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Vinay Nair talk

Vinay Nair feature

Vinay Nair featureOur first session is about international themes, and our first speaker is Vinay Nair from Acumen.

Five years ago, he found himself in remote NW Mozambique, sitting down and buzzing about budgeting and planning for a social enterprise selling jam, run by women who were HIV positive. They were managing to generate an income, and become active agents in their own futures. One was asked by the Red Cross to set up similar enterprises across the country.

Vinay had a sense that the work was about dignity not dependence, choice not charity. But he’s not a good Samaritan, he’s a former investment banker – his joke! And yet, that experience helped him in the position he is now in, and he wants to explore those interconnections and interdependencies.

A few years ago, he visited Robben Island in South Africa, where he tried to get inside the head of Nelson Mandela. On the way home, he bumped into Gordon Brown at the airport, thanked him for his work on debt relief, and was then surprised when they had a conversation about economics and finance as vehicles for reducing poverty and improving social justice.

Before the financial crisis, Vinay took a sabbatical and spent some time in India. He met Muhammad Yunus, the pioneer in microfinance. He thought initially that microfinance was a silver bullet, but realised that often the goals of social justice had got lost in the push for a financial return. 

So he left the world of microfinance and ended up in Mozambique and then the Clinton Foundation, before studying for a masters at LSE. He got involved in Acumen, and began to work with its founder Jacqueline Novogratz.

Acumen’s model is to take donations, bypass governments and conventional finance, and invest ‘patient capital’ in social enterprises. The returns can then be recycled again and again. It also has a strong focus on ‘how’ it makes decisions, in a difficult and messy area of work. Listening and humility are core, but there is also a need for leadership, audaciousness and accountability.

Vinay found himself back in India, in the rice belt, working with a renewable energy company which was burning rice husks to generate electricity for sale at £1 per month. Because it wasn’t free, people demanded customer service etc – dignity not dependence. There were also improved health outcomes, through not inhaling kerosene fumes, and improved education, through better lighting – not just the financial bottom line.

He’s now leaving Acumen to set up a new initiative in the UK, to tackle poverty and inequality here. There is a need to understand what and how investment can support innovative social enterprise and charities. There’s a lot that can be learnt from Acumen and other organisations, because of the interconnections. As they say in Bantu South Africa: Ubuntu, I am because you are.

Vinay Nair biography

Vinay Nair BW

Vinay NairVinay Nair works in London for Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty. He is a former Executive Director at J.P. Morgan London, where he was head of a fixed-income marketing team. He took a sabbatical to work on microfinance and social enterprise, primarily in India. He subsequently worked for the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative in Mozambique, and on secondment to the Ministry of Health, co-led the successful $175 million application for 5-years of funding from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He has launched two social enterprises, one in rural Mozambique, working with HIV-positive women to make and sell jam, and one in the UK, focusing on out-of-hours primary health care, for which he received an award from UnLtd.

Vinay received his BA (Hons) in Economics and Political Science from Trinity College Dublin and an MPA (Public Policy and Management) from the London School of Economics. At LSE, he conducted a group capstone project on Indian rural electrification with Acumen Fund and its investee, Husk Power Systems. Vinay sits on the Board of Acumen investee, Durable Activated Residual Textiles (DART). He is on the Advisory Board of Social & Sustainable Capital, the Centre for Talented Youth of Ireland and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts.