Helen Mwangi and her solar-powered water pump in Kenya © infoDev/World Bank
Managers of initiatives that support innovative entrepreneurs have a choice to spread their resources (and luck) among many opportunities or focus them on the most promising few. In developing countries, public and donor programs can learn a lot from how private investors pick and back innovative ventures.
In the early days of infoDev’s Climate Technology Program, our thinking was very much about letting a hundred flowers bloom: supporting a large number of firms with the hope that a few would emerge as blockbusters. Firms were selected on the basis of objective metrics tied to the innovative nature of their ideas and their economic, social and climate-change impacts. For example, while infoDev’s partner the Kenya Climate Innovation Center has more than 130 companies in its portfolio, a $50 million venture-capital fund in California would have at most six. Inspired by private investors, we have since rethought our program objectives for these centers, as well as the way we select and support businesses. The Kenya center is going through a rationalization of the firms it supports.
Like many public programs, infoDev and its network of Climate Innovation Centers had good reasons to support large numbers of companies. The main reason is the need to spread the entrepreneurship risk through a diversified portfolio. A recent infoDev literature review found that up to a third of all new firms do not survive beyond two years, let alone grow. Out of those that survive, data from high-income countries suggest that fewer than 10 percent become high-growth firms. So casting a wide net increases the chances of hitting the jackpot. The opposite approach, picking winners, is seen as destined to fail and distort the market.