Entrepreneurship | October 25, 2018

A growing community of investors steers capital to solutions that benefit refugees

Dennis Price
ImpactAlpha Editor

Dennis Price

The 70 million forcibly displaced people around the world represent a growing global challenge. But behind the images of border conflicts and crowded camps, a new narrative is emerging: Refugees as resilient, employable, credit-worthy and, increasingly, investable.

That shift is driving a new field of “refugee investing.” They are deploying capital to back refugee-owned and -led companies and companies that deliver benefits to refugees. The growing number of refugee-lens products includes bonds, loan facilities and funds targeting refugee solutions.

Paradigm Shift,” a report from the new Refugee Investment Network, rounds up more than 100 philanthropic funders, impact investors, institutional investors, networks, angels, market-return investors, and government partners making “active” investments in or in support of refugees. The Network, founded by Alight Fund’s John Kluge and Andrew Stern at the Global Development Incubator, aims to accelerate the flow of capital to solutions that benefit refugees and their host communities.

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For its part, RIN has identified a deal pipeline of about 80 potential deals, and says another 300 are in the works. These include impact bonds such as the KOIS Invest Livelihoods Bond for Syrian refugees, private debt funds like Ascend Fund, which will lend to small and mid-sized firms in Greece to create quality jobs for refugees and vulnerable locals, and companies like Philippines-based Regenesys BPO, an offshore ethical sourcing business.

The list of investors includes experienced impact investors like Small Enterprise Assistance Fund, new entrants including the New Beginnings Fund, and others, like Acumen, which has backed, for example, an agricultural enterprise in Uganda whose beneficiaries are internally displaced farmers.

As more investors rally around the why of refugee investing, the urgency is in cracking the how. “You can’t tell capital what to do, but you can count on capital to move toward opportunity,” Warren Valdmanis of Bain Capital Double Impact and Anne-Marie Grey of USA for UNHCR write in the forward to Paradigm Shift.

One new fund, Atlanta-based Amplio Ventures has gained commitments of nearly $1 million and has ambitions to raise and invest $100 million with a refugee lens by 2030. Amplio Recruiting has placed over 3,000 resettled refugees in construction, hospitality and advanced manufacturing jobs. The firm is launching the venture fund to back refugee entrepreneurs and companies hiring refugees.

“These are individuals who have tremendous value to the world and we want to help create more of that awareness,” Amplio’s Chris Chancey told RIN.

Soros Economic Development Fund, the program-related investment arm of the Open Society Foundations, is investing a $100 million allocation of the $500 million commitment George Soros made to migrants and refugees in 2016 (the rest is being deployed by Soros Investment Management). So far SEDF has put $8 million into GroFin’s Nomou Jordan Fund (along with $400,000 in technical assistance), to finance and support small businesses in Jordan, which is struggling to cope with millions of refugees from Syria.

SEDF has also invested $3 million in the Humanity United’s Working Capital Fund, which backs early stage companies with innovations to boost transparency and protect workers, including migrants and refugees, in global supply chains.

Stocking the pipeline

To be sure, “concerns persist – both around risk and around finding a pipeline of viable investments,” say the authors of Paradigm Shift. Part of the problem: eight in 10 refugees live in emerging countries with nascent markets. Poor regulatory frameworks, weak infrastructure and currency instability that heighten the risk of all emerging market investments, also are hindering refugee investing.

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Refugee investing also needs more “off-the-shelf” products. “It must be clear how the investment risks are to be viewed, where they are to fit in the portfolio’s structure, and offered at a scale and with returns comparable to other opportunities,” Mark Regier of Praxis Mutual Funds told RIN.

The RIN report identifies a set of 49 venture-backed firms in the U.S. whose products could potentially be used to support refugees. Humanitarian Ventures, the activist VC that culled the list, has backed data analytics company Dataminr, which is now working with Mercy Corps to pilot the use of real-time data and social analytics in emergency contexts in Libya and Yemen.

The network of entrepreneurial accelerators and matchmakers is growing. Miller Center’s Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins accelerator turned out its first cohort of 21 social enterprises serving migrants, refugees, and human trafficking survivors around the world in May. The group included Boston-based WorkAround, which distributes piecemeal work digitally to migrants and refugees with an internet connection, and Re:coded, an Iraqi nonprofit that is training young Syrian refugees to code so they can secure work wherever they end up.

In Jordan, Open Society Foundations, along with International Finance Corp., is building an Investment Catalyst, which would function something like a merchant bank advisory operation, to connect refugee lens investors with opportunities to invest in in and support local small and medium enterprises. Five One Labs is supporting female refugee entrepreneurs in Iraq. The Jindal Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship is working with Tibetan refugee entrepreneurs in India.