Beyond Silicon Valley: Why Entrepreneurs Are Vital to Emerging Markets

A solar park situated on the outskirts of the coastal town of Lamberts Bay, South Africa
A solar park situated on the outskirts of the coastal town of Lamberts Bay, South Africa

The 7th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit gathers this week in Silicon Valley, a fitting location for an event that celebrates the power of innovation to improve lives, create economic growth and, change the world. Here in the U.S., we’re quite familiar with many of the high-tech startups that have made us more efficient, effective and connected. But today entrepreneurs and early adopters are also flourishing in some of the most remote communities of the world.

Today, people living in isolated communities in Africa are often the first to embrace new technologies like mobile payments, before they have taken root in the U.S. Entrepreneurs in India are using small microfinance loans to build businesses, often earning enough money to send their children to school, and sometimes generating enough revenue to create jobs in their communities. Many rural farmers in South America are becoming entrepreneurs too, by working to move beyond subsistence to sell their products in global markets. And when we look at the solutions being put forth to solve some of the biggest challenges like insufficient electricity through the developing world, we see entrepreneurial solutions like home solar power kits being introduced alongside more traditional solutions like major power plants.

Entrepreneurship connects all the world’s people as both the source of breakthroughs that improve the way we live and work and as an engine of job creation and economic growth. And while startup businesses embody an entrepreneurial spirit, so too do many of the nonprofits that develop innovative solutions to longstanding challenges, as well as the governments that support entrepreneurs.

This year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit, in fact, features an entire panel devoted to the ways that the U.S. Government catalyzes investment in emerging markets. I’m thrilled to see that two of the participants on this panel are partners of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). As the U.S. Government’s development finance institution, OPIC is committed to helping American businesses invest in frontier markets, often to support sustainable development in some of the places where it is needed most.

One of the OPIC partners being featured at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit is QuantumID, a small startup that developed a handheld, cloud-based cargo tracking technology that has helped make air transport more affordable and efficient in some emerging markets. While shipping freight through traditional channels can be prohibitively costly for small businesses, Quantum’s solution provides a reliable way for cargo to be transported in unused baggage space on commercial flights, at a significantly lower cost.

Our other partner is Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund that works to empower small rural farmers, from Latin America to Sub-Saharan Africa, by providing financing for things like seeds, fertilizer, and farm equipment, together with training, so that they can grow more food and connect with larger markets. While Root did not invent a new item or technology, the processes it has established for helping farmers who usually cannot obtain bank loans is not only entrepreneurial, it has been transformative. Because many small farmers don’t have the traditional collateral used to borrow money, Root has developed a different set of processes to judge their creditworthiness and, with a repayment rate of close to 100 percent, it has shown that even poor farmers can be a good credit risk.

At first glance, these two partners are different in almost every way. The fact that OPIC supports both of them speaks to the need for a variety of innovative, entrepreneurial solutions, not just in technology but also for some of the world’s farmers, who often struggle to produce enough food to support their immediate families. Across our $20 billion portfolio, OPIC supports projects to address a range of development challenges from food insecurity, to energy poverty, to the growing need for modern infrastructure and financial services to support populations that are increasingly living and working in urban areas.

Today, as we look to support projects that will have a meaningful impact on people’s lives, we realize that many of the best solutions often come from entrepreneurs who identify new approaches to old problems, and identify some of the new challenges that our always-changing world will face. These innovative thinkers and early adopters exist everywhere: In Silicon Valley and Sub-Saharan Africa; in the legendary startup garages and in even more humble venues that may lack electricity. This spirit to start a business or develop a new product or service is universal and its impact can be found around the world.

About the Author: Judith Pryor is Vice President, Office of External Affairs at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. Government’s development finance institution.