December 12, 2023

Global Game Changers: The Impact of VilCap Alumni

Impact creating startups are dynamic and evolving at the intersection of finance, entrepreneurship, and social responsibility.

Impact creating manifests differently around the world. In North America, for instance, impact is often geared toward tackling social issues such as poverty and education, while in Europe, environmental preservation and sustainability projects frequently took center stage in 2023. In emerging economies in Asia and Africa, the emphasis may be on both social and environmental issues, given the need for inclusive development. In Latin America, the top five sectors for investment are food and agriculture, education, health, financial services, and biodiversity and ecosystem restoration.

What is clear from the outset is that different regions exhibit unique characteristics and opportunities in this field, such that a deep-dive into the regional significance of impact creating is a fascinating topic, and beneficial to learn how to replicate the success stories, not only in Latin America.

Success stories of impact-driven startups

Impact-creating startups, often referred to as social enterprises or mission-driven businesses, represent a growing trend in the world of entrepreneurship. Why is this trend worth studying? In short, these companies are uniquely positioned to address the world's most pressing social and environmental challenges while still turning a profit

Impact-creating startups go beyond traditional corporate social responsibility, making their core mission to create positive, lasting change in the world, while setting a powerful example for the business community to follow. The results of impact-creating businesses can reach many individuals or entire societies. 

Startups that are broaching society’s ills

It is encouraging to learn that there are startup stories that cite enormous success, which we should aim to emulate. Not only are entrepreneurs building their own careers, gaining experience, and lifting their whole network, they are creating companies that benefit all of society. 

Here are some of the newest players to the international startup world, starting in Latin America.

CurubaTech: for the farmers and the techpreneurs

Digitalizing the agricultural sector, CurubaTech (Reshaping Consumer Behavior, LatAm 2023) is a Colombian-born startup that generates food traceability, improves yields for farmers, and works to make the agricultural sector fair. The platform “connects the agrifood chain from the seed to the supermarket aisle” with an app that facilitates remote crop care and on-demand peer-to-peer advice from real experts to independent farmers, according to their founder. 

Who is CurubaTech impacting most of all? Flor Matilde lives in Guaviare, Colombia and beamed at the CurubaTech team as she told them, “I finally see a way out.” She thanked them for giving her a prosperous future to look forward to, via agriculture.

Prior to leaning into CurubaTech, Flor Matilde had lost her husband to crime, leaving her a single mother of three and battling the drug trade’s grasp, clawing at her children. Now, her wide smile speaks of the challenges she has overcome, and that she won’t be alone to face the future. CurubaTech helped Flor Matilde monitor her crop remotely and provided her with consulting services so she could both increase her harvest and reduce the use of chemicals.

With just one story that is so impactful, can you imagine the long-term improvement felt across nine Colombian states and beyond? There’s no need to imagine: CurubaTech has already increased production 43% and reduced chemical use by 38% for its users.

It’s tough to compete with such impressive statistics! However, these startups are not here to compete, they are each nurturing their own corner of the value chain, environment, and society. By flying over to West Africa, we can find another heartening startup story.

Women in Energy Sierra Leone for energy equality

Margaret Mansaray was the only woman and the youngest in a class of men who graduated in Energy Studies at university. Today, she works with her classmates on her passion project and the company she founded: Women in Energy Sierra Leone (Innovation for Ecosystem Restoration, Africa 2023). 

While this story has a positive ending, the motivation is not at all gleeful. When Mansaray was studying in her residence, she often lacked light to study into the evening. During this time, she also met a pregnant girl who would collect firewood for her family at night, even while living in a city, and then cook over black smoke, all while carrying a baby. “Collecting firewood in the bush would be how they prepared their first meal of the day, after dark. It moved me to write about the case as my dissertation topic.”

Mansaray later decided to create Women in Energy Sierra Leone, and their Smart Green Stove that’s made with recycled metals, using coconut fiber mixed with ceramics as an insulator. Its effective design makes cooking more efficient and much safer for the user than inhaling toxic substances for three hours every day.

“We train youth from vulnerable communities to turn their agricultural waste into charcoal. This is not only beneficial for them, it limits climate damage,” explains the startup’s founder. Following the training, five of the young girls told the team at Women in Energy that they are organizing cooking stoves for their own communities, and that they are educating their own community in clean cooking. These girls have not had to buy or forage for fuel for 2 years

As fuel and gas prices rise in Sierra Leone, and around the world, the benefits to their lungs and safety are immeasurable, but numbers strengthen the story! The Smart Green Stove might save women hours – every day – collecting firewood, but for their pockets, this could be a saving of 20,000 leones a month, equivalent to saving half the minimum monthly wage.

“When I started, my mission was to save women time, money, and risk. I want this solution to be accessible, affordable, reliable, and sustainable, create real energy equality and clean energy penetration,” says Mansaray.

Today, the team is scaling up production of briquettes and cook stoves, but also establishing community spaces and electrifying youth centers so that locals can continue to use these places to gather, socialize, and study after dark. To this end, Mansaray’s team has distributed 2,000 solar-powered lights.

Sharing the mission of equality of access, we now switch from the topic of energy equality to look closer at financial access equality. Startups that are broadening our access

If your mission is to empower individuals to forge their own paths to prosperity, give them the tools to do so. Inspiration might come from personal lived experience or second-hand exposure, but whatever the reason these startup founders began their companies, they now lift other entrepreneurs with them. For these stories, we travel to Myanmar and Lebanon.

Mother Finance transforming access to finance

Returning home to Myanmar after studying and working abroad, Theta Aye was surprised to learn that only 7% of the 55 million people in Myanmar had access to formal credit institutions. Collateral requirements and long wait times for loan processing force individuals and small business owners to resort to informal channels where they are charged 30-50% monthly interest. Her family’s experience 30 years ago – buying her plane ticket to study overseas with borrowed money even though she received a scholarship – made the issue more palpable for Aye. At this time, Mother Finance (Finance Solution for Migrants, SSA 2023) was born in Aye’s heart. 

Today, Mother Finance supports not only the economic migrants hoping to follow their dreams, but also those in Myanmar who have to move to urban areas to stay away from conflict. Since the military coup in February 2021, fighting in rural areas between the military and opposition army have caused an exodus. 

These domestic migrants need an income, but have left their assets behind and used their savings to escape conflict – they cannot fund small business startup expenses. One family moved from Sagaing to Yangon. The father looked to borrow money to support his wife and two children, by renting a fruit stand and buying fruit. His only documentation is his ID card. Without a permanent residential address, he might also need to resort to informal, expensive channels. Instead, he used Mother Finance’s mobile app to borrow just USD 50 at first. 

The father was able to rent a fruit stand and began selling daily. He eventually saved enough to buy his own fruit stand. He worked hard to repay the loan, never making a late payment. After six months, he borrowed again to buy a wheeled fruit cart stand, for his son to sell fruits in another area on weekends, to expand their micro business. In just one year, he and his family were able to improve their quality of life and economic well-being. 

This was possible thanks to Mother Finance’s Step-up Loan. It only requires an ID card and each step in a borrower’s history opens up a larger quantum loan, with lower interest and longer loan tenure. “The Step-up Loan creates customer stickiness and trust with the borrower. No other microfinance institution or bank is offering reduced interest over time,” Aye explains.

Heartwarming stories come to mind for a company like Mother Finance. While named in a less motherly way, the next company is also raising the next generation. Empowch is also in the noble business of access to opportunity. 

Empowch includes the financially-excluded

Kassim, a 23-year-old marketing graduate in northern Lebanon, faced challenges in the country's cash economy due to the banking collapse. Unable to open a bank account, he relies on cash income and family funds from Germany, incurring high costs and long wait times.

A literal life-saver, Empowch (Finance Solution for Migrants, MENA 2023) now allows Kassim to securely receive money. It stores funds in EURC, which is pegged to the Euro and collaborates with regional freelancer platforms, opening the door to online work. Empowch suits gig economy workers. Its self-custody mobile wallet solution is sovereign and borderless, making it a secure and accessible platform, and all the user needs is a mobile device.

Returning to the limitations imposed by the Beirut port explosion and pandemic restrictions, Kassim's cost of living had doubled. Fortunately, Empowch allows Kassim to save his cash in Euro pegged stable coins, hedging against inflation, or cash out in US dollars on the ground in Lebanon, and with Empowch’s first ecommerce offering, he can buy gift and recharge cards within the app for use in Lebanon, from the convenience of his home – without a bank account.

Today, Empowch represents several hundred users who, alongside the company’s founders Moataz Alobaid and Bethany Condo, hope the company continues to expand across the digital divide. 

As Empowch focuses on partnerships to enrich its ecosystem, aiming to empower unbanked individuals for global competitiveness in freelancing and digital products, the following startups also aim to empower individuals by protecting our planet.

Startups founders that are renewing our planet

Discovering something more impactful than a startup empowering the next generation poses a challenge. Yet, one entity surpasses community size – at least in physical dimensions: the world. These next startup stories tell the true tales of founders working hard for our environment, our home planet.

JustAir: we can only improve what we measure

As a child, Darren Riley witnessed his father, restricted to manual labor after leaving prison, but suffering from asthma and decreased lung capacity to 40% as a result of the environment he’d been confined to for years. “A true product of his environment,” says Riley, now Co-founder and CEO of JustAir (Climate Justice for Migrants & Communities of Color, US 2023). “Five years ago I also developed asthma, and George Floyd’s murder raised more issues for me about whether your birth should determine your worth.” This sparked the founding of the technology that is identifying air quality disparities. 

Epidemiologists have proven that there are few genetic markers that cannot be changed by the environment. Asthma, as a marker, is just as prone to environmental triggers: In fact, studies have found associations between new-onset asthma and socioeconomic and environmental determinants as well as poverty.

With the help of JustAir’s technology though, communities can both inform themselves in order to avoid triggering or worsening health outcomes. They can also arm themselves with data to campaign for better local regulations and support.

“We believe that if any sensor is capturing data in a community, the community should be benefitting from that data,” states Riley. “We hire locally, pay above market rate to help people install monitors, we hire ambassadors to educate the community, spread and pollinate activism in the neighborhood.”

While the work of JustAir happens in the air around us, the impact is felt in people’s homes: One person emailed the team to say, “Our son struggles with lung capacity on ozone days, when the air quality is low, your alert helps us re-organise our day to avoid taking him to soccer practice, and spend the day at the park. We avoided a difficult situation thanks to your monitors!”

Being able to measure pollutants empowers residents to take action and to campaign. Neighborhoods in Michigan and Connecticut have already done so, requesting more governmental funding and more green spaces, backed by real-time data, not just stories

“Having a strong mother, going to Carnegie Mellon University, and seeing my stepdad teach himself to code were experiences that primed me to be dedicated to raising the unrepresented voices, especially those solving underrepresented problems with innovation,” explains Riley. Just as his mission helps individuals and the environment, so does this next startup founder.

MakeGrowLab is growing the environment’s chainmail

From measuring the smallest atoms to feeding them, the nest story comes from MakeGrowLab (Greentech, Europe 2023). The biotech company grows innovative plastic-free materials by feeding unwanted food and beverages to microbes. The result is a futuristic material called Scoby Packaging Materials (SPM). 

SPM is a high performance nano-fiber referred to as bacterial nano-cellulose (BNC). The real-life applications of SPM are currently in paper manufacturing: SPM has been applied in lightweight cartons, called paperboard packaging as well in sachets – single use flexible packaging – for example for sauces like ketchup. The additive enhances the strength of the paper, allowing 30% more lightweight paper to be produced without loss of strength. 

As concerns about sustainable practices become a daily talking-point in manufacturing circles, this innovative introduction of hydrophobic fibers could entirely cut the need for plastic coatings on paper. When many of us are becoming more aware of plastic coatings because they remove the biodegradability of natural materials, we’ll be happy to reduce that extra petroleum-based, currently making up 22% of packaging, with greener, liquid packaging board. That’s why MakeGrowLab is providing an alternative with exceptional water barriers. liquid packaging board.

Roza Brito, Co-founder of MakeGrowLab, explained: “Lighter-weight paper means a reduction in the amount of virgin fiber required, conserving natural resources. It also requires less energy to produce. Next, this lighter paper is transported more efficiently, reducing fuel use and the overall carbon footprint of that piece of packaging.”

From individual finances, electricity, and risk to recyclability and manufacturing pollution, startup founders around the world are moving the needle for all of us. 

As we peer into the future, in 2024 we will witness a surge in impact-creating and technology-driven initiatives that bridge the digital divide, ensuring equitable access to the benefits of the digital era for all.

Successfully addressing challenges for startup founders requires unlocking social and economic capital, reimagining the systems supporting them, developing and scaling resources and tools to empower them.

Amplifying startup stories 

If you support our mission, you will be helping women avoid inhaling toxic substances, prevent children from developing asthma, and allow refugees to restart their lives and businesses. Donate to Village Capital to raise up impact-creating entrepreneurship, the organizations and systems that support them, and a wide range of research and resources that support their impact’s reach.

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