2020 was an unusual year by any measure, but the time it afforded us without travel or the distractions of day-to-day office life was invaluable in developing and implementing our impact measurement and management framework. We have always believed that our investments were delivering significant impact per dollar invested, as a result of their focus on solving key problems that individuals and businesses face in their day-to-day lives. This is compounded by the lack of available capital for early-stage companies in the regions that we operate. However, we had neither a clearly defined impact objective nor a framework of systematic, quantifiable metrics that we could track to monitor the depth and breadth of this impact.
As we enter 2021, we are confident that we have a robust framework that integrates impact alongside financials and risk/ESG management throughout our investment process. Based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) we have a concrete objective to support 500,000 jobs through our current fund. The SDGs also form the basis of our investment screening so that we can weed out companies with a negative impact and identify those generating a positive one. Rather than reinvent the wheel we use the GIIN’s IRIS+ Metrics as the basis for our ongoing impact measurement and management at a company and portfolio level.
This confidence is tempered by a keen awareness that we are still at the beginning of our impact journey. Our sample of investments and impact data is small in size and limited in scope, making it too early to draw meaningful conclusions. For several of our investments we are still working with management to implement the necessary systems in order to accurately track the impact data, which compounds the previous point. Our framework as such is unproven, and it is only with more data and time that we will be able to judge its success or not.
Despite these points, we believe that our impact measurement and management is now pointing in the right direction. Our portfolio companies have bought into the importance of tracking this data, and we have begun to see small scale progress towards achieving our goals. In 2021 we will continue to refine our framework, work with our existing investments to build the data infrastructure that we need to implement it, and rely on it to guide any further investments that we make.
Away from our funds, in 2020 we launched the Sturgeon Scholarship Program in Uzbekistan and accepted the first two students. Starting with Westminster International University Tashkent and INHA University Tashkent, the program is intended to support gifted students who would otherwise struggle to afford the fees to help them maximise their potential. The scholarship covers their tuition fees for their time at university, and we also provide them with internship and work experience opportunities with either Sturgeon or our portfolio companies.
With the social and economic consequences of the pandemic likely to be felt for several years to come, we are proud that Sturgeon Capital as a firm and through the funds we invest is committed to generating positive impact and profit with purpose.
Our impact mission
The central premise of Sturgeon’s impact framework is that investing in innovative, technology-enabled companies that create private-sector jobs can generate long-term, sustainable social impact and superior financial returns for investors. This framework delivers meaningful social impact by empowering private entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, in turn creating employment opportunities which we believe are the most effective driver of social change in these markets.
The impact objective for our first fund is to support 500,000 jobs through its investee companies and to encourage technological innovation to solve the key problems that businesses and consumers face in their day-to-day lives. We have relied on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals to shape our impact target, specifically Goal 8.5 to “achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all” and Goal 8.2 to “achieve higher levels of economic productivity through diversification, technological upgrading and innovation”.
We foster technology adoption and innovation across our portfolio, bringing in international expertise to train local employees and insisting upon the highest corporate governance standards. The efficient and profitable companies our approach nurtures are more resilient during periods of economic volatility, something that is crucial to the long-term success of frontier market businesses.
A late addition to our portfolio in December 2020, with nearly 3,000 retail clients and more than 400,000 B2C users Arzon Apteka has already had a significant impact our portfolio figures. With its focus on the pharmaceutical sector in Uzbekistan, Arzon Apteka is generating a positive impact for both the businesses and their consumers. For businesses, it enables them to operate more efficiently and access the best price for their stock. For consumers, it enables them to easily find the medicine they need at the best price.
We are still working with the company to implement the data infrastructure necessary to monitor the number of jobs in directly supported enterprises and their client income. As with all our investments we have been encouraged by the readiness of management to implement such infrastructure, as it will also generate greater insight for them into their clients’ operations. This understanding can in turn support their product development to best meet the needs of their clients.
Billz has the most technically sophisticated data infrastructure when it comes to monitoring our impact, and currently is the only company where we can accurately monitor the number of jobs directly supported. 2020 was a difficult year for Billz clients, the majority of whom operate in the fashion retail sector and were forced to close for nearly 4 months of the year by the pandemic. Billz moved quickly to support them during this time, freezing all payments for shops that were forced to close, developing websites and free Telegram bots so that the retailers could continue to sell and running online webinars to educate them in ecommerce.
During and immediately after the lockdowns less than 5% of Billz clients churned. Whether this figure was so low due to the support Billz gave to its clients or other factors is difficult to say now. However, with retention rates for the year of +90% and a Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 76 it would seem that Billz customer-centric approach paid off for both its clients and Billz. The lockdowns also demonstrated the importance of efficient store management for retailers, requiring them to shift away from paper and excel to modern solutions such as Billz. We expect to continue to see the impact of this on Billz new client acquisitions throughout 2021.
In a country like Uzbekistan where less than 5% of individuals have ever borrowed from a financial institution, the potential for Finmedia to improve financial inclusion is huge. Through issuing small airtime advance loans to its telco partners’ users, the company gathers a unique data profile for each user that can then be used to provide more sophisticated financial products. Having launched in the middle of 2020, Finmedia has already provided airtime advance loans to over 600,000 unique users worth more than $3m.
Together with management we are exploring the different options to use this data. Current credit scoring in Uzbekistan relies on simple data sources such as your tax records and bank card. These are particularly limited when 50% of economic activity happens in the cash-based “black economy”. In such an environment, Finmedia’s data can allow for much more sophisticated credit scoring of a wider part of the population.
The closure of international borders and restrictions on cross-border trade were significant challenges for Orient Swiss’s operating platform, Zoodmall. In response, the company shifted to bring more local retailers onto the platform, providing them with a complete ecommerce solution including payments handling and logistics. As many stores struggled to manage the shift to digital sales, the Zoodmall platform showed its worth as a “plug and play” solution for retailers to continue operating through lockdowns.
For the nearly 1 million consumers active on the platform, Zoodmall provides access to a wide range of products at affordable prices and with a variety of payment options to suit their needs. We are particularly excited by the launch of Zoodpay, a buy-now-pay-later solution that will provide access to credit options for many who have never previously borrowed from a financial institution. With low financial inclusion across the countries that Zoodmall operates, Zoodpay is an innovative solution that can enable its users to build up a credit profile for the first time in an affordable and easily understandable manner.
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