Broadening the technical assistance (TA) toolkit creates a unique and impactful opportunity to help accelerate achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The value creation potential of technical assistance can be unleashed by taking a systemic approach to market development, investing in talent and result management. and – particularly – in sector collaboration and joint learning.
Unlocking the potential transformative power of entrepreneurship is a crucial strategy to help achieve the SDGs in developing countries. Impact investing, in turn, seems best positioned to fuel that transformation. Impact investing’s promotors – like the Global Impact
Investing Network (GIIN) – dream of a world where impact considerations are ingrained in the financial sector. They promote more attractive products for investors, standardization and transparency, to enable the impact investing market to be scaled up .
One critical factor is often overlooked: we need impactful and inclusive markets with investable projects to invest in. If there is no absorption capacity for impact investment capital, it will easily lead to overheating and impact washing. Impact investing has gained in popularity and is growing steadily. The asset base underpinning impact investing is still relatively thin in emerging markets and very much skewed towards sectors like financial services (29%), energy (23%) and microfinance (12%).
While providing TA to portfolio companies (i.e. transaction support) is still a significant part of the technical assistance offer, practitioners have added a variety of instruments, uses and strategies to the equation.
It has taken more than 30 years and a significant number of subsidies to bring the microfinance sector to its current level of maturity. We do not have another 30 years to develop other impact investment markets, like mini-grids, access to water, sanitation and biodiversity.
So, how can we gear the value creating power of technical assistance to accelerate the scaling up of new impact investment markets?
TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE 3.0
To grasp the value creating power of technical assistance for developing and scaling new impact investment markets, it is important to have an understanding of recent developments in the use of technical assistance in the impact investment sector. The technical assistance offering has changed considerably over time. Back in 2006, Triple Jump was one of the few private impact investment managers that offered technical assistance to its investees. Today, most reputable impact investment managers have one or more TA programs completing their financial offer.
Shift of focus. While providing TA to portfolio companies (i.e. transaction support) is still a significant part of the technical assistance offer, practitioners have added a variety of instruments, uses and strategies to the equation. A survey conducted for a recent webinar on TA provided the following overview (see the infographic below). While financial service providers are still target number one for most TA providers, other players are also starting to be targeted.
This is a trend that coincides with the shift from pure transaction support to a more comprehensive market development approach, a shift that Triple Jump has also experienced. From inception, Triple Jump has reinvested part of its proceeds in technical assistance for transaction support. While it had a very clear mission fit, there was also a business rationale. All TA was directed at building the capacity of investees and prospects – creating value by building dealflow and de-risking investments.
The TA program that accompanies the Dutch Good Growth Fund still contains this component of transaction support but also deploys other instruments and strategies to shape markets. An example is promoting mezzanine finance, for which an influencing strategy was developed and implemented on top of the traditional TA support, including peer-to-peer knowledge exchange, studies, conferences and training programs. The approach has notably increased the mezzanine investment opportunities for DGGF, creating value beyond the single transaction.
New types of instruments. Also, the very nature of the instruments has evolved. The infographic below gives an overview of the type of instruments that TA providers who participated in the aforementioned webinar use.
It clearly shows that while non-repayable grants are still the most popular of all instruments, many TA providers deploy revolving instruments and even seed-capital investments . Notable benefits of the revolving instruments are the decreased risk of potential market distortion and the increased productivity – and possibly cost-effectiveness – of the technical assistance budget.
Alternative TA instruments are different from (concessional) investments in two ways: – Overarching objective. For deploying the TA instrument, the actual development impact is valued higher than a possible financial return. – Expectations. Having no capital preservation obligation over the long term makes it possible to absorb a level of risk that even concessional investors shy away from.
INCREASING THE VALUE CREATION POTENTIAL OF TA
The above-sketched broadening of tools and practices seemingly creates a lot of opportunities, but it also comes with new challenges. How can the toolbox best be used to spur the development of new impact investment markets like access to water and sanitation, or the off-grid energy needed to achieve the SDGs? Key topics that merit extra attention are the following.
1/ Tailor the strategy to stage and growth potential
There are two key determinants that help to shape these sector development strategies. The first one is the stage of development. The second one is the inherent scalability of the market. A simple framework to classify market development and scaling potential suggest there are essentially three main stages of market development – each with its own rationale, dynamics and intervention strategies: 1. innovate, 2. replicate and 3. scale.
When the scaling potential is differentiated into low, medium and high, it creates nine specific sector-development strategies. This level of granularity is not only needed to tailor the TA strategy, but also to systematically – and correctly – use learnings and insights from past successes and failures in adjacent sectors like green finance and microfinance.
2/ Take a systemic and responsive approach
Broadening the toolbox leads automatically to questions of ‘when to- do what?’, ‘where to start?’ and ‘how not to get lost’. A systems approach may help understand the dynamics and interconnectivities of systems and identify the smartest intervention strategy possible. A system’s approach typically is more flexible and responsive to system dynamics than a blue print planning approach.
This means that TA management itself becomes more dynamic –TA policies and governance should provide sufficient flexibility to adjust strategies and close monitoring of system’s dynamics and outcomes become an intrinsic part of operations.
3/ Keep an eye on the impact ball
Keeping track of results has always been important. Most TA providers have built up their monitoring and evaluation systems over the years. Still, measurement of the impact of TA has never really taken off, because TA is often embedded in a larger investment mandate and specific attribution of TA to the total impact is difficult to determine.
Still, with the changing focus of TA on market systems – and the need for a more dynamic, responsive strategy – the pressure is on: only through systematically measuring the impact of the TA itself, can one systematically learn and adjust the TA strategy.
4/ Invest in TA talent management
Wielding systemic, responsive and comprehensive strategies with an increasingly diverse toolbox not only adds to its effectiveness and the fun, it also implies that TA teams will need to broaden and deepen their skill sets, by building multi-disciplinary teams of professionals.
At Triple Jump, the TA team currently comprises a variety of professionals – from seed capital investment specialists to technical assistance sector specialists, to knowledge management specialists. Not only do TA teams need to be multi-disciplinary, the same holds for TA approval committees.
5/ Pool resources, coordinate and jointly learn
Last, but not least, taking a systemic approach can only be successful through collaboration within the organization, with the investment and ESG departments, but particularly with external stakeholders around the markets of interest.
The efforts that FMO, CDC and Triple Jump have put in recent years into developing a network of TA practitioners across impact investors – both DFI and private managers – should also be seen from that perspective.
Exchanging regularly on lessons learnt and strategies is beneficial for shortening learning curves and jointly developing practice standards as well as for exploring opportunities to actively co-create and implement TA strategies. Active collaboration and joint learning is a must because the challenge of shaping the impact investment markets that we need to accelerate attainment of the SDGs is bigger than any one of us.