In today’s article marking Global Entrepreneurship Week 2019, veteran development banker and founder of the Lanka Impact Investing Network, Chandula Abeywickrama shares his thoughts
Chairman Lanka Impact Investing Network ( liin)
on recent initiatives that have improved entrepreneurs’ access to new sources of capital and his efforts to make Sri Lanka a regional hub for impact investment:
Q: Social entrepreneurship has the potential to play a key role in fostering entrepreneurship to solve social challenges and meet the new SDGs. As a key player in this space, are you optimistic about where Sri Lanka is headed?
In a small country like Sri Lanka resolving many social and economic issues is not a huge challenge in my view. The reason why the issues seem so complex and unable to be resolved is due to the lack of leadership and the courage and conviction of all the stakeholders in the country, which includes the public and private sectors. One of the key areas identified globally is the need to create a thriving social entrepreneurship ecosystem, especially in countries that are facing major social, environmental and economic challenges.
A proper social entrepreneur ecosystem will facilitate the clear identification of these challenges and will come up with business model-based solutions. These solutions can have a huge impact – at scale – to reduce poverty, ensure better wealth distribution and reduce inequality, better education, better healthcare, and a better environment for humans, flora and fauna. These are possible through the products, services and business solutions that the social entrepreneurs present to society. I am very optimistic that if all the stakeholders can see this big picture and also see eye to eye, Sri Lanka can take the lead role in South Asia.
Q: The ‘Ath Pavura’ reality TV show has been a groundbreaking success. What are some of the highlights for you, in terms of the impact it has had?
One of the reasons I co-founded Ath Pavura with my colleague Eranda Ginige is to create a platform to for micro, small and medium social entrepreneurs to have access to private equity from committed Sri Lankan impact investors. We have now completed two very successful seasons of Ath Pavura, and it is now the number one business program on any TV channel, as rated by LMRB. In the last two years over a million people across the country have watched the program, and we have created greater awareness of social entrepreneurship and impact investing to all segments of our society, and inspired many to move into this sector.
During the last two seasons over 220 social entrepreneurs had the opportunity of pitching their businesses for investment and nearly 100 social entrepreneurs had the opportunity to obtain commitments of investment of over Rs. 100 million. Already 25 social entrepreneurs have gained the investment to the value of Rs. 30 million and are running their businesses in the areas of healthcare, education, agriculture, eco-products and services and more.
Q: You have been engaged in the inclusive finance space for many years now. What have been some of the key improvements that have taken place in recent years to improve access to capital for entrepreneurs?
I have been in the banking industry in Sri Lanka and in Asia for nearly three decades now. One of the areas I was most concerned about is the very high price of debt capital faced by entrepreneurs and the unavailability of access to private equity, patient capital and responsible debt. We are yet to see major initiatives by any of the public or private sector institutions for building the impact investing landscape in the country. We often hear of the banking and finance industry thriving and showcasing their phenomenal growth even in the midst of weak economic development. This comes at the expense of struggling entrepreneurs.
This is the main reason I have taken the lead role through Lanka Impact Investing Network (LIIN) and Ath Pavura to bring together like-minded business leaders to build up the impact investing landscape in the country. LIIN, in partnership with UNDP and Capital Alliance Group, have set up the first ever Social Impact Funds – one for $ 5 million and the other for $ 20 million. This will really strengthen the foundation for impact investing in Sri Lanka.
Q: Given the new focus on sustainability and impact investment in Sri Lanka, do you think we can become a hub for this in the South Asian region? Can we play a role in being a regional convener on these issues?
Yes, definitely. The Sri Lankan models and initiatives we have pioneered, which I described earlier, have awakened and strengthened entrepreneurship at the micro, small and medium level and this has many lessons for South Asia. Ath Pavura TV reality show was the first of its kind in Asia. Building on these, LIIN is taking the leadership in hosting the first ever South Asia Impact Investing International forum, named ‘Converge South Asia’ in September 2020.
This will bring together all the leading and pioneering stakeholders of impact investing and social entrepreneurship in the region, including practitioners, policy makers, advocates and impact investing funds. We also will be taking the leadership of creating the first South Asian Impact Investing Network.
Q: Looking ahead one year from now, what transformations would you want to see in Sri Lanka’s social entrepreneurship sector?
Going forward, I would like to see the leadership of the public sector, particularly institutions like the Ministry of Finance and Central Bank of Sri Lanka, facilitating key policies to incubate and accelerate entrepreneurship and infuse the necessary resources to strengthen social impact funds led by the private sector. Moreover, all the commercial, business and industrial chambers at the national and district level must be integrated into the social entrepreneur ecosystem. I believe these will trigger the transformation that I would like to see, to creation a thriving Social Entrepreneur ecosystem and have a positive impact on the people of our nation.
Chandula Abeywickrema, an expert commercial banker, co-founded the Ath Pavura TV, Reality Show and founded Lanka Impact Investing Network (LIIN), the pioneer of setting up of first Social Impact Funds in Sri Lanka in partnership with UNDP and CAL.