In the remote Amhara region of northern Ethiopia, Shaifali Puri of the Nike Foundation came upon a young girl. She did grueling work, picking up rocks from the edge of a quarry, setting them on top of her head, and walking them to nearby trucks. It was work we find difficult to imagine a young girl doing at all, and yet she was doing it day after day, for mere cents, and was supporting her entire family doing so. “It was hard to see a girl with so much potential, who was unable to walk through a door of a school because of economic circumstances,” says Puri. “But it was great to know there was an innovator out there who could change that.”
This month, the Nike Foundation lends its support to a host of innovative businesses (including those focused on education) from the developing world that help young girls like the one Puri met in Ethiopia. The Nike Foundation, together with The Unreasonable Group, just announced The Girl Effect Accelerator, which they bill as “the first [accelerator] in the world dedicated to supporting high-impact entrepreneurs to positively benefit millions of girls living in poverty.”
Like so many accelerators, this one will also be based in the Bay Area. But the similarities end there. The Nike Foundation and The Unreasonable Group have hand-selected 10 growing businesses, each based in either Africa or India, whose missions support adolescent girls earning $2 or less per day. On October 31, the businesses will gather for two weeks, sharing core competencies and best practices with one another. And at the end of the two weeks, the groups will stand before investors, Y Combinator-style.
This isn’t charity. This is social entrepreneurship. “The companies we selected generate on average $2.2 million in revenue” annually, says Daniel Epstein of The Unreasonable Group. These are viable businesses, and investors can make a profit even when focusing on markets composed of people who earn mere dollars a day.
One of the participating businesses, for instance, is Bridge International Academies, which has some 350 schools in Kenya that educate 100,000 children for an average of $6 a month (and yet turn a profit). Bridge aims to reach 10 million people by 2025, and has a focus specifically on girls. In Kenya, on average, 65% of girls drop out of school. But in the Bridge academies, their completion rates match that of their male classmates.
Other participants in the Girl Effect Accelerator include Jayaashree Industries, which has manufactured an ultra-cheap sanitary pad. This is crucial in India, where 20% of young girls are said to drop out of school at puberty in large measure due to lack of access to such products. Eco Fuel Africa, meanwhile, converts agricultural waste into cooking fuel, and it empowers girls by both ensuring they don’t have to spend hours collecting firewood and by employing over 600 women retailers. Embrace has created a life-saving infant warmer, while Eneza is Africa’s fastest-growing mobile education application, and Paga is the leading mobile payment service in Nigeria. All will join the accelerator.
The accelerator is another expression of the entrepreneurial community’s feeling that while government aid and philanthropy are good, market forces remain an underused tool in combating poverty. (See, for instance D-Rev, which has insisted on selling its low-cost prosthetics because it believes, for several reasons, that this will yield more of an impact than simply giving them away.)
It’s also an expression of a growing sense that smart people should be hacking less frivolous problems. “We’re tired of seeing the smartest minds in the country work on the next mobile phone app that delivers food to your door,” says Epstein. Instead, what if that entrepreneurial acumen were devoted to “probably the most marginalized demographic in the world right now: adolescent girls earning $2 a day”?
Ever speaking the language of business, both Puri and Epstein emphasize that investing in this demographic in particular can yield astounding returns on investment. Puri cites studies that say that while boys tend to reinvest 35% of their income back into their families, girls have been shown to reinvest 90%. When you invest in a young girl–when you enable her to stay in school, to delay marriage, and to have children later–“the intergenerational effects are huge,” says Puri.
“We don’t want this to be treated as a niche problem,” says Puri of the specific trials facing impoverished girls. “This is not a niche, but a linchpin.”
It’s good business, too, she believes: “We’re unleashing huge, hardest-to-reach markets. We think of this market as something that is necessary to address, not just nice to address. It’s not, ‘That’s just about girls.’ It’s about transforming the way businesses operate.”