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“Make your mark: Leave a legacy” is a fitting motto for Legacy Girls’ College, the first and only private school for girls in Ghana. Founded in 2015 by two women who are well-known local business figures, the school’s message of female empowerment resonates with families looking for educational institutions that will equip Ghana’s future women leaders.

But preparing female students for fulfilling careers is only part of the school’s mission. Legacy Girls’ College’s even more ambitious assignment is to narrow the gender gap in education for Ghanaian girls at the secondary and tertiary levels. On average, girls in Ghana stay in school for only four years, dropping out as a result of early marriage, pregnancy, poverty, school-based sexual harassment and violence, and other barriers.

As enrollment at Legacy Girls’ College grows to more than 300 students in only four years, the school is making plans to expand, so it can serve even more students. An investment of $2.3 million, delivered via IFC’s SME Ventures program, is helping Legacy expand and improve its facilities, especially its dormitory and classroom spaces. It also enables the school to acquire and implement a management system to improve teaching, learning, and reporting.

Young, growing businesses like Legacy Girls’ College are the backbone of economies in developing countries, but many are unable to access the finance they require to expand. Research shows that more than 17 million formal small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries have unmet finance needs. Often this is because SMEs lack the track record on which banks base their lending criteria. SMEs are often too large to be served by microfinance institutions, yet too small for commercial banks. They require risk capital—forms of financing that have a higher risk tolerance than bank loans.

An investment of $2.3 million, delivered via IFC’s SME Ventures program, is helping Legacy expand and improve its facilities. © SME Ventures

Mobilizing Resources for Emerging Markets

That’s why IFC created the Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) Ventures program in 2008, with an allocation of $100 million. It is an innovative program that provides risk capital in the form of debt instruments, quasi equity, and equity alongside technical assistance to fund managers—and, through them, to entrepreneurs in challenging markets including fragile and conflict-affected countries. As the SME Ventures program replicates the private equity model to make risk capital available to SMEs in these markets, it creates and/or invests in funds that carefully select and invest in small businesses. SME Ventures is supported by the IDA Private Sector Window, which has approved an envelope of $50 million for the program, allowing five of its funds to expand their work in challenging markets.

Oasis Capital Fund, which invested in Legacy Girls’ College, is one such example. The $50.5 million fund launched in 2016 has invested in five SMEs in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, supporting the creation of more than 500 jobs. The fund is backed by IFC, the Dutch Good Growth Fund (DGGF), the European Investment Bank (EIB), Norfund, Proparco, Africa Tiger holdings, and five more institutional investors in Ghana.

The SME Ventures program has mobilized over $600 million into 16 funds through 2019. © SME Ventures

The program initially created four funds covering six fragile, post-conflict, and emerging markets: Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Nepal, and Sierra Leone. By 2015, these funds had invested nearly $50 million in 86 SMEs that have created close to 10,000 jobs in their local economies.

By 2019, the SME Ventures program had mobilized over $600 million into 16 funds that cover countries as diverse as the Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Myanmar, and Uganda. The newest fund to join the fold, with a $10 million investment from IFC in October 2019, is CardinalStone Capital Advisers Growth Fund, which supports SMEs in Nigeria and Ghana.

SME Ventures is expected to grow to 20 funds by 2020. The impact of the funds is being felt by the companies they support, as well as by people living in the countries where the funds operate. SME Ventures is expected to grow to 20 funds by 2020. The impact of the funds is being felt by the companies they support, as well as by people living in the countries where the funds operate. Recently, the fund received an additional boost from the IDA Private Sector Window (PSW)—in the form of a $50 million allocation from the window to support a broader group of fund managers, enabling increased access to private capital in eligible countries. One of the funds being supported by the IDA PSW allocation is  the Investisseurs and Partenaires African Entrepreneurs II (IPAEII) fund, which aims to support 35 SME firms in 13 sub-Saharan African countries, including  Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mali, Senegal, Togo, and Uganda.

Filling an Urgent Call for Jobs

One example is the Central Africa SME Ventures Fund, which is helping entrepreneurs Huguette Bakekolo and Annie Tuluka strengthen the local economy in the DRC.  The two women opened the country’s first independent call center in 2009 to fill an urgent need for jobs. It was a modest operation: just a dozen phones, and even fewer staff. Today, Bakekolo and Tuluka’s Congo Call Centre employs close to 400 people and generates annual revenues of over $2 million. It has even secured a commercial loan from Rawbank, DRC’s largest bank and an IFC client.

The Congo Call Centre currently employs about 400 people and generates annual revenues of more than $2 million. © SME Ventures

IFC’s Central Africa SME Ventures Fund was a key investor in the Congo Call Centre—offering $805,000 in financing and advisory support. The $19 million fund, which is backed by IFC, the Dutch Development Bank (FMO), and Canada’s Lundin Foundation, invests in promising young businesses in the Central African Republic and the DRC, two of Africa’s most challenging business environments. The fund’s portfolio includes 32 different companies that have created over 1,000 local jobs.

Better employment opportunities are the real measure of success for Bakekolo, the Congo Call Centre co-founder: “These young people, who would often be unemployed or working odd jobs, can now look forward to a true career,” she says.

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Published in October 2019