Harnessing the Power of Partnerships to Create Opportunities for Inclusive Business

Aug 29, 2019 3:00 PM ET

Thanks to technological advances, nowadays, the cost of scaling a business can be close to zero. Even the smallest entrepreneur can become what McKinsey[1] calls ‘micro-multinational’ through online platforms. While this means that traditional business models can be disrupted much more easily, it also means competition can come from any corner in terms of geography or even sector. 


Therefore, forming the right kind of alliances and partnerships is both a risk mitigating measure and a way to open up new opportunities and enable a struggling business to grow.  

Notably, partnerships can provide:

  • Access to new skills, ideas and information;
  • Help when piloting new models;
  • Alternative ways to reach out to new or difficult to access markets;
  • Supply chain resilience; and
  • Reputation and brand recognition in target communities. 

The beauty of partnerships is that they are not limited to sectors or geographies. They can also vary in scope and ambition. At their most ambitious they are what the Harvard Business Review[2] calls ‘smart alliances’, which include multiple partners and aim to tackle challenges at the ecosystem level. At the other end of the spectrum, smaller partnerships may include two or three actors that cooperate to address specific challenges related to a product/service delivery or value chain.

For inclusive businesses, partnerships hold particular potential to help them overcome the logistical challenges many face working in bottom of the economic pyramid (BoP) markets, which often lack infrastructure, are hindered by restrictive regulations, and may be difficult to access.

Let us now have a look at few cases of partnerships according to objectives they tried to achieve.

Reaching new or difficult to access markets

Yara, a global fertilizer retailer, faced challenges in reaching small scale farmers from its entry ports in Tanzania. Due to inefficient management at the ports, the dispatch of supplies tended to be delayed for months. On top of this, roads were inadequate for transportation of fertilizers to farmers and produce back to the port. As a result, nearly one third of the farmers’ yields went to waste, meaning lost income for farmers. Additionally, a lack of training meant farmers were not aware of the importance of fertilizers in agricultural production and their potential to increase yields – and thus profits.

This represented a typical market failure which no single actor could address alone. To tackle it, Yara initiated a multi-stakeholder coalition called the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania comprising multinational companies, non-governmental organizations, aid agencies and the Tanzanian Government. The initiative involved investing in the port, fertilizer terminal, roads, rail and electricity infrastructure; strengthening farmer cooperatives; engaging financial dealers and supporting agro-processing facilities. The project was completed within three years and boosted not only agricultural production in the region but also Yara’s fertilizer sales by 50 percent.[3]​

Access to new skills, ideas and information 

Although the overall life expectancy of the workforce in Asia is increasing, so is prevalence of chronic diseases, such as  cancer[4]. Compounding this, frontline factory workers lack the financial means to access essential healthcare for themselves and their families – even information about common diseases and prevention measures.

iCare Benefits is a for-profit social enterprise, providing workers in developing countries a breakthrough employee benefits program at their workplace. In Vietnam, iCare Benefits partnered with the Pasteur Institute and a local labour union to understand the needs and challenges of factory workers and their families working for manufacturers Garmex and Changshin. Human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease which can cause cancer, is also preventable through a vaccine. Given its prevalence, and the lack of knowledge about the disease – a staggering 94 percent of surveyed workers in Vietnam did not know what the disease was – the partnership prioritized offering the vaccine to factory workers.

Labour unions convened workers to attend information sessions, where doctors from the Pasteur Institute helped organize the employee surveys, delivered presentations on HPV and cervical cancer and conducted examinations and vaccinations. iCare Benefits offered its members an interest-free 9-month installment payment option, to address the high cost of the vaccine.[5]​

Building reputation and brand recognition in communities

Addressing the healthcare needs of India’s rural population poses diverse challenges. These include almost non-existent last mile healthcare delivery infrastructure, long distances and travel times to tertiary facilities, limited financial strength of low income patients, lack of knowledge about hygiene or diseases and low specialization of medical staff.

Realizing the gap, BCtA member company iKure has developed a medical collaboration platform called Wireless Health Incident Monitoring Systems (WHIMS) which provides basic health care to low-income rural populations at an affordable price. To connect low-income patients with doctors and hospitals (both physically and remotely), iKure sets up hub and spoke clinics to decentralize the service delivery by establishing different touch points.

In order to scale its business model, promote its brand and better engage community workers, iKure has partnered with large corporations, trusts, universities and non-governmental organizations. The support from these organizations came both in terms of customer acquisition (marketing, branding, awareness building) and supporting operational costs (clinic facilities, medical equipment, travel and surveys).

Through its training partners, iKure has trained Community Health Workers (CHWs) and additional community members to become Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLE). After becoming self-sustainable entrepreneurs, VLEs will continue selling and promoting products associated with iKure supply chain such as branded spectacles, medicines, sanitary pads or nutritional supplement. They will strengthen iKure’s brand identity in rural communities.

Using Shujog Assessment tool, iKure research team collects data in the villages to measure the success of its activities undertaken jointly with its partners, with a focus on indicators related to the health improvement of underserved communities, reduction in healthcare costs and increase in productivity. Thanks to iKure’s innovative business model and multiple partnerships, low income patients now have reliable access to general medicine, maternal and child health care, eye care and telemedicine services. [6]​


As we can see, when it comes to scale and number of actors involved, partnerships come in various forms. Yara’s initiative represents a strategic alliance tackling business and development challenges at the system level. iKure and iCare also engaged multiple partners, targeting more specific problems rather than change at the ecosystem level.

What are some of the common denominators behind these partnerships and factors that made them successful? The Harvard Business Review provides a useful framework for this analysis. According to its 2016 article[7], for strategic alliances to succeed, several conditions must be met. There must be:

  1. A common agenda and shared understanding of the problem;
  2. A shared measurement system - participants must agree on a single list of indicators that determine how success will be measured and reported;
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities – partner activities complement rather than overlap;
  4. Constant communication;
  5. Dedicated “backbone” support from one or more independent organization.

In the Yara case, an example of complex partnership, all of the above conditions where present. When it comes to iKure and iBenefit, both partnerships had shared understanding of the problem, engaged in mutually reinforcing activities, where each partner focused on their area of expertise and had well-established communication channels. Both iCare and iKure partnerships also had agreed on objectives and indicators for measuring the success, which seems to be highly critical. Without agreed indicators, it is difficult to measure the success and impact of the share project on low income people, report it to the stakeholders, and potentially modify the strategy and approach of the partnership.

As these cases demonstrate, partnerships play a crucial role in addressing challenges inclusive companies face in their interaction with BoP markets. Without a robust alliance, Yara would not have been able to market its product to small-scale farmers, especially due to poor infrastructure and their low awareness of the importance of fertilizers in agriculture. Partnerships helped iCare Benefits to better understand the needs of their low income customers and come up with innovative solutions, and helped iKure build its brand and train frontline workers. 

The role of partnerships in inclusive business cannot be overestimated, and opportunities for them should be pro-actively searched for. Today, more than ever, they are crucial for addressing challenges inclusive businesses face and for increasing their impact.

[1] McKinsey. The Four Global Forces Breaking all The Trends: No Ordinary Disruption. 2015.
[2] Mark R. Kramer and Marc W. Pfitzer. “The Ecosystem of share Value”. Harvard Business Review. 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-ecosystem-of-shared-value
[3] Mark R. Kramer and Marc W. Pfitzer. “The Ecosystem of share Value”. Harvard Business Review. 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-ecosystem-of-shared-value
[4] Dove Press, “Integrated health care systems in Asia: an urgent necessity”, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6298881/
[5] The Impact of iCare benefits – HPV Vaccination Pilot, Vietnam 2016, iCare Benefits https://www.businesscalltoaction.org/sites/default/files/resources/iCareBenefitsHPVVaccinationpilotVietnam2016.pdf
[6] Source: iKure BCtA application and interview with the company
[7] Mark R. Kramer and Marc W. Pfitzer. “The Ecosystem of shared Value”. Harvard Business Review. 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-ecosystem-of-shared-value