A career in global finance has taught me that small investments can have a big impact

Suzanne Larsson, Co-Founder of PlusPlus, explains how those with a taste for investing can make a difference.

In a world with many environmental and humanitarian problems, we often think that we need to think big to solve them. That may be true, but I can say from experience that when it comes to solving real world problems in developing countries, thinking small can be just as important. The problem is that right now we need more initiatives to invest in the small important solutions. 

How do I know this? In 1989, when we still heard the sound of fax machines and tapping of typewriters, I joined global commodity bank Bank Mees & Hope as a management trainee. A wave of mergers has seen me move from Bank Mees & Hope to MeesPierson to Fortis Bank and finally ABNAmro whilst still remaining part of the same business line: trade & commodity finance. Whether it was financing the cocoa and coffee beans from Africa that ended up on shelves and in cups in Amsterdam, or the oil tankers in the Middle East that powered the United States, it was always exciting to be at the centre of the world’s biggest trades.

Shortly after I became the Global Head of Agri Commodities I attended a seminar on improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in the developing world. There Nico Roozen and Lucas Simons made me realize again that many of the world’s supply chains were unsustainable, harmful both to the planet and to the vulnerable people caught on the wrong end of a transaction. I left the room determined to expand my predecessor Rick Torken’s initiative to finance small farmers in the supply chains we worked in, as well as any other sustainability project I could get my hands on.

Making an Impact

With IDH and New Foresight, ABNAmro co-created a facility at the cutting-edge of blended finance products aimed at supporting small farmers. Thanks to the relentless energy of Liesbeth Kamphuis and Emily Ottervanger, 50 million Euro was made available to provide impact loans to small farmers, with the support of our clients. 

Impact banking quickly became the most inspiring part of my job. In conversations with clients I preferred discussing sustainability challenges and true price instead of finance (thanks to Herman Mulder for further opening my eyes in the seminars of the Duisenberg school of finance). But as Global Head of Agri I did not have the time I wanted to allocate to this passion, so I decided to make a change.

Thanks to David Rosenberg I was introduced to Heske Verburg of Solidaridad. Solidaridad is a global civil society organization trying to make supply chains sustainable for the world, and the people in it. It was an introduction that allowed me to step into a new role as Corporate Partnership Manager at Solidaridad Europe, and hit the ground running... in a new direction.

It was really hard after 30 years in the banking world to become part of development cooperation. A new world with a different, secret language. No more TCF, LC, BL, contango, demurrage, but instead ToC, TA, SDG’s, intervention, market transformation. I also learned that if you want to make a difference in this world, and I know I am repeating myself,  you can start small today!

This is not to say that the changes we want aren’t big. They are global. But to make them happen, focusing only on big players and big projects won’t create the sustainable, grassroots changes needed to improve food security and protect the environment. Aid helps developing countries access necessary training and knowledge, but such support is only sustainable if people in developing countries can use it to create their own businesses and take part as equal partners in the global economy. 

Thinking small with PlusPlus

Building sustainable supply chains is not just about making one big change. It is about making many smaller changes by empowering the people who produce the world’s food and goods. But it is an uphill battle sometimes, especially when young entrepreneurs, with good ideas and a lot of energy, can’t access financing from major banks, due to the inherently risky nature of new ventures in the developing world. Yet, if we really want to embed food security in the developing world, and create more sustainable practices across the board, we have to start there: affordable finance.

That’s why Solidaridad, together with Peter Heijen and Lendahand, has worked with Cordaid and Truvalu to launch PlusPlus. PlusPlus is a crowdfunding platform where you can help finance small agri and food entrepreneurs in the developing world through no-interest loans. Your money will go directly into supporting entrepreneurs whose operations we have assessed as contributing to employment, economic empowerment  and food security in countries in the developing world. 

Once your loan is paid back, you can choose to support another entrepreneur with the same funds, meaning that with just one small contribution you can be impacting the lives of countless people. You choose where your money goes, supporting the companies that you believe will have the greatest impact. 

There is no one-size-fits all solution to the problems facing the world. Not all the money in the world can create one. But what money can do today is finance a whole lot of small companies with good ideas that will get us on the right path. If you support the companies on PlusPlus today, you will see how far thinking small can go.