Impact Investing in Africa: The FINCA Ventures Prize

The finalists in the Inaugural FINCA Ventures Prize competition.

In a celebration of social impact, FINCA awarded $400,000 in grants to 12 social enterprises working in sub-Saharan Africa. Through their products and services, these companies address serious challenges in the region in two vital sectors: healthcare and agriculture. The first-ever FINCA Ventures Prize competition, which took place on March 28, 2024, was more than a contest. The event was a beacon of hope, shining a light on FINCA’s impact investing in Africa and beyond.

The finalists, three in each of four categories, delivered their pitches before a panel of judges and an audience of around 150. Among the guests were the United Republic of Tanzania’s Ambassador to the U.S., H.E. Dr. Elsie Sia Kanza, Togo’s Ambassador to the U.S., Monsieur Frédéric Edem Hegbe, and Andrew Buop, education attaché from the Embassy of the Republic of Kenya.     

FINCA Board Member Catherine Mohr and Founding Member John Hatch listen to the pitches. Hatch has long espoused the importance of impact investing in Africa.
FINCA Board Member Catherine Mohr and Founding Member John Hatch listen to the pitches.

In kicking off the event, FINCA President and CEO Andrée Simon recalled that 40 years ago, FINCA was launched by visionaries who believed that giving small loans to people in poverty can transform their lives. In addition to financial empowerment for individuals, FINCA today supports entrepreneurs who innovate community solutions that serve millions of people worldwide. Impact investing in Africa represents a significant portion of FINCA Ventures work. “We made the choice to invest in social entrepreneurs with bold visions, disruptive business models and new products or technologies seeking to create meaningful impact for poor and low-income people,” Simon said.

From over 300 hopefuls who applied to the competition, FINCA chose 40 semi-finalists. Outside experts then helped FINCA narrow down the pool to the 12 finalists. The finalists are not typical start-ups. They were dreams that turned into action. Ten of the 12 companies featured women in leadership roles, highlighting FINCA’s commitment to women’s empowerment and gender parity. Ultimately, the first-place winners in all four categories were founded or co-founded by women. Each earned a grant of $70,000 that will go towards scaling their impact and expanding their services.

Impact Investing in Africa’s Agricultural Enterprises

“FINCA is a one-of-a-kind organization because it really focuses on women entrepreneurs,” said Angela Odero, founder of Rio Fish and first place winner in one of the agriculture categories. “For me as a woman of color, raising financing has been my biggest problem,” she continued. Her company supports smallholder fish farmers with market access and cold chain facilities. Despite technical difficulties, Odero effectively demonstrated how Rio Fish fights to end the exploitation of women in the fish industry.

Andree Simon poses with first place winner Angele Odero from Rio Fish. Simon stressed the impact investing in Africa.
FINCA President and CEO, Andrée Simon, poses with first place winner Angela Odero from Rio Fish.

Ashley Speyer, a founding partner of Kazi Yetu, won first place in the other agriculture category. Her company is a female-led agribusiness that sources teas, herbs, and spices from farms in Tanzania. Kazi Yetu transforms the raw material into packed teas at an all-women facility in Dar es Salaam. “We are trying to change the way that products are made and traded between Africa and the rest of the world, and this [grant] support in a women-run business is so impactful for us,” said Speyer.   

Spotlight on Women Healthcare Innovators in Africa 

In the competition’s two healthcare categories, Bena Care and Neopenda captured the top spot. Each won a $70,000 grant. Bena Care, led by Naom Monari, improves access to healthcare in Kenya and lowers costs by using technology. The company connects patients with a network of healthcare workers. “I am happy because our patients are going to get something out of this,” said Monari. “We’re going to purchase hospital equipment like beds and ventilators that will reduce healthcare costs for more than 300 families every year… Organizations like FINCA are creating a movement and that is what we need because a do-it-alone approach will not work,” she continued.  

Naom Monari of Benacare presents on the importance of impact investing in Africa.
Naom Monari of Benacare made winning presentation on the importance of impact investing in Africa.

Meanwhile, at Neopenda, Sona Shah and her colleagues innovate in the med-tech space. Their first product is neoGuard, a wearable vitals monitor that alerts clinicians to patients in distress. “The prize will enable us to scale what we know is working…so that we can replicate and start having a bigger impact on our communities,” said Shah. “I’m honored that at today’s event the majority of the founders here pitching are female… but it’s not enough,” she continued. 

Innovative Ideas from Visionary Companies 

The second-place winners also had compelling stories about impact investing in Africa. In the healthcare categories, Renee Ngamau and Moka Lantum’s CheckUps opens access to affordable healthcare in Kenya and South Sudan. The company provides tech-enabled financing tools and micro insurance tailored to the needs of the communities it serves. They were runners-up in their category and went home with a $20,000 grant. Another second-place winner in healthcare was Technovera, a company serving South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. Founded by Neo Hutiri, it developed a locker system that enables patients to collect medication to treat chronic conditions in under 30 seconds, instead of waiting hours in line at public clinics. Impact investing in Africa’s healthcare sector yields tangible results and helps communities break out of poverty.

Moka Lantum and Renee Ngamau share the stage in pitching on their company, CheckUps.
Moka Lantum and Renee Ngamau share the stage in pitching on their company, CheckUps.

Meanwhile, Baobaby and Sprout, took home second place in the two agriculture categories. Ida Solitoke and Koffi Nomedji’s Baobaby, based in Togo, purchases crops at a fair price from local women farmers to produce baby formula that is less expensive, more nutritious and uses less water than imported milk-based formulas. And Ashley King-Bischof’s Sprout is using artificial intelligence to build resilience against climate change for coffee farmers in Kenya. 

Recognizing Creative Healthcare and Agriculture Solutions

One of the third-place winners, Folake Owodunni’s Emergency Response Africa is revolutionizing emergency medical care. The company received a $10,000 grant from FINCA. Their service reduces emergency response time by 40-80% for customers in Nigeria. Also operating in Nigeria and winning a $10,000 grant is Adeola Alli’s OneHealth, which provides digital infrastructure for patients, insurers, and pharmacies to access quality medicines and healthcare solutions, leveraging a network of more than 900 providers.  

Equally important is the work of Natalie Casey of Koolboks which provides accessible, affordable and sustainable solar cooling solutions in Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda. She won a grant of $10,000. And JohnCarl Dunyo’s Sommalife is boosting incomes in the shea value chain in Ghana and Burkina Faso. His company won a $10,000 grant.

The Need for More Impact Investing in Women Entrepreneurs 

During the event, Andrée Simon and Greta Bull, Director of Women’s Economic Empowerment at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, talked about the need to support women entrepreneurs.

“We know that about 2-3% of venture funding worldwide goes to women. It cannot be the case that women only have 2-3% of the good ideas,” Bull told the audience during a live virtual interview. “If we want to build economic growth in the markets that we care about, we won’t get there if half the population is sitting on the bench,” she continued. “We need to find better ways to get capital to women so they can invest in their good ideas. But we also need to find ways to buy women time so that they can actually realize those good ideas.” 

Towards a Brighter Future for All

The FINCA Ventures Prize is a testament to the power of social entrepreneurship. It’s a reminder that with impact investing in Africa, innovative solutions can lead to monumental strides in solving global issues. As these entrepreneurs march forward, they carry not just their award money but the collective support and recognition of a community committed to positive change.

To learn more about this inspiring event and the trailblazing winners, check-out FINCA’s YouTube channel to watch the complete recording of the event or the “highlight reel.” Let’s celebrate these heroes who are not just dreaming of a better world but are actively building it.