Dispatch From Ghana: The Promise of Dignity

I am writing on a return flight from Ghana. The country has not seen a single case of Ebola, yet the impact of fear is profound. As travelers enter the country, attendants screen for high temperatures. Hand sanitizer dispensers are omnipresent. Hotels and conferences have seen massive cancellations. Everywhere are constant reminders of our fragility and the strength of our connectedness.

My heart goes out to all victims, their families and communities. My head presses for better systems and approaches to tackle our toughest problems as a world. The words from our manifesto reverberate, "It starts by standing with the poor...."

Throughout my week in Ghana, I thought about this in the context of dignity. In the southern city of Kumasi alone, the vast majority of its 2.5 million people depend on public toilets as their primary sanitation option (secondary options include open-air defecation or bucket latrines). Abdul, an elderly man in one of the city's slums, tells us that even at the public toilet he "is a beggar." He must stand daily in line and pay to enter a miserable, filthy place with a stench so thick it layers onto your skin. "It becomes hard to ease yourself," he says. "And then you come home wearing disease and shame." That is not dignity.

I sit in his home, listening. We have just approved an investment in a home-use toilet company in its early stages of development and Abdul is one of its customers. Dignity is the choice his new toilet gives him -- to go when he needs, to keep his toilet clean, to feel pride in ownership. Still, the company will have to build awareness and earn the trust of Kumasi's low-income residents. It will have to work with government to build partnerships to reach millions in need. That shouldn't be as difficult as it is. In Kumasi, an estimated 700,000 people visit just 450-plus public toilets, each of them paying for use. For a family of four, we estimate that people already are paying up to one dollar per day to access terrible facilities -- sustainable, quality solutions with dignity are possible.

Dignity is caring about your customers, and building solutions that meet the needs of those not easy to reach. Across the world, entrepreneurs get rich building mobile apps to find the best restaurants in town. If we are to create a more inclusive economy, we need more entrepreneurs like Mark Davies, building apps that illiterate farmers can use to improve their agricultural techniques and earn enough income to send their children to school. Acumen recently invested in Davies' company Esoko, a mobile communications platform designed to help farmers manage their value chains. Already, the company has signed up more than 400,000 farmers across Africa, providing them with advisory services on weather, market pricing, fertilizer distribution, pest control, planting techniques and the like.

To grow and succeed, Esoko has listened to its customers. In addition to sending texts, it sends a voice message once a week to farmers in their local languages. The farmers prefer voice messages, though they are eight times the cost. If they have questions, they can call the national call center. Farmers are seeing significant increases in access and income, yet for many reasons it still is a long, winding road to profitability and scale.

We meet with Mary Naah, Esoko's call center manager and her team, all of whom are young and talented with agriculture degrees, farming experience and collectively the ability to speak in eight local languages. "I want to help make this country what it can be," a young man on the team says before explaining how he retrieves information needed by farmers across the country by geography, crops and time of season. This is decidedly not the agricultural extension services of the 21st century. While it relies on technology to deploy information, it requires significant investment in talent, just another hurdle for success.

We visit a group of farmers in Tamale in northern Ghana, an area known as mostly Muslim and very poor. Nearly half the farmers are women, and none have cellphones. Because more than 90 percent of farmers are illiterate, they rely on the one or two men in the village who can read Esoko's texts aloud.

We speak with Awal, a young farmer who lives in his family compound with his father, his father's two wives, his brothers and their combined children. Awal has increased his income by 50 percent using Esoko to determine at which local market to sell his produce for the highest prices. "I pay five cedis to transport the soy I grow to a nearby market that is paying 20 cedis more per bag than a closer one. That gives me extra money to save, and one day buy my own tractor." Now Awal can dream.

Dignity requires choosing the difficult. In Ghana, banks can use their liquidity to purchase government bills at a rate in excess of 20 percent. What incentive is there to invest in businesses serving people who earn only a couple of dollars a day, in places with no infrastructure, a lack of trust and battling illiteracy and corruption? What responsibility do we have to use our resources, skills and capabilities to build solutions in which the poor can fully contribute?

A view of the inevitable crowds out the possible. Investors who bring a traditional private equity worldview -- even those with best intentions for impact -- are likely to pull the plug when companies stumble, rather than asking first what social change will be sacrificed if we do. What developmental aims will be squashed? It comes back to standing with the poor, requiring a new class of investors who are willing to stay and hold to the difficult, still delivering reasonable returns to shareholders in the longer term but without sacrificing the social returns.

Dignity requires shifting from a worldview based on inevitability to one based on possibility. It requires bringing our best selves.

What gives me hope is the growing group of young leaders willing to do this despite growing fears and insecurities around the world. Our growing ecosystem of companies, leaders and ideas is creating new paths for tackling poverty. In the past few months, across Pakistan, India and East Africa, we have received more than 2,000 applications for our Regional Fellows programs. This year, we anticipate more than 100,000 individuals taking the plus-Acumen courses. Participants are starting social businesses and joining +Acumen chapters all over the world, influencing their communities and companies to do what is right, not easy.

For example, Acumen Pakistan Regional Fellows graduate Waqas Ali and his friend, Sidra Qasim, founded Markhor to work with village artisans outside of Lahore making high-end handcrafted leather shoes for men. A number of Acumen Global and Regional fellows, including from the US and UK redesigned the company's website and helped launch a successful Kickstarter campaign. Acumen partners like Seth Godin, Arianna Huffington and others helped get the word out. In a time of ISIS, the aftermath of the Ukrainian conflict and other examples of individuals wanting to tear one another down, Markhor is a model of what it means to build one another up.

This is where it must start. With dignity, a belief that our future is not determined, but a dream we can create ourselves. Together, we are on our way.