14 Noteworthy Social Ventures Looking To Scale - by Devin Thorpe

Originally published on Forbes.com by Devin Thorpe

The Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University runs the GSBI Accelerator for social entrepreneurs from around the world. The ten-month program culminates in a few weeks on campus in Silicon Valley, ending with a traditional entrepreneurial demo day. The Center hosted me so I could meet their 14 entrepreneurs.

This is an impressive crop from almost every corner of the globe working around the developing world. From selling water in Mexico to selling weather reports in Ghana, the enterprises came not with business plans but with history and data to support their impact.

The ventures come in a variety of forms, some structured as nonprofits, others as for-profit ventures while some have set up hybrid structures. All have achieved sufficient scale to suggest the potential to impact a lot of people. Typically, they have a vision of reaching at least ten million within ten years.

Here is a quick run down of all 14 ventures based on their presentations and my interviews with each one of them.

All Across Africa

We imagine artisans in the developing world toiling away at their trade to earn a living selling one basket at a time. The trouble is, that is a crummy way to earn a living. All Across Africa, a for-profit social enterprise, uses US-based designers to conjure products that major corporations buy by the thousands. The company sources the products in Africa using artisans producing exactly to the design standards who then receive consistent work and income. Now, that’s a great way to earn a living.

Koe Koe Tech

Myanmar doesn’t fit all of the stereotypes of the developing world. The country had virtually no functional cell phone network before 2014. As a result, when one was introduced, virtually everyone bought a smart phone. Unlike other markets in the developing world where most people are limited to feature phones or have smart phones but can’t afford data plans, people in Myanmar use their smartphones. In part, this results from the Facebook “Free Basics” program that gives low income people access to free data and a set of apps pre-installed on the phones. Michael Lwin, a Myanmar American lawyer, saw the situation and paired it to a national travesty, an infant mortality rate that was the worst in the region, about ten-times worse than the U.S. (which, by the way, isn’t the gold standard for infant mortality). He created Koe Koe Tech to help mothers track their pregnancies and care for their children for the first two years of life. Just launched less than three months ago, the app already has 40,000 users, representing about 5 percent of the pregnancies in Myanmar.

Pollinate Energy

Unbelievably, some people in India are considred by aid organizations to be too poor to help. While millions of Indians live in slums with poor infrastructure, questionable title to their tin-roofed homes and jobs that fail to provide for basic incomes, millions more aspire to such a lifestyle. The poorest live in slums where the residents live in tents, have no access to electricity and no prospect for getting title to the land where they are squatting. No one, it seems, would help them until two young women from Australia created Pollinate Energy to sell them solar powered lamps–on credit. It turns out, these people no one would help, pay their bills 99 percent of the time and the business is thriving. This powerful lesson could be a boon to millions of people, but it certainly is good for Emma Colenbrander and Alexie Seller, the founders of Pollinate Energy.


The LivelyHoods management team and sales agents, courtesy of LivelyHoods

The LivelyHoods management team and sales agents, courtesy of LivelyHoods


Tania Laden, a Stanford grad working in Kenya, realized there was a problem in Kenya when 75 percent of those engaged in post-election violence were deemed to be unemployed youth. She knew that young people their age in Silicon Velley were doing things like launching businesses while young people in Kenya had no prospects. Initially, they tried teaching youth entrepreneurship and even financed startups. Ultimately, they learned that most of them didn’t want to entrepreneurs; they just wanted jobs. She’d committed to stay in Kenya for three months; five years later she’s still there helping to run LivelyHoods, a nonprofit that now hires youth to sell solar products in slums, providing employment opportunities for young people and enhancing the lives of the consumers who buy their products. With twelve branches in two cities, they have created over 900 jobs with plans to triple that by 2020.

Vava Coffee

Vava Angwenyi loves coffee. She is especially proud of the coffee in her native Kenya. She launched Vava Coffee to buy and export some of the country’s finest coffee from small-holder farmers who have traditionally lacked access to fair markets. These vulnerable people have been victims of the market as much as particpants in it. Vava works with them to assure them a fair price for their coffee and proudly exports it.


Inside the NUCAFE factory, courtesy of NUCAFE

Inside the NUCAFE factory, courtesy of NUCAFE

NUCAFE (National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises)

Joseph Nkandu was born on a coffee farm in Uganda and grew up watching his parents struggle to keep the family fed and him in school. Now a university graduate, he leads a national effort to give small-holder farmers the ability to earn a fair living from growing coffee. Small farmers are often forced to sell their crops at deep discounts while still on the plant. Joseph’s NUCAFE is a national association of farmers who now own a processing plant that may completely change their lives, The plant could allow them to pay fair fees for preparing their coffee for export. Soon they will be able sell a finished product at the top of the value chain, capturing most of the difference.


What does a serial entrepreneur do after he’s made a fortune? Ravi Agarwal, who was born and made his fortune in Boston, spent time volunteering in Africa before deciding to create a global technology business to serve the base of the pyramid, the world’s poor. Without access to the internet, no one had an effective or affordable way to reach 5 billion people. NGOs and others wanting to communicate with the people they serve can’t. At least they couldn’t until Ravi created engageSpark to allow everyone affordable access to effective ways to engage with people whose only way to communicate is talking or texting via old style feature phones with no internet access. The new low-cost interactive voice response and texting service allows NGOs to help people more effectively.


Imagine running an NGO that serves rural people living in low income villages in the developing world. How would you communicate with your customers? Most do not have any access to the Internet. While a few have smart phones, they can scarcely afford the data plans to use them. Awaaz.de, meaning to “give voice” offers a low-cost communications platform that enables SMS and interactive voice response system that enables nonprofits to reach the people they serve effectively. Now, an nonprofit providing maternal healthcare services can send appointment reminders, nutritional coaching and get health data in response from the women it serves.

Cantaro Azul

What if there were a way to deliver clean drinking water to more people who lack it while creating a business opportunity for disadvantaged women at the same time? Cantaro Azul asked this question and found the answer was “yes.” By producing the clean water in small facilities closer to the people they serve in rural and suburban Mexico, and employing women to sell it, they can undercut market prices by 20 to 40 percent. The lower price allows the company to reach more people. As they do so, the sales force earns a living at the same time communities benefit from improved health.


What do you do when saving lives becomes more important than finishing your PhD. Shantanu Pathak started his PhD in Public Health shortly after a friend, Shilpa Munda, almost died from pregnancy-related hypertension. He realized that something must be done to improve maternal health outcomes. He created a kit that could be used at the doorstep to monitor basic maternity metrics using a smart phone. His kit, which fits in a small briefcase, can be carried door to door and allows a modestly trainer user to check vital signs, measure the fetal heart rate and even do a spot check with a urine sample to help doctors screen for high-risk pregnancies. In a pilot with just 20 door-to-door health workers, over 1500 pregnancies were tracked–including 700 high risk ones–with an increase of high-risk pregancies identified of 23 percent, suggesting that some lives may already have been saved. Pathak hasn’t officially ended his studies, but told me, “My prof is like, I know you’re not going to do it, but see if you can.”

Noora Health

There is a proud professor at Stanford, I suspect. Katy Ashe was taking a design course there that included a class project in India. She and a few classmates went to Bangalore and spent time in a hospital observing and talking to patients and staff. They observed an interesting dichotomy. Hallways and grounds were overrun with family members of patients waiting for short visitation windows and then to take their loved ones home. At the same time, the hospitals were understaffed. To add insult to injury, patients were often sent home with limited–if any–home-care instructions, resulting in lots of complications, return visits to the hospital and some deaths. Ashe and her colleagues conceived that during the hospital stay, the family members could be effectively trained to provide required home care. The executed a low-budget proof of concept. After a dangerous stint in South America, Ashe returned to Palo Alto only to learn that her project had proven so effective that the hospital was clamouring for her to return. She did, creating Noora Health to formalize and extend the training provided to family members. They have now trained over 50,000 family members, reducing 30-day complication rates by 71% and saving countless lives in the process. Let’s just say, I hope Ashe got an A on her project.


Farmerline customer receiving tropical weather forecast via voice in his local language, courtesy of Farmerline

Farmerline customer receiving tropical weather forecast via voice in his local language, courtesy of Farmerline


Will illiterate small holder farmers living in Ghana pay for access to weather information, agricultural tips and market pricing data? Alloysius Attah thought they would, provided that the information were provided in an accessible manner. Because they can receive calls for free, Attah created a system that would call the farmers with the information they need. At just $7 per year, Farmerline can provide its full three-tiered service with weather, tips and market data. Farmers report increasing their profits by 50 percent, easily justifying the annual fee.

Attah, it turns out, was raised on a farm but hates farming. He taught himself to code in college while studying natural resource management. He’s always wanted to get away from farming. Perhaps it was that fundamental desire that enabled him to create a tool that will make farming easier and more productive for his fellow Ghanaians.


“You can’t get anything out of frustrated young people but revolution,” says Mohamed El-Kamal, managing director of Alashanek ya Balady (roughly translated as “For you, my beloved country”). The nonprofit organization survived the revolution in Egypt, giving the organization an even greater sense of purpose as the country struggles to recover. The organization works with young people ages 21 to 35 to help them become more self-reliant. Over the years, 35,000 people have been trained, 8,000 have obtained jobs and 22,000 have started businesses with help from AYB. El-Kamal says that he is working to create systemic change. El-Kamal says that when young people find employment, they contribute more to their families, their communities and their country.


If you can read this article, it is likely hard to imagine life without electricity. We completely take it for granted. Despite its importance in our lives, Marc Henrich was surprised when he had the opportunity to introduce solar lamps to off-grid villages in Central America. He quickly learned from the villagers what should not shock any of us: having access to electricity was life changing. Before long, Henrich abandoned his crowdfunding website and created Solubrite to distribute solar powered lamps and other products to people without access to power. Partnering with microfinance institutions, he sells everything from individual lamps up to commercial freezers (that double a store’s profits, he says) in Nicaragua and Panama, already reaching almost 50,000 people.



Devin Thorpe, Champion of Social Good, is a new media journalist and Forbes Contributor who covers social entrepreneurship and impact investing. He is also author of five books on using money for good and a popular speaker. Learn more at devinthorpe.com.