Original article appeared in Linkedin on January 10th 2021 by Olivia Thompson
Olivia Thompson, co-chair of the Social Innovation and Investment Alliance (SIIA), was part of the inaugural class of the Acceso Social Business Fellowship Program in 2020 and shares the importance of social enterprises’ ability to adapt its strategy, innovate, and collect and report robust impact to maximize impact.
On January 8th, 2020, I found myself huddled amongst 20 NYU Wagner students on a slick, curved road in El Salvador’s countryside. We were on our way to visit a farm outside of Chalatenango, a beautiful, mountainous town 100km north of San Salvador when our bus slid off the road into the muddy ditch that lay beside it. This experience, part of a two-week trip to the country, demonstrated the realities of life in rural mountains, and one of the many challenges smallholder farmers in this area faced while trying to bring their products to market before Acceso.
Acceso works to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and fishers by providing end-to-end support from training to financing to guaranteed crop purchase. Founded in 2013, Acceso El Salvador, one of Acceso’s social enterprises, has worked with over 1,000 farmers and fishers in El Salvador and boasts an impressive history of growth and expansion, achieving profitability in under two years. As part of an NYU experiential field course focused on scaling social enterprise, I had the opportunity to develop an intimate understanding of Acceso El Salvador’s business, operations, and supply chains through field visits, stakeholder interviews, and meetings with dedicated staff members during the trip to El Salvador.
With an interest in starting a social enterprise, a strong belief in Acceso’s model, and a newfound appreciation for the complexity of agricultural value chains, I was excited to take on a role as an Acceso Fellow. Having recently completed my fellowship focused on improving data collection and reporting processes, I wanted to share three things Acceso taught me about operating a successful social enterprise:
1. Have an adaptable strategy
Recognizing the growing interest in impact investing but the limited number of viable, scalable enterprises that fit investor’s criteria, particularly in developing countries, Acceso began piloting and building social enterprises in a variety of sectors in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, working across continents and sectors required a tremendous amount of varied subject matter expertise and localized knowledge. Although this widespread approach initially seemed to be the best way to achieve the greatest amount of impact, James Jenkin, Acceso’s CEO, explained to me how refining their strategy to focusing on building agricultural social enterprises is what enabled them to be successful. By focusing on agriculture, Acceso was able to develop a deep understanding of the challenges farmers face to scale their farms and bring their products to market. Embracing the decision to pivot and refine the initial business strategy enabled Acceso to develop ownership over full agricultural value chains, achieve break-even more rapidly, and provide higher, more stable wages to hundreds of farmers.
2. Lean into innovation
Acceso uses innovation as a problem-solving tool. Similar to their willingness to adjust their business model and strategy, Acceso responds to challenges with new, innovative solutions. Acceso El Salvador’s primary buyer is Super Selectos, the largest local grocery store chain, which requires produce to be high in quality, and uniform and unblemished in appearance to create appealing displays for the customer. Acceso El Salvador achieves this high standard through strict quality control at their collection centers. Instead of eliminating produce that doesn’t adhere to Super Selectos’ standards, they sort produce into three categories based on quality, selling ‘imperfect’ produce at lower prices. Although this solution requires more complex operations and logistics, it increases the amount of produce Acceso El Salvador buys back from their farmers, maximizing farmer benefit, and reducing waste. Acceso is also increasingly deploying technology to manage farmer transactions and connect consumers with farmers’ stories (through QR codes) to drive sales. To increase operational capacity and efficiency, Acceso has worked with USAID Feed the Future’s Partnering for Innovation program to establish a new, specialized vegetable processing facility – the first of its kind in El Salvador.
3. Prioritize impact indicators
Impact measurement is increasingly important as new enterprises enter and interest in ESG and impact investing grows. Collecting and reporting strong, reliable data directly related to an enterprise’s mission and goals is key to showcasing success to investors as the field becomes more competitive.
Impact has always been at the heart of Acceso’s work. Historically, Acceso has measured and reported impact to farmers, families, and communities. As Acceso operates in multiple countries, grows its core programs, and increasingly supports local food security and humanitarian efforts, Acceso has rapidly expanded its reach and impact beyond its core indicators. In a survey administered by NYU students, results show Acceso has helped families pay for health needs and decreased migration to cities due to attractive farming options at home.
As an Acceso Fellow looking to improve Acceso’s social impact metrics and processes, I was excited to identify new areas of impact that could be measured. After all, in the Social Impact, Innovation, and Investment specialization at NYU Wagner, we often debate the best metrics and methods for measuring impact. However, instead of expanding into a laundry list of metrics, my recommendations included improving the farmer data collected at registration, leveraging FarmForce to administer annual surveys, and utilizing the Poverty Probability Index to track the number of farmers moving out of poverty over time.
Olivia Thompson was part of the inaugural 2020 class of the Acceso Social Business Fellowship Program. Olivia is an MPA student from the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service where she is specializing in Social Impact, Innovation, and Investment. Olivia grew up outside Chicago and graduated from the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy in 2014 with a focus on international development policy. She worked for a small education nonprofit in Lusaka, Zambia through a one-year Princeton in Africa Fellowship. Upon her return to the U.S., she spent three years working as a management consultant for higher education institutions. Olivia’s favorite experience at Wagner has been the experiential learning course on scaling social enterprises with Acceso in El Salvador, where she developed an intimate understanding of Acceso’s operations and evaluated growth opportunities for their fish and seafood line. Olivia’s fellowship focused on improving financial and social data across Acceso’s agribusiness portfolio.
Acceso’s mission is to create fundamental and lasting economic change in the lives of rural smallholder farming families. Acceso’s pioneering entrepreneurial model provides smallholder farmers with a sustainable way to participate in formal markets, enabling them to work themselves out of poverty with dignity and to prosper. Acceso focuses on five key initiatives: empowering farmers to improve agricultural production, guaranteeing market access, boosting local social entrepreneurship, improving food security, and market-linked reforestation. Acceso’s current social businesses in Colombia, El Salvador, and Haiti have generated over $50M for more than 15,000 smallholder farmers and farm workers.