Ventures for resilience: the Catalyst Fund's journey from philanthropic fintech accelerator to climate tech VC

In 2016, we started Catalyst Fund to create a world where every individual has the tools and opportunities they need to thrive. We wanted to harness the power of entrepreneurship to build solutions for underserved communities in emerging markets. We set out to address the tremendous gaps entrepreneurs face: the lack of funding, talent, and access to markets and networks that prevent innovations from scaling and achieving lasting impact.  

With the support of JPMorgan Chase & Co, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PayPal, and the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), we created a program to fill critical early-stage capital and talent gaps to accelerate the pace of innovation to solve complex social and environmental challenges. With that mission, for the past six years, we have backed 61 inclusive fintech startups in 15 emerging markets, spanning at least 12 SDGs and each improving the financial health of underserved consumers and small businesses. We provided those startups with both essential non-dilutive capital and venture-building support to accelerate their paths to scale. 

We built a team of expert venture builders who executed critical sprints in areas such as product, data, technology, growth, marketing, sales and fundraising, and more. Companies we supported included leading insurtechs, SME lenders, investment platforms, savings companies, solar home system providers, and more. We are proud to have accelerated African startups like: Turaco (East Africa), Wasoko (Africa), Cowrywise (Nigeria), FarMart (India), and Chipper Cash (one of Africa only unicorns!)

These 61 ventures, 80% of which are led by local founders and 40% led by women founders,  went on to raise over $650M in follow-on capital, reaching 14 million customers and creating thousands of new jobs. We're proud of the impact the portfolio has achieved and are continuing to watch the portfolio achieve new milestones, as 88% of the ventures are still growing.

Building on that success, as of late 2022, we made two important changes in our work: 1) we expanded our mandate to backing climate resilience solutions, and 2) we evolved from a philanthropic accelerator to a VC fund, bringing a longer-term view to our partnerships with founders and supporting term for the long-haul. 

From fintech to climate tech

Pivoting our impact thesis to climate resilience was an obvious decision to make, given the urgency of the climate crisis. From credit models, to investment platforms, to insurance, we have always backed models that build the resilience and wellbeing of underserved people. We have always focused our work on the innovation frontier to work with the most pioneering founders, solving the most urgent problems faced by underserved and vulnerable communities. And today's most urgent challenge is undoubtedly climate change. There are 4 billion people around the world who are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and need a range of solutions to manage those impacts, adapt their livelihoods, and build long-term resilience. It is also clear that climate resilience needs to be built into every sector of the economy, from financial services to agriculture, water and energy access, waste management, and more. 

Our new focus on climate resilience solutions has brought a wide variety of startups to our portfolio. We have invested in startups supporting drought-resistant agriculture and disaster insurance, healthcare solutions (given climate change exacerbates certain diseases and disasters), cold chain compliant logistics (to keep food and medicines viable with rising temperatures), and sustainable fisheries (to shore up food security as natural resources are degraded). These innovations have stretched our portfolio to include agtechs and value chain solutions, but also food loss avoidance marketplaces, sustainable land management solutions, and even direct air carbon capture. We're excited to have the opportunity to back startups building a resilient and sustainable tomorrow. 

From grants to equity investments 

Our second transition was deciding to raise a fund and start investing in companies for the long haul. We wanted to be able to provide essential follow-on capital and long-term support via governance, strategic connections, and technical support throughout startups' early-stage journey. Starting in Africa, our new fund will invest equity at pre-seed and follow on with more capital at Seed and Series A for our best portfolio companies. 

While the capital component of our model has changed, our venture building remains at the center of our offer. We continue to find that capital is only one side of the recipe for startup growth. Given the nascency of the markets in which we operate, founders still need hands-on, tailored, venture-building support to get to product-market fit and to scale. This is true across every sector, from fintech to climate tech. 

We also found that many climate resilience founders need fintech expertise to make their solutions affordable, accessible, and scalable among underserved communities. For example, Dave Okech, the founder of Aquarech, innovated a remarkable package of services to support small-scale fishers in Kenya. Although fishers are critical to food security in Kenya, their production is highly sensitive to water availability and ambient temperature, both under pressure from climate change. While Dave understood the package of services – feed, sensors, supply chain – that fishers need to shore up their harvest, Aquarech needed fintech expertise to make sure the products were affordable to fishers. Catalyst Fund's venture builders supported Dave in launching a buy now, pay later financing component so that fishers can now buy sufficient inputs at the right time and aim for larger harvests. 

Catalyst Fund founders have long attested to the power of our venture-building services. Over the years, many have stayed in touch, and several continue to consult our venture-building team for advice years after the acceleration program ends. Our venture building has earned a net promoter score of over 95 on average. 

The Catalyst Fund today

With our founders' encouragement, we are now embedding our venture building in our investment tickets at the pre-seed stage, blending capital and human capital investments into one powerful instrument to support early-stage startups.  

In becoming a venture capital fund, we also hope to attract much more capital to the sector (both commercial and philanthropic), thereby continuing to address one of our ventures' most critical and urgent barriers to scale.

With these transitions, we carry forward our mission: bridging critical gaps for impact ventures in emerging markets to create a more resilient future for all.  As we continue our journey of learning and growth, we invite other investors, funders, entrepreneurs, and ecosystem builders to join us. Forging a more resilient future in the face of climate change demands the collective commitment of each one of us. Together, we shape the blueprint of resilience for all. 

We are thrilled and humbled to have been featured on TechCrunch and live on CNN this week! If you have any thoughts or insights you'd like to share, or if you're interested in discussing potential collaborations, please don't hesitate to reach out to our team. We value the opportunity to connect and explore how we can work together towards a sustainable future for Africa.

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