Crafting a global strategy for impact investment at Acumen

greenbiz leadership market insights press May 31, 2023
Christopher Wayne

Eighteen months into his new role focused at Acumen, Christopher Wayne talks about the critical role of agriculture in impact investing and what it takes to work in the field.

Agriculture and impact investing may seem like unlikely bedfellows, but investing in sustainable agriculture is critical for addressing many of the world’s social and environmental challenges. In 2021, nonprofit investing firm Acumen hired Christopher Wayne, formerly of GrowNYC, as associate director to build a new global impact strategy for impact-focused agriculture.

I recently connected with Wayne to learn more about his experience at Acumen so far. He spoke of how he made an instant connection with colleagues at Acumen, how his sector-specific expertise outweighed his lack of a finance background and what skills are critical to carrying out his day-to-day role. 

Shannon Houde: Can you tell us what led you to make the move from GrowNYC to Acumen? 

Christopher Wayne:Being anywhere for 12 years is a long time. I'd been in four different positions and ended up in a director’s role. That was about as high as I could go. I’d spent seven years working hard and developing a core set of programming and growing that in a way that I was really proud of. But I was absolutely ready for a change, to broaden my impact and leverage the knowledge that I’d gained for a bigger platform. But after being 12 years in a single organization, I had slightly lost the ability to describe my skills and sell myself. So, it was critical for me to recognize that I had skills that were valuable in the market. 

Houde: And now you’ve been there over a year, what are you doing day to day at Acumen? 

Wayne:I spent the first year here building an agricultural strategy for the organization. Acumen has been investing in agriculture for 18 years but was looking for a new, global strategy that built off that foundation. So I spent a long time digging back through our investments, pulling out insights, speaking to a huge range of different internal and external stakeholders and reading a lot of whitepapers and research to compile all of it into a spreadsheet. I then used that to pitch different strategies out to the C-suite and regional teams, and Acumen was cool enough to give me time to miss the mark a couple times and then eventually really land on a strategy that's now at the heart of this new initiative we’ve called Trellis. 

"Economic development in agriculture has 3 times the impact on lifting people out of poverty compared to other sector investments."

Trellis is a $30 million investment initiative across four emerging markets that will invest in early-stage social entrepreneurs that are solving problems and poverty at the center of agriculture and climate change. So, over the last six months I’ve shifted from a strategic workflow to a fundraising and implementation workflow.

Houde: I’m curious as to how exactly you define this concept of agricultural investing versus impact investing? Is there a difference? 

Wayne: In general, we're just talking about a sector-specific lens on investing. In this case, agriculture. There’s a lot of different ways you can invest in agriculture. You can buy land, trade in commodities or invest in technology that services the industry. But at Acumen, we're specifically focused on impact investing that solves problems of poverty, which is an idea pioneered by our founder Jacqueline Novogratz back in 2001. It’s the idea of fusing the flexibility and patience of traditional aid with the rigor and framework of traditional financial markets. The way she decided to go about that was through taking in philanthropic dollars and then reinvesting them in early-stage social entrepreneurs that were solving problems of poverty, developing really innovative solutions to solve some of the thorniest problems in the world. 

So, given that there's 500 million smallholder farmers around the world and they provide as much as 35 percent of the food that we eat in the world and directly impact the daily livelihoods of 2.5 billion people, it was natural that agriculture would become a key pillar and focus area for our investing. It also turns out that economic development in agriculture has three times the impact on lifting people out of poverty compared to other sector investments. So, all the stars aligned and it became a really clear place where we needed to commit capital. 

Impact investing in agriculture is about putting the impact first. In line with our financial return, we ensure that we're having a measurable impact return. In our case, and with this new initiative, it's about building climate resilience, income improvements and livelihood improvements for smallholder farmers. 

Houde: Are there other organizations like Acumen working on this at the same scale? 

Wayne:Increasingly so. Twenty years ago, there were probably seven to 10 total impact investors. The [Global Impact Investing Network] this year counts well over 3,300 impact investment organizations managing more than $1.1 trillion. So, the scale of growth within this space is pretty tremendous, and the capital under management is growing significantly. We’re seeing incredible commitments from corporations, development finance institutions, foundations and philanthropists who want to expand this work. The IKEA Foundation, for example, is one of the newest, largest players in impact investing around the world, and we’ve developed some incredible partnerships with them. It’s exciting to see that there is a whole range of different stakeholders enabling this larger ecosystem. 

Houde: Tell us a little bit about what you love about your job. You clearly have a lot of knowledge and passion. 

Wayne:I work with really cool, smart and committed people. Even in my early interviews with the organization, I connected with the people I was talking to. There was a measure of idealism tempered by real world experience. And Jacqueline, who's our CEO, is quite a prolific writer and much of her "Manifesto for a Moral Revolution" seeps down into the organization and its hiring practices. It’s created a group of people from whom, anywhere I turn, I'm getting an interesting thought or a push in the right direction, or some sort of collaborative help and support. I'd say that's a big part of it. 

Houde: With the scale you now work at, it feels like you’ve stepped away from the grassroots side a little bit. Or is that still something you get to do? 

Wayne:I always believed in the UPS model, where everybody in the company, all the way up to the CEO, had to drive in a truck once a month. It’s especially important in agriculture and development work where we need to stay hyperclose to the realities of the work on the ground. Acumen follows that way of thinking and has supported me to travel to our regional offices, where the majority of our investment work takes place, and spend time with investees and our regional teams, to ensure that what we're (doing) is grounded in regional context. 

Acumen also developed a customer survey tool called Lean Data, now operated by a spinoff called 60 decibels, which is a phone and text message-based surveying service that allows us to, within a few weeks, get responses from 250 or 300 small farmers to a set of questions that will drive our strategy or our investing work. That’s an incredibly powerful tool with which to stay super close to the audience that we're intending to serve here. 

Houde: What are some of the trends that you're seeing in sustainable agriculture today? Or perhaps you’d frame it differently? 

Wayne:Well, when you say sustainable agriculture, it means something different to different people. There’s definitely been a trend towards regenerative agriculture recently. If you take organic practices, which are third-party certified, there’s a strongly supported and understood set of production practices there. Regenerative intends to build on that by adding in a wider range of agroecological outcomes, including social elements and the human relationship with the earth, as well as specific climate-related outcomes, such as carbon sequestration. 

But there’s still no consensus on a regenerative agriculture definition, and people are taking it in different directions. There’s a group that believes incredible innovations in tech will scale it, and there's another faction that says this is an ancient, Indigenous form of agriculture that needs a type of patience and intentionality that capitalism doesn’t afford. I sit in the middle of those two ideas. I think that tech is an incredibly powerful enabler, but that the actual practices are steeped in 10,000 years of Indigenous practices. Indigenous communities need to be resourced to lead the way. This is a really old industry we're talking about, and credit is due to those populations that have been doing this work for a really long time. But how do we leverage tech to promote the principles of regenerative agriculture to smallholders around the world? That’s the key for me.

"The impact investing space as a whole is recognizing that sector-level expertise is critical for how we develop our impact investing strategies."

There’s now a huge focus on food systems, which is great but, again, means so many different things to so many different people. Increasingly, we're seeing this idea of "let's eat local" and domestic food security becoming more and more important, especially when you have crises like the war in Ukraine limiting fertilizer accessibility and dramatically decreasing the ability for developing countries to access basic commodities, like grain. That always turns the arrow back toward, what are individual countries doing to shore up our own food security and local food systems?

So, there’s a lot out there and you can't help but talk about alternative proteins and AI and precision agriculture too. That’s where a lot of the money right now is flowing. 

Houde: You don't come from a finance background. So how did you get into impact investing? What skills do you use to sell or pitch yourself? 

Wayne:The pathway to impact investing is often through international development, business, finance or entrepreneurship. There’s a lot of people who came to it as they left finance as they were unsatisfied and wanted to use their skills for good. What I've seen more recently is a lot of hiring going on around specific sector-level expertise. The impact investing space as a whole is recognizing that that expertise is critical for how we develop our impact investing strategies, and that our understanding of, in my case, the functional unit of a farm, was critical to the way that we tried to invest in them. 

I think I found a home at Acumen as they said we need someone who understands entrepreneurship, investing and development broadly, but who really can bring this sector level expertise to our previous agricultural investing and shape a strategy around that. They were very intentional about hiring someone who had agricultural experience, and I think that's because I was able to say that the long-term knowledge I have built in agriculture will be a significant return to this organization over the next 10 years. 

Houde: Finally, what are the skills that are invaluable for you to do your job well? 

Wayne:I'm working with internal and external stakeholders all the time. It’s a collaborative approach across, easily, 30 different stakeholders internally. I need to manage perspectives and insights internally, and then a whole range of external stakeholders who’ve engaged with our agriculture work and help us understand our point of differentiation. So, my ability to collaborate across internal and external teams — bring people in, motivate them, excite them or push back where necessary — is critical. 

Shannon Houde is an ICF certified career and leadership coach who founded Walk of Life Coaching in 2009. Her life’s purpose is to enable change leaders to turn their passion into action and to live into their potential — creating scalable social and environmental impact globally. To follow more stories like these, join Shannon for Coffee & Connect where she interviews sustainability practitioners every month to learn more about what their "day in the life" involves.

This article originally appeared on the Greenbiz Purpose & People column and can be viewed here.

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