Caroline Ashley

Caroline focuses on how innovative economic models can deliver more inclusive and resilient development.

Caroline has worked on markets, business models and investment approaches that deliver social impact for many years in roles with challenge funds, impact investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, NGOs and policy makers. As Results Director of the DFID Business Innovation Facility, and Sida Innovations Against Poverty programme, she founded the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business in 2010, then took on hosting it, and acted as Editor of the Hub for 7 years before it transitioned into managed by IBAN.

Most recently Caroline led economic justice programmes at Oxfam GB, before moving to Forum for the Future, to lead global systems change programmes to accelerate our transition to a sustainable future.

Refreshingly frank and inspiringly ambitious: seven in-depth case studies of inclusive business in practice

4. Dec 2013

If the word ‘case study’ conjures up an image of a glossy 2-pager with lots of pictures and little analysis, think again. Today we are delighted to launch a series of seven ‘deep dive’ case studies, each analysing an inclusive business, with candid explanation of the highs and lows of the companies’ journeys to date, and drawing lessons for the future.

The case studies cover some of the most interesting businesses in the portfolio of the Business Innovation Facility, cutting across countries, sectors, and stage of maturity. They include an energy company, an education company, and a rural distribution company, all selling to households at the base of the pyramid. Two more provide credit or technology for agriculture, while two agribusinesses source fresh produce from farmers.

Every single one is leading the way in their engagement with people at the ase of the Pyramid and redefining what business can do. Each has had to change their starting assumptions and rethink their model, and in these ‘deep dive’ reports they have been refreshingly willing to share their experience with the authors and thence with you.

Continuous innovation and careful design to balance commercial and social goals are strong themes across all. But particularly in the three start-up companies:

iSchool: Transformative learning in the Zambian classroom. The Zambian start-up is pioneering e-learning, and has radically altered its product and model in order to slash cost per pupil per term and combine a sustainable business with the goal of improved education.

• MEGA is the first operational private energy company in Malawi. MEGA: A commercial approach to off-grid power in rural Malawi was written just as the first light bulb was lit at Lower Bondo on Mulanje Mountain, and explains why this is such a unique approach to rural electricity distribution.

The JITA sales network: An inclusive business on the rise looks at the operations of Jita, since it became a company and transitioned from an NGO programme 2 years ago. Jita has maintained its core social focus - recruiting marginalised rural Bangladeshi women as distributors of consumer goods – while building in commercial growth and diversification.

Each case study looks at challenges, risks, and the varying roles and performance of partners, but these themes are particularly strong in the two that source from smallholders:

• If you ever wanted to learn about a pilot that ‘failed’ and how useful that can be, read ACI Agribusiness: Designing and testing an integrated contract farm.... The difficulties of setting up a contract farming model engaging smallholder farmers, have not deterred ACI, a Bangladeshi agribusiness conglomerate keen to establish new value chains with farmers.

Commercialising cassava: New opportunities for Universal Industries... could at first sight be a depressing read: the crop is low-value, farmers lack experience, processing needs to happen with 48 hours, partnerships have not delivered, and massive volume increases are needed to run the factory. But deep dive explains enthusiastically how Universal Industries, a Malawian snacks manufacturer, is nevertheless moving forward.

Both cases reveal plenty of lessons about key issues – risk, timing, partners, product choice – in relations with farmers.

Stanbic Bank in Nigeria, and mKRISHI®, an initiative of TCS in India, seek to sell services to the agricultural sector and transform productivity, though in very different ways:

• A highly ambitious and finely-tuned initiative is discussed in Collaborating for smallholder finance: How is Stanbic closing the l... Stanbic Bank's smallholder finance scheme seeks to inject agricultural credit to unlock yield increases and returns across the chain, catalysing a whole new approach to smallholder farming and rural banking

Evolution of mKRISHI®: A technology platform for Indian farmers explains how Tata Consulting Services (TCS), part of one of India’s largest companies, has transformed its initial mobile phone app into a comprehensive business proposition offering online solutions for farmer organisations.

These two well-established companies aim to reach millions of farmers in years to come, and demonstrate lessons about the investment and time needed to get there.

A set of seven case studies was never meant to be a ‘representative sample’ but nevertheless a host of lessons can be drawn from them: drivers of scale, necessities and weaknesses of partnership, the role of passionate persistent leaders. We will continue to explore these in our series of blogs on the Hub.

The companies have invested many millions so far in the inclusive business ventures. They expect returns, though often tolerating slow and/or low. They expect to reach 4,000-5,000 suppliers (ACI and Universal), half a million consumers (iSchool and MEGA), or even millions (Stanbic, and mKRISHI®). Beyond these numbers, the reports look at who benefits, and what it means to them to have access to electricity, better education, tailored information, or new income sources.

In the words of one Zambian teacher, who has iSchool ZEduPads in her classroom:

"I've never had a grade 2 class who can read before."

And in the words of Mr Ben Friday, Medical Assistant and Manager of the Community Hospital at Bondo, Malawi:

“People are literally ‘watching’ the light bulbs, and are eager for the accessibility to spread. It will open up this whole area. It will change the lives of these people.”