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Acumen Fund's Take On Talent Recruitment

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This week, we profile one of our corporate clients, Acumen Fund Inc., that invests in companies, leaders, and ideas.

Acumen was launched in New York in 2001 with a mission to change the way the world tackles poverty. Acumen’s approach is to apply market-based investment tools with philanthropic capital to support entrepreneurs providing goods and services to poor and under-served consumers.

Since its launch, Acumen has invested over US$110 million in 109 companies globally which have impacted 271 million lives. In 2008, Acumen established its East African regional office in Nairobi with the objective of establishing a local presence and increasing its investment activities in a region that was rapidly becoming a hotbed of activity for social enterprises. 

Some of Acumen’s investees operating in East Africa include d.light design, one of the market leaders in the off-grid solar industry, and Burn Manufacturing, which manufactures and distributes Kenya’s #1 selling Jikokoa™, a low-cost, environmentally-clean and highly-efficient cookstove for low-income families.

We caught up with Lawrence Riungu, East Africa Portfolio Manager (whom Kenyans Come Home placed at Acumen three years ago) to discuss some of the talent challenges Acumen’s investees in the region are facing. 

The talent challenge is a big one,” he says, “especially when it comes to recruiting middle managers and executives. It’s tougher in East Africa for sure. It’s rarely a problem, say, in countries like the U.S. If I was looking for an experienced factory manager there, for instance, I could send out a job description and receive thousands of promising resumes, while here there would probably be less than 20 promising candidates.”

Lawrence adds that because Acumen-funded companies are often serving low-income consumers, their ability to offer top dollar to recruit the strongest candidates is not really an option. 

The difficulty then is finding candidates who have the necessary expertise, who can thrive within the often-unstructured environment of a growing start-up company, and who are willing to work within the company’s limited salary budget.

Some companies offer equity to senior management, but we have found that this is not a big motivator for high caliber senior employees here in Kenya,” he says. “They opt for high salaries, which sometimes these social enterprises are unable to match.”

Working with companies like Kenyans Come Home can help in finding the right candidate,” Lawrence says. ‘It is also important for companies to invest in developing their middle managers, so they can provide a deep pool of talent to fill in more senior roles as the company grows,” he adds. 

To make the case for investing in talent, Acumen has engaged with another KCH client, the African Management Initiative (AMI), to co-create a training program designed for middle managers working at Acumen’s investees. The program is in its third year and has been praised by company CEOs who desperately needed a solution to address the talent gaps at the middle management level. 

In our experience at Kenyans Come Home, we have found that while recruiting the right talent is tough, it is not impossible. A strategic partner can give you access to untapped talent, either locally or in the diaspora, candidates that you won’t find through a job advert. It’s also about understanding what is essential to a role and what can be learned or compensated for. We have found that assessing candidates for qualities such as critical thinking skills, problem-solving ability, and willingness to adapt and learn can result in a great hire that’s within an employer’s budget.