses and develop mobile latrines for community events. They also studied sanitation entrepreneurs’ bookkeeping to find ways to cut costs and increase profitability.
Two proposals came to mind: The construction of shallower latrine pits for easier emptying and adding value to humanure – human waste — as fertilizer.
“While many people believe that Africa and doing business in Africa is very different from anywhere else, we have often found there are a lot of commonalities across regions where we’ve worked, and they are related to socio-economic status and need,” Chin-Sweeney said. “Therefore, we can apply best practices from around the world and then translate them to factor in the unique local dynamics – religion, cultural norms, traditions and other influencers.”
Chin-Sweeney met partner, Spindler, through the New Venture Competition at New York University, where Chin-Sweeney was working on her MBA and Spindler was attending law school. I-Dev launched during Chin-Sweeney’s second year of school and though she spent most it flying to Mexico and Peru to connect smallholder farmers with new clients, she still managed to complete her coursework in two years.
By not necessarily following the rigid benchmarks of NGOs and NGO consultancies, I-Dev has managed to accomplish significant gains in a short time. The two NYU partners developed a three-step roadmap for identifying, designing and building viable market-based businesses. They commission an in-country team to manage every step of the development process; bridge the needs and aspirations of local entrepreneurs and global experts to develop full and actionable business plans, adjust expectations as realities on the ground change; and finally own the implementation phase of the process. I-Dev links its compensation to successful fulfillment of the client’s mandate.
They initially focused their work on Latin America. Spindler had traveled there extensively and served as a Peace Corps business development volunteer. But East Africa beckoned within the first two years of I-Dev’s operation. In addition to the project in Malawi, I-Dev has advised on Chef Corps, a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department to promote American cooking techniques abroad, HoneyCare Africa, which partners with small honey farmers in East Africa to promote them in the global honey market, and Burn Manufacturing, a producer of clean cook stoves designed to reduce respiratory disease and carbon emissions in Africa.
“There are a lot of business funds, impact investors and venture capitalists pushing into Africa looking for promising businesses, and we try to identify for these guys the companies they might not have traditionally thought of solving economic or social problems,” Chin-Sweeney said. “Still, there always has to be a return on investment and we try to fit the investors with their interests and ensure all parties capitalize on the best possible business.”