Imagine you have a business that improves the quality of people’s lives and helps build healthier and happier communities. But there’s a snag: you need to raise capital to implement some of your plans, which are critical to your success.
What if you could get the word out to a group of motivated investors who want their money to do good? That’s what Ethex does. As an investment platform in the UK, it lists a range of products for people looking to align their money with their morals, while also earning them a financial return.
“We’re very much about positive investments,” confirms Lisa Ashford, Ethex’s CEO. Others might call it impact investing, but Lisa prefers to avoid terms such as “green” or “ethical”, applied liberally to financial products but often not entirely accurate. “We’ve seen funds which are marketed as ethical where the definition of ‘ethical’ is that no more than 30% will be invested in fossil fuels. That’s not what we’re talking about.”
Instead, Ethex carefully screens what kinds of investment opportunities are listed on its platform. Some are related to building affordable housing; there’s a social enterprise that wants to expand its car sharing and electric scooters; and yet another is raising money to build solar panels for schools. “We’re very clear about what that money is going to do, what the impact is going to be and the return that is expected,” Lisa tells Invest for Good from her home in Oxford. “Having that tangible outcome is really what people are increasingly wanting to see.”
We’re very clear about what that money is going to do, what the impact is going to be and the return that is expected.
As people become savvier about where they put their money, investments that can benefit both people and the planet are seeing a huge upward swing. According to figures from 2018, the world’s sustainable investment market is valued at £22.8 trillion, a 34% increase in two years. In addition, professional investors are increasingly being guided by ESG [environmental, social and governance] considerations when making investment decisions. In the UK, this trend grew by 76% between 2015 and 2017.
For someone like Lisa, this is good news, and she predicts that it will only increase as the older generations hand over power to those who follow behind them. “Younger folk want their money to be doing good and they want to work for organisations that do good – it's almost their default position … We’re already seeing change, but I think it will come at a faster pace as the transfer of wealth starts to happen.”
Ethex is one of a handful of businesses in the UK that specifically focuses on positive investing, so it’s ahead of the curve. With a team of 10, Lisa believes the not-for-profit punches “well above” its weight. Since being established in 2013, Ethex has raised £76m from 16,000 individuals (not institutions) to be invested in over 80 different organisations within a range of sectors.
Banking on solar
Ethex has also recently launched a sister platform called Energise Africa, a joint venture with online impact investor Lendahand. Its primary focus is to accelerate the use of solar energy in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s estimated that approximately 600m people still don’t have access to electricity, with clean electricity even further behind. One of the biggest barriers, Lisa explains, is that solar companies looking to scale up their business cannot find affordable and flexible working capital.
Energise Africa changes that by using the principles of crowdfunding to help solar businesses in the pay-as-you-go market reach the next level. “These companies go on to get equity investments, and I think we’ve helped them in that maturing phase, which is great to see.” So far, about £15m has been raised.
But it’s not just the businesses that win. When Lisa visited Uganda as a director of Energise Africa, she witnessed first-hand what a difference solar energy can make to a family that had previously been using kerosene. One difference was the quality of the air, no longer so dirty with soot that you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Another is safety: “One of the sons had been reading in the evening with a kerosene lamp and he’d accidentally knocked it over and the entire home had caught fire,” Lisa recalls. “Luckily they managed to escape without anyone getting injured, but that was quite a common event, I think.”
Younger folk want their money to be doing good and they want to work for organisations that do good – it's almost their default position.
Meanwhile, the director met business owners who told her that they could suddenly run their shops in the evening, because they no longer had sporadic power cuts that affected trading. All of this was made possible by investments from as little as £50, with typical returns of between five and seven percent.
In addition, the first £100 of the investment is guaranteed, thanks to Energise Africa’s partners, UK Aid and Good Energies Foundation. Lisa admits that there will always be risks to any investment, but these are made very transparent, and investors are vetted with a questionnaire.
With obvious societal benefits, Ethex is increasingly attracting female investors and has the numbers to prove it. While only 21% of women in the UK are investors in traditional financial products, the figure is almost 40% for Ethex and Energise Africa. Lisa believes it’s because more traditional products haven’t been marketed to women, with the sector missing a huge opportunity. Impact investing, however, is more appealing because it has tangible results.
“I am generalising,” Lisa tells Invest for Good, “but women can be quite cause-driven and some of these products are quite appealing.” In addition, many of the causes directly benefit women. With Energise Africa, for example, women see huge benefits from having access to clean energy. Whether it’s cooking, better safety at night or having more time in the evening to educate themselves, it’s a fact that girls and women have the most to gain.
Lisa's own career background was in fact previously with organisations working in clean energy and environmental finance. When she completed a financial strategy diploma at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, Lisa was searching for companies that were championing innovative and progressive ideas. She literally stumbled across Ethex, founded by social entrepreneur Jamie Hartzell; it was about to launch and was conveniently located in Oxford. Lisa proved herself to be invaluable and soon took over the leadership.
“I suppose what appealed to me [about Ethex] was that it had some of the elements of what I already knew in terms of community energy and finance, but actually it had a much broader social potential,” the CEO observes. Her main role is to make sure the company continues to move and expand in the face of big changes. “Being fairly small, we feel as if we’re still in the start-up phase, even though we’re some years on and that’s just because the market changes so quickly.”
An ongoing challenge is trying to do a lot with very little. “It means that we have to work doubly hard and that can be difficult sometimes,” Lisa acknowledges. When you look at the amount of money that has been invested into Ethex versus what it has been able to raise for different initiatives, the ratio is about 1 to 50. This is larger than any other commercial crowdfunding platform, the executive estimates.
What the CEO hopes for is more collaboration, to amplify what Ethex can achieve. For instance, Lisa talks about an event in Edinburgh that was geared to educating people about the benefits of impact investing. Representatives from consumer website TopCashback were among the attendees and as a result of what they heard, they decided to green their corporate finances and later blogged about it. Lisa wishes more organisations would follow this example: “It’s a great story and it’s one that I hope can be replicated. These are the kinds of brilliant partnerships that could evolve.”
It’s clear that Lisa deeply believes in what Ethex and Energise Africa have managed to achieve. She’s motivated by the energy of her team and what they are doing to create positive social change. “It’s a great place to be. I’m probably naturally quite competitive, so just trying to get to the next milestone and the next great thing is something that drives me every day.” Lisa hopes to one day soon raise £100m from socially motivated investors and then to strive to the next target. “What an amazing thing from such small beginnings,” she smiles.