Smita Jacob

Smita Jacob is Director - Policy at AVPN and leads AVPN’s Impact Economy Policy strategy, a central component of AVPN’s efforts to support governments in Asia to develop policies and strategies to support the growth of the Impact Economy. Within the broader Impact Economy Policy Strategy, Smita anchors AVPN’s commitment to furthering the impact agenda in international cooperation platforms such as G20 and ASEAN.

With 15 years experience in the social impact space, Smita is a public policy expert and has worked extensively with governments, multi-laterals such as UNDP, UN Women and World Bank and private sector on strategic advisory, policy advocacy as well as design and management of large-scale impact projects. Smita is also the founder of a social enterprise Kreã Collectives - an inclusive business empowering women led artisan collectives in Guatemala and India.

Smita holds a Masters in International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins-SAIS, Washington DC (2017), and a Masters in Social Work from TISS Mumbai (2008).

A collaborative approach to pandemic recovery

Partner Q&A with Smita Jacob, Director of Policy, AVPN
7. Dec 2022

Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) is a unique funders’ network based in Singapore committed to building a vibrant and high-impact social investment community across Asia. As an advocate, capacity builder, and platform that cuts across private, public and social sectors, AVPN embraces all types of engagement to improve the effectiveness of members across the Asia-Pacific region. The core mission of AVPN is to increase the flow of financial, human and intellectual capital to the social sector by connecting and empowering key stakeholders from funders to the social purpose organisations they support. With over 600 members across 32 countries, AVPN is catalysing the movement towards a more strategic, collaborative and outcome-focused approach to social investing, ensuring that resources are deployed as effectively as possible to address key social challenges facing Asia today and in the future.

Can you take us through your association with iBAN? Can you also share some thoughts about CLUED-iN?

Since 2019, AVPN has been working closely with the Inclusive Business Action Network and UNESCAP to socialize Inclusive Business principles and frameworks in ASEAN, particularly, in Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam. AVPN in partnership with IBAN have run seminars, masterclasses, matchmaking sessions and multi-stakeholder dialogues to bring businesses, investors and policymakers together in these markets to learn from each other and explore opportunities for partnership and collaboration. Most importantly, we pulled together case studies, very much inspired by the work that iBAN was already doing in other markets. These inclusive business founder stories really communicated the power of inclusive business to  transform the business ecosystems and were cross-shared across both our platform and the iBAN microsite, to ensure maximum outreach.

Specific to the magazine, we’ve loved seeing examples from around the world of inclusive business in action. It’s been a resource that we have been proud to share with our members and trust that it has served as an inspiring resource. 

Which issues are most pressing for your work in inclusive business now?

COVID-19 has tested the resilience of businesses in South East Asia. In a policy brief released in August of 2021, the International Labour Office revealed that in 2020, there were 10.6 million (or 3.2 per cent) fewer workers in employment in ASEAN countries than expected for 2020 in a no-pandemic scenario. The ASEAN region recorded working-hour losses of 8.4 per cent relative to the fourth quarter of 2019. These are unprecedented figures. 

Larger issues like climate change, water security and rapid urbanization were already stressing existing infrastructure but the pandemic laid bare the complexities in addressing them.  We will need to be innovative in the recovery, and balance the demand for short-term crisis management support alongside longer-term investments to build economic, social and governance resiliency. 

Inclusive business principles provide a framework for such innovation. The core of the approach  is to create long-term sustainable  value for communities at the bottom of the pyramid, those who have unquestionably suffered the most in the last two years of Covid-19. From the livelihood perspective it is integrating them as suppliers, entrepreneurs or employees, but there’s also an opportunity to see them as clients and consumers and to shape products that more closely align with their needs. By integrating informal waste pickers, for example, into the formal supply chain, private sector companies will be able to scale their market. 

How do you see inclusive business evolving in the future? What are some key trends in the investor ecosystem for inclusive businesses

Inclusive business models are diverse, in scale, scope and maturity and the type of finance they require continues to differ accordingly. 

In terms of patient capital, the risk appetite is still developing. There is still a need for public private partnership to demonstrate success stories like Krakakoa chocolate in Indonesia or Kennemer Foods International in the Philippines. 

Government funders recognise that smallholders can pose too high a risk for private sector investors to take on, and they have come in to provide the first loss capital to “share the burden”. As part of The Swedish Government’s Gender Transformative and Responsible Investments in Southeast Asia Project (GRAISEA), IIX’s sourcing platform, Impact Partners, was able to work with Krakakoa, providing both pre and post investment support to de-risk investments. There have also been some philanthropists who have played this role. In the Philippines, Lopez Foundation has seed-funded entire supply chain cycles, from the point of manufacturing to sale and delivery of products to the customer to support local artisans’ development as entrepreneurs as part of their Artefino project. 

Impact Investors want to see strong financial returns combined with a greater focus on sustainability, responsibility and inclusion. And they are not only seeking out businesses that already reflect these values but are also in a position to influence business leaders through dialogue, corporate governance activism, changes to their investment strategy or by co-investing with companies in specific projects. 

For larger companies, it can sometimes be a challenge to secure the pool of resources required to adapt their business models to become more inclusive. They are making big strategic bets with ten- to fifteen-year investment horizons. They are not evaluating success in terms of profit and return on investment today, because these would necessarily be very small compared to their other business units. However, if they succeed, these will shape their long-term global strategies and the future direction of the company. 

In response to these gaps in knowledge and practice, AVPN in partnership with iBAN, put together self-paced modules to help large and small businesses in the region develop their inclusive business strategies. These are accessible by all our members at their convenience and hosted on our new online learning platform, the AVPN Academy. These were complemented by live online workshops that were market-specific so that there was an opportunity for breadth and depth. We also hosted 2 seminars on IB financing in Cambodia in early October 2021, and impact investors and foundations from various ASEAN countries were invited. We hope to continue the conversation on Inclusive Business that we have already started with our members in future engagements, particularly with our policy engagement work.