Small Business

License article

Raising capital, improving prospects

Andrew Kuper has helped bring financial services to the needy.

As a young man growing up in South Africa, he attended the only unsegregated school under apartheid where military vehicles waited ominously outside.

He would often break the Group Areas Act, which separated residential and business areas between races, to visit his friends.

He learnt very early on that the cycle of poverty that engulfed South Africa's minorities was extremely hard to break.

Now 37, Andrew Kuper is the founder and president of LeapFrog Investments, a private equity firm that invests in companies that provide micro-insurance to low-income people in emerging markets.

The company has invested in four firms, crossing six developing countries, that have been able to provide micro-insurance and financial services to more than 8.7 million people, 6.5 million of them being low-income and 5 million who are women and children.

Since its official launch with co-founder Jim Roth and former US president Bill Clinton in 2008, LeapFrog has faced challenges beyond traditional investors looking for a return.


The company's capital raising began just a week after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and finished on May 6, 2010, the day the Dow Jones index plunged nearly 1000 points - only to recover much of the losses before the close of trade.

LeapFrog overshot its initial capital target of $US100 million, raising $US135 million, with investments from JPMorgan, George Soros's EDF fund and the European Investment Bank.

''With President Clinton, we really owe a great deal to him, because before we had a dollar to our name, he stood up in front of the world, with Tony Blair and the president of ASEAN sitting behind him,'' Kuper says. ''He said, 'These guys are going to raise $100 million for an asset class which doesn't yet exist and they're going to reach 25 million low-income people.'''

LeapFrog, and the companies it has invested in, have been able to weather the storm of the global financial crisis because of their non-reliance on the developed world and their ability to tap into an asset class that had, in terms of insurance, been very scarcely served.

According to the International Labour Organisation, the number of people covered by micro-insurance has grown to 500 million, from 78 million in 2007.

For those in the developed world, insurance is often another annoying add-on cost, another yearly bill, another box to tick. The market has well and truly been saturated and growth among insurance products is unlikely to see any sharp inclines.

The idea for reaching the emerging market, with billions of potential clients, was sown during the late 1990s when Kuper was working in the Thar desert in Rajasthan, India, trying to get farmers to adopt drip irrigation. ''The farmers were the main source of income for the area and whenever they would have challenges, or just be at subsistence level, the community really struggled to get out of poverty and manage its health challenges,'' Kuper says.

Despite the potential for the farmers to increase their crop yields significantly, through the use of drip irrigation, they refused to do it. ''I thought at the time they were being very irrational, then I realised by spending time with them that they were being completely rational. Any new business, including using drip irrigation, has a one in 20 chance of failure and I wouldn't take a one in 20 chance with my children's lives.''

It was this realisation, that poor people would not takes risks because of fear for their family's livelihoods, that would drive Kuper to create a safety net so people could lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

Kuper, who recently won an Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year award, started investing at the age of 10 and took on his first clients at the age of 13. He was drawn to social justice through academia. In 2001, he earned a PhD in social and political sciences from Cambridge University that was supervised by Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in the field of economic sciences. ''Andrew Kuper is a remarkable product of intellectual engagement on some of the most difficult problems that the world faces today,'' Sen says. ''The combination of commitment and critical reasoning makes him a very productive thinker, and I do not doubt that he will continue to make important contributions to the battle against injustice in the world.''

Those sentiments are echoed by Andrew Rothery, founder and former executive chairman of Archer Capital, who now sits on the advisory board for LeapFrog.

''In years gone by you used to talk about management by walking around, top managers getting out and about on the factory floor, talking, walking, meeting the employees, talking about what they're doing, listening to their problems. Andy does an enormous amount of that. He's a great believer of getting out there, talking to the people and leading by example,'' Rothery says.

Kuper's ability to harness and guide the combination of profit and purpose is extremely potent, Rothery says. ''We're just damn lucky that he fell in love with an Australian woman who brought him back to this part of the world.''

Kuper's enthusiasm and passion for his work is apparent in the companies in which LeapFrog invests.

AllLife, an insurance broker that provides life cover to people living with HIV in South Africa, was LeapFrog's first investment. South Africans can access antiretroviral treatment for free to help combat HIV, and regular medical appointments are mandatory for AllLife's clients.

''For most people when you tell them you provide life insurance for people living with HIV, they normally take quite a few steps backward. They think 'you're an NGO, you must be not-for-profit, it can't be sustainable','' says AllLife's managing director and co-founder, Ross Beerman.

Life insurance is a prerequisite for many financial services in South Africa such as home loans. Cover is readily denied to people living with HIV and so reduces their access to things like education and inhibits their ability to build assets.

''[LeapFrog] were really the only people who were truly excited about what we were doing,'' Beerman says. ''On the back of the capital investment we've grown more than 40 per cent per annum for the last three or four years.''

Kuper, who moved to Sydney in 2009, believes Australia has an advantage in the effort to corner much of the emerging market.

''There are 4 billion people on our doorstep and we're 20 million people,'' he said. ''The opportunity to leverage our infrastructure, knowledge and capacities to really put this country at the forefront of impact investing is tremendously exciting.''

As is the standard among private equity firms, LeapFrog will not report profits until the sale of its stakes in companies it has invested in, which has not yet happened.

LeapFrog is expanding with two further investments to be completed soon that will further its reach to seven countries.

Kuper says LeapFrog prefers to invest in fewer companies so they can invest larger amounts of capital, along with their time and expertise, to ensure a higher quality of service. This is extremely important with a product such as insurance, which could often be unfamiliar to the people to which they are trying to serve.

Despite his individual success, Kuper is quick to credit those around him. ''If you look at my partners, most of them are more experienced, wiser and many other things more than me,'' he says. ''I was the original entrepreneur, but it really has been a team journey.''

twitter Follow this journalist on Twitter @maxepmason