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.

Why share? Are you curious or sceptical about exchanging knowledge on inclusive business?

14. Oct 2013

Puzzled, curious or sceptical; people ask me why do BIF and IAP invest in generating and exchanging knowledge not just supporting businesses on the ground. What does it achieve? The first question is easy to answer, the second harder.

Why share news and findings from the inclusive businesses that we support?

  1. Time and pace: Inclusive business is still relatively new, so it’s a particularly critical phase in which practitioners can speed up the learning curve by exchanging with each other.
  2. Diversity and similarity: Nothing works ‘off the shelf’ in inclusive business, but learning from others can provide short cuts to avoid mistakes, or develop better models.
  3. Poaching from other sectors: Entrepreneurs often already know what others in their own sector are doing. But strategies that reach the BOP cut across sectors and the BIF and IAP programmes are well placed to highlight these.
  4. Demand for in-depth analysis: Feedback from practitioners says they like to hear specifics of what others are doing. During audience voting at an IFC conference in 2010, by far and away the most popular option for knowledge exchange was ‘in-depth analysis of specific approaches (e.g. for supplier or consumer finance) used across inclusive business models.’
  5. Rich supply of depth and detail. We are lucky that we can get past the glossy summaries and into the detail of how inclusive businesses are evolving and what they are delivering. In particular in BIF, our job is to provide technical assistance that improves the business. What a waste to keep these insights to the single company and provider of TA.
  6. Reaching a growing market: The audience is growing, as inclusive business in its many shapes, sizes and terminologies gains momentum. BCtA’s title of their conference report captures this: inclusive business coming of age. BIF and IAP support businesses in 5 and 20 developing countries, respectively. By sharing knowledge through the Practitioner Hub we reach those working on inclusive business in 119 countries.
  7. Transparency: Both BIF and IAP are funded by government donors – DFID and Sida. The value of transparency when spending taxpayers’ money is recognised by both. At the very least this is reason enough to list our projects, key findings and feedback in the public domain.
  8. Feedback and value: The last, most important, and most subjective reason is the value that others get from our investment in knowledge exchange, and the value for money we perceive. A little bit of information or dialogue is not the same as 3 months of technical support or a €100,000 grant, but if it adds value to many thousands of businesses, that is good news.

So what do we know of the value delivered?

Of course we all prefer face to face to face exchange if we can afford the time and travel, and that is part of what BIF and IAP provide. We try to always collect feedback forms at the end of a workshop, and have just analysed over 400 responses from workshops in 5 BIF countries. An astonishing 45% of BIF workshop participants report that their workshop was ‘very useful’ and a further 47% say ‘useful’.

More recently we used Survey Monkey to gather feedback from hundreds of practitioners who engaged with BIF through workshops, events, trainings and the lightest-touch version of engagement. 63% reported that they had increased their engagement with, or understanding of, Base of Pyramid consumers and producers due to their engagement with BIF, and a quarter of these reported it was a significant increase.

Feedback on the Practitioner Hub is overwhelmingly positive. 32% of those giving feedback report big smiles and 54% report smiles .

Satisfied or smiling customers. Very nice but does this actually lead to any change in practice? It’s hard to tell, but we received some great answers when we asked our Survey Monkey participants to identify something they had done differently as a result of involvement with BIF. Well over half (of 90 odd respondents) identified a specific result, often because they found new contacts, or realised the need to think harder about a specific issue:

  • ‘Yes, I could enrich my knowledge of inclusive business and we partnered two private companies (input suppliers in aquaculture) to help rural fish farmers through providing embedded services.’
  • ‘Sought further partnerships with NGOs’
  • ‘I have successfully engaged a private sector with my project’
  • ‘I have now some partner, what they are doing and where they are located. This has helped me not to waste time when looking for information.’
  • ‘More in-depth analysis of inclusive business models during the planning/contracting stage.’
  • ‘Decided on new research areas following the workshop, identifying the need for developing business cases based on business process review’
  • ‘More systematic and informed approach to the issue’
  • ‘I use the Practitioner Hub for research purposes and I am using the business tools used by the BIF team’.

Several respondents mention how they have taken what they learnt to pass it onto other clients, colleagues and networks:

  • ‘My involvement with BIF helped me to enhance my business planning skills, which have helped me to assist more other businesses in developing bankable business plans’.
  • ‘Understanding and approach to M&E for inclusive business has been vastly enhanced – I have taken this and used for many other projects I am involved with’

Does this sound a bit too good? Well 6 respondents said they got nothing out of whatever engagement they had with BIF and was a waste of time. Certainly there are things we could have done better. There must be many hard to reach entrepreneurs that struggle to access information and have not been reached by us. A new blog by my colleague and Hub Manager Emma Doherty, outlines the challenges we face to meet this apparent but somewhat disparate demand for information and exchange.

Is this good value? There is value for Practitioners’ time invested, and value for DFID and Sida’s money. With Hub visits growing fastest in the South, it suggests that is where the internet users are finding most value for their surfing time despite slower connections. Amongst the Survey Monkey respondents who are more likely to have attended events, trainings and workshops, 50 % say ‘I got a lot out of it and it was worth my time’ and 31% say ‘Very useful – I got more than I expected out if it and it was well worth my time’.

Value for money is impossible to judge without spending quite a lot more money on the question. But very roughly, we estimate just over £100,000 of the BIF budget has been spent on the Practitioner Hub (a tad less by IAP so far) and it currently costs around £1 per visitor (shared between co-hosts) to run it. Including wider work to generate and share knowledge, BIF spend is closer to £400,000 in total, and if we add in workshops that are budgeted under our light-touch advisory, it is closer to £0.5mn. Numbers depend on how we measure it, but the total investment in knowledge will be less than 10% of total BIF spend. The rest of the budget has supported around 100 inclusive businesses with direct support. The KE budget has reached around 75,000 others through the Hub and workshops.

If say only a third of the 75,000 reached actually use what they hear or read, that implies a cost of about £20 per user to BIF. Combing these kind of numbers with the quality of feedback we are getting I think provides a strong if subjective answer as to the rationale for investing in exchange of knowledge on inclusive business.