With the Australian Government recently bringing blended finance into their international development strategy, looking at how impact investment could bring real change in the region is timely.
The scale of the problems that currently need to be tackled for the development sector can seem insurmountable. While poverty levels increased significantly during COVID-19 and have not fallen since, vulnerable communities are also facing threats from an unstable and changing climate. Political instability, power plays, and new conflicts continue to affect all regions. Ongoing conflicts have threatened supply chains and economies. Within this already difficult context, women and other marginalized groups continue to face unequal access to services, rights and capital. Many are calling the current state of affairs a polycrisis.
Funding development work in this context where the marginalization of vulnerable groups is intensified is urgent and vital, and many are highlighting that a diverse portfolio of funding options is the only way to ensure that development agencies and not-for-profits can make any real impact on these global issues. The Australian Government’s recently released International Development Policy and accompanying Development Finance Review strongly emphasizes blended finance, highlighting that “Expanded blended finance will deliver development impact and address climate challenges at a scale beyond what can be achieved through Official Development Assistance alone.” The Government commits to scaling up blended finance mechanisms by strengthening connections with private investors, like-minded agencies, and Multilateral Development Banks. The Government wants a focus on climate finance and gender impact investment.
Blended finance: the key to growing impact investments
When systems are set up to enable blended finance approaches, it gives excellent opportunities to impact investors. Blended finance is seen as a strategy – a way to use public funds to de-risk private investments into development programs or projects. The goal of blended finance is to bridge the finance gap, especially when used in combination with technical assistance, policy reforms, and market development. It is crucial to contributing to the broader global commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Impact investment comes when a system has been set up that allows a socially-minded investor to effectively and safely invest in a social initiative or development program. The investor invests capital to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. While the impact investment market in Australia is still relatively small, it is worth USD 2.5 trillion globally.
Adding the gender lens
The Australian government has focused on gender lens investing, but unfortunately, this still remains a tiny proportion of impact investments. Partly, this comes from a lack of understanding of the meaning of gender lens investing, which is much more than investing in companies with women CEOs and leaders. According to the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), gender lens investing can include investing in women-owned enterprises, firms that promote workplace equity at all levels, including supply chains, and products or services that substantially improve the lives of women and girls. Alongside a financial return, the investment should deliver better rights, outcomes, and economic benefits for women and girls.
Recently, the Australian government funded a group of seven Asia-Pacific investment firms to pool resources, ideas, and networks to raise awareness of the value of gender lens investing. The ‘Frontier Brokers Network’ wanted to share their learnings as pioneers in this area of impact investing and inspire others to be part of the movement. Together they have created resources that help investors and organizations build their capacity and understanding in gender lens investing – and the videos, podcasts, publications and fact sheets are all freely available online.
The Australian government’s funding of this investment firms network demonstrated an innovative approach to boosting investment opportunities. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) participated in the network as a member but did not lead the network. Instead, they focused on providing flexible funding to support the exchange of ideas, expertise and the facilitation of joint activities, which were designed to promote Brokers’ connections to one another and other players in the ecosystem as well as encourage collective learning. An independent evaluation of the Frontier Brokers program showed that the network deepened the gender lens investing focus in each broker’s model, raised their profiles, and confirmed their ongoing commitment to the cause. In fact, 100% of members said they intended to stay engaged with the network after the project had finished.
A key aspect of boosting gender lens investing opportunities is driving change within the financial sector itself. After all, if the financial sector is to encourage investing in gender equality, it should lead by example. Not-for-profits like Good Return provide technical assistance through a rigorous process, starting with gender self-assessments so organizations can look at their practices. The team then encourages FSPs to identify opportunities for women in their policies, practices and services and then set these goals in stone through policies, plans and training.
Impact investing in action
Good Return has explored the impact investment model for international development for three years and has seen excellent results from the initiative. Good Return’s Impact Investment Fund identifies and supports small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in agricultural value chains that play a vital role in bringing jobs and income to people living in poverty, especially women. The Fund aims to address the issue faced by many women when it comes to accessing finance and building their businesses – their lack of collateral, lack of financial confidence, and exclusion from the financial system.
Using a funding leverage model, Good Return works with in-country financial institutions (banks, fintechs, and microfinance institutions) to get responsible financing for SMEs, focusing on women. The funding model utilizes Good Return’s unique position as both a Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR1) entity (able to accept tax-deductible donations to conduct publicly benevolent work) and holder of an Australian Financial Services License to mobilize blended capital and achieve leverage. This means they can focus on maximizing the impact of an individual’s investment while targeting a cash deposit rate of return.
The Good Return Impact Investment Fund is already changing lives in our region, funding businesses in Cambodia and Indonesia operating in aquaculture, chili, maize, rice, and cucumber farming. A total of AUD 4.43 million in loans have gone to 505 SMEs, with 89% of the loan recipients being women.
Mrs. Siti (Picture 2) and her growing business demonstrate the actual change made by impact investing. Mrs. Siti Hasanah farms chilies, cucumbers, and tomatoes in Indonesia. She wants to expand her business to build her family’s livelihood and employ others in her community. She found the loan application process with different financial institutions confusing and inaccessible and was stuck on how to progress with her goals. Good Return’s local partner CROWDE provided Mrs. Siti with loans in the form of inputs, with the loans backed by Good Return’s Fund guarantee. CROWDE helped Mrs. Siti understand her rights throughout the loan process and provided her with technical help for her farm. As a result, Mrs. Siti has doubled her land and employed a new group of staff. She enjoys a higher crop yield, larger profits, and a newer confidence level in her financial skills and future.
As the Australian government and other regional governments in the region develop new blended finance systems, the world will continue to open up to impact investors. Their drive to create social change and financial profit is ultimately the key to tackling the biggest issues of our time and building a hopeful future for more people.
Diana Tjoeng is an experienced economic development team leader with expertise in impact investment, financial education, gender, communication campaigns and digital innovation across eight countries. Diana is Good Return’s Asia Regional Manager, leading strategy and partnerships to achieve the financial well-being of marginalized communities, especially women. She sits on the Steering Committee for the ANDE East and Southeast Asia Chapter and the AVPN High-Level Task Force on Gender Diverse MSMEs.
Diana’s work with the Frontier Brokers Network was recognized with Good Return awarded as Winner - Market Builder of the Year - at the Australian Impact Investment Awards 2021. She holds a Master of Applied Finance from Kaplan Professional, Australia.
During her previous work with the Australian Federal Government, Diana received an Australia Day Medallion for her contribution to digital innovation.