29 Sep Africa Eats Fund
Interview with Luni Libes, Founder and Co-CEO for the Africa Eats Fund
I learned about FLEDGE and Africa Eats from Tim Crosby of the Thread Fund who was excited about the potential of African-based food and agriculture businesses to address job creation. When I was at the Swift Foundation, I was excited to learn of a venture capital fund that was repaid based on royalty payments and allowed the entrepreneurs to grow alongside their customer base and revenues. Since 2018, Luni has grown the holding company to include 27 different businesses making small investments that few investors are willing to make and coupling that with business assistance.
Jen: How was the Africa Eats Fund created?
Luni: The world faces huge issues such a poverty, hunger, and environment, and 99% of capital is content chasing tech, memes and maximum returns instead of being put to productive use solving these real problems.
I jumped into impact investing mid-career, seeing thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs with great ideas and great solutions being ignored by the traditional early-stage investors due to lack of technology, unknowns investing into emerging markets, and a mismatch between the “go big or go home” philosophy of the investors and the “doing well by doing good” philosophy of the entrepreneurs.
That all led me to create Fledge, a global network of business accelerators focused on mission-driven for-profit companies, and Africa Eats is a 2020 spin-off of Fledge, taking 27 “fledglings” from the accelerator and wrapping them in an investment holding company to help them grow faster and have a bigger impact.
Jen: How are your investment funds catalytic in a way that is different from other funds?
Luni: All the funds I work on have some innovation in how they are structured and how they invest. Fledge is a pioneer in revenue-based equity investments, showing a way to invest in startups without needing acquisitions. Africa Eats is a permanent capital holding company, breaking apart the needs of liquidity of investors from the desires of entrepreneurs to build long-lasting businesses. Realize Impact is a bridge between philanthropists and impact investors, whose interests often align but whose language and capital structures too often talk past each other.
Jen: How do you describe the kind of non-financial returns the fund offers?
Luni: All the funds use the “impact” language and the United Nation SDG’s as an ontology to describe which impacts are being targeted by the investees. All the funds measure gender of the investees and the target of the impact.
For Fledge and Africa Eats, all the investees are specifically chosen so that the impact is embedded within the product or service, so that the investees can focus on sales to have their intended impact, rather than worry about impact outside of normal business operations.
For Realize Impact, all the investments are impactful and the use of philanthropy is catalyzing non-philanthropic capital to follow in many of the investments, providing a second layer of impact to each transaction.
Jen: Can you describe how you use integrated capital to do your work?
Luni: Both Fledge and Africa Eats have 501(c)(3)s as investors, mostly from capital invested out of donor advised funds. The total blend of capital in the fund is around 20:80 of philanthropic capital at Fledge and 35:55 at Africa Eats.
Realize Impact’s capital is 99% philanthropic. However, this flow of capital is part of a service for impact funds and impactful companies to allow them to raise blended capital. Realize Impact is often the sole philanthropic pathway for blended capital raises, like at Africa Eats, Beneficial Returns, and Mission Driven Finance.
Jen: What is transformational about the businesses that you invest in?
Luni: The people we invest in solve real problems. They directly lessen poverty and hunger. They offset carbon. They recycle clothing, plastics, and cooking oil that would otherwise end up in a landfill. They mitigate wealth inequality. And more.
Jen: How do you address racial justice, income inequality, and/or gender justice through your products and services?
Luni: It varies. Some of the investees tackle these issues head on. Others manage their businesses with an eye toward inequality and social justice.
What we’ve seen at Fledge and Africa Eats is that most of the entrepreneurs who start companies tackling hunger, poverty, and the environment don’t stop with just that one impact goal. For example, Chicken Basket in Kenya processes chicken, increasing incomes for smallholder farmers while feeding protein to the people of Western Kenya. But adding to that, the founder specifically invites women from the slums to work the processing line, and then sells them chicken at a discount which they cook and sell in small, affordable pieces to their bottom-of-the-pyramid neighbors who otherwise would not be able to feed their children meat.
Jen: What does a foundation or investor need to understand in order to invest in transformational businesses?
Luni: You need only understand that it is possible to earn the same (or higher) rate of return on a portfolio of investments that mitigates poverty as it is to invest in a portfolio of S&P 500 public companies. Or a portfolio of companies that mitigate climate change. Or a portfolio of women-led companies. Or most any portfolio tackling any of the UN SDGs.
The trick to that is threefold. First, let the people in the target industry tell you the potential solutions. Trust that they know best. Pick the best of them leading to the second trick, pick a lot of them as some of them will be wrong. Which leads to the third trick, it’s OK to be wrong.
Transformational implies trying something new. Not all new ideas will work as planned. In fact, nearly all new ideas will not work as planned. That is OK. Failure is part of learning. We all learn more from failure than success. Too often in investing, failure is considered unacceptable. The mitigation for that is simple, investing needs to be in portfolios, not concentrated in one or three or five investments. Success means a good return across the whole portfolio.
Jen: What do you tell people who think your fund is risky?
Luni: Fledge and Africa Eats are early-stage funds. They are risky. But they are also incredibly diverse, and thus the odds of the funds returning nothing are near zero. Odds of returning more than the capital invested are good and there is a reasonable chance the returns will exceed the public markets. But either way, these funds will have accomplished more good for the world than 99% of companies listed on the public markets, where the bulk of foundations, families, and HNW individuals park the majority of their capital.
I’ll also point out that despite a global pandemic, not a single company in the Africa Eats portfolio went out of business, and just 1 out of 100 in the Fledge portfolio. The valuation of the two portfolios did not drop by 20% in March/April of 2020 like the public markets did. The aggregate revenues at Africa Eats are up 70% year over year, despite the pandemic. These are funds that do not correlate with Wall Street at all, and thus from a wealth management framework provide mitigation from the invisible correlation of public markets that 2007/2008 and 2020 have proved.
Investment Thesis/What is your rationale for your approach to investing? 1+ billion Africans need to be fed, and more than $1+ billion of investment is needed to make the continent self-sustaining growing food. The baby step toward that vision is $10 million.
Year Founded: 2020
# of Investments: 27
# of Investors: 36
Funds Raised: $2,800,000 in new capital + $3,000,000 in assets transferred from Fledge and Luni’s family office
Investment Thesis/What is your rationale for your approach to investing? Entrepreneurs have solutions, but they need both acceleration (intense guidance) and funding to build sustainable companies to get those solutions up to scale where the impacts are significant.
Year Founded: 2012
# of Investments: 110
# of Investors: 81
Funds Raised: $3,700,000
Investment Thesis/What is your rationale for your approach to investing? Billions of dollars of capital is locked up in donor advised funds and foundations, all potentially invested in impact if only that were easy… so we made impact investing as easy as making a grant.
Year Founded: 2013
# of Investments: 33
# of Investors: 123
Funds Raised: $6,400,000
What’s on Luni’s Minds?
Book: The Big Short (worrying about what comes next to potentially blow up the Global North financial system)
Song: SEAGULLS! (Stop It Now)” — A Bad Lip Reading of The Empire Strikes Back (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9t-slLl30E), because I have kids
Podcast: The Opportunity is Africa (africaeats.com/podast)