Many Roads to Impact

If you can’t physically get there – and get there safely – then we’re not going to get much impact.

Infrastructure: even the word is boring and bulky. I thought I bid adieu to these kinds of investments in favor of sexier, entrepreneurial solutions when I made the shift from the DC development bank scene to the CA social innovation scene six years ago. But here I am: getting all jazzed about transportation infrastructure. And no, it’s not for the novelty factor of funding something outside the typical health-ag-education trifecta we know and love (although we could all use a little novelty these days…). Quite the opposite – it’s because we’ve found some infrastructure solutions that are a slam dunk for our impact-at-scale criteria. SaveLIFE and Bridges to Prosperity – two recent additions to Mulago’s portfolio – are prime examples. Their solutions deserve more limelight, and here’s why:

1. Connectivity is a basic need, and there’s a lot riding on it.

A year of relative isolation has clarified that connectivity – to community, jobs, goods and services – is a basic need. Tech can help (thanks, zoom!), but people crave and respond better to a real, physical connection. Safe roads and bridges are the most basic infrastructure to keep us connected, and they affect the success of nearly everything we support. Think about it: most of the stuff we fund in the health-ag-education space requires something to get from point A to point B – medicine, community health workers, agricultural goods, teachers.... If they can’t get there – and get there safely – then we’re not going to get much impact.

Unfortunately, nearly 1 billion people – or more than 10% of the world’s population – lack the basic transportation infrastructure to stay connected to lifechanging opportunities and services; isolation keeps them in poverty. Bridges to Prosperity directly addresses this problem. They get the right trail bridge in the right place so that these isolated communities have access to jobs, markets, healthcare, and schools to meaningfully improve their lives.

SaveLIFE, on the other hand, has a solution to make existing infrastructure safer, starting in India. Road safety is an issue everywhere, but especially for the population Mulago aims to serve: over 1.25 million ​people die each year in road crashes (with another 50 million sustaining injuries) and over 90% of these deaths are in low and middle-income countries, with India leading the global death toll. SaveLIFE is addressing this problem with a nimble yet packaged solution for road safety improvements that includes engineering, enforcement, emergency care, and public education interventions.

2. These solutions can drive meaningful impact.

Safe transportation infrastructure isn’t just about access – it can lead to real, meaningful impact that’s on par with some of the best-in-class health and livelihoods organizations in our portfolio:

  • SaveLIFE’s solution led to a 30-43% reduction in fatalities and up to a 40% reduction in total crashes on some of India’s most dangerous roads between 2016 and 2019.
  • Bridges to Prosperity’s recent RCT shows that their solution not only eliminated the labor market income loss caused by seasonal flooding, but that their bridges increased annual labor market incomes by a whopping 36% over the control. And that’s just the off-farm gains – farmer profits also rose by 75%, likely due to increased access to both inputs and markets.

30+% reduction in deaths, 30+% gains in incomes – these are solid results for any health or livelihoods organization.

3. They’re primed for scale via government.

Much of what we support, like health and education, sits within the government’s mandate and is therefore (ideally) paid for and delivered by government at scale. But governments don’t always have the capacity or funding to currently deliver these public services. This is where social entrepreneurs come in - they partner with governments to design an effective solution to deliver these basic services, often start to deliver these services directly, and then work closely with government to help them deliver, maintain, and ideally pay for them long-term.

Infrastructure is obviously a public good, but can transportation infrastructure solutions follow this same path to scale via government? Three core questions help us gauge the potential:

  1. Is the solution big enough to matter?
  2. Is it simple enough for the doer at scale to deliver (and maintain) it over time?
  3. Is it cheap enough for the payer at scale to pay for it?

Roads and bridges are obviously pretty big, but “big enough” is really about the overlap between where the solution is needed and where it could work. SaveLIFE demonstrates this criterion well: road accidents kill hundreds of thousands of people each year (big need) and their solution can adapt to a range of road safety issues (can work on lots of roads).

The “simple enough” question sorts out the contractors that just build or improve physical assets from the organizations that have a true solution for government delivery at scale. Take Bridges to Prosperity – they spent years honing their approach to effectively site, design, and build trail bridges and are now building the tools and technical assistance capacity to enable governments to take on the burden as “doer” at scale. And it’s gaining traction: they have MOUs in place with government partners in East Africa, including national scale-up plans in Rwanda, and a credible strategy to transition to government delivery and management in the coming years.

And is infrastructure “cheap enough”? The total cost (per road, per bridge) might be expensive, but infrastructure budgets are – not surprisingly – big. So, before getting sticker shock from an up-front cost figure, ask about the relevant infrastructure budget (municipal, national and/or what’s available via Big Aid/World Bank funding). There’s a good chance the solution can fit within existing budgets. Bridges to Prosperity and SaveLIFE get this and therefore actively lobby to ensure that existing transportation infrastructure budgets get allocated to high-impact interventions.

We don’t get excited about organizations just building roads or bridges. We’re excited about high-impact solutions to basic needs that are big, simple, and cheap enough for a scale partner (often government) to deliver and pay for long-term. And we hope other philanthropies take interest as well, because just like our friends working in health and education, philanthropic support now can help these infrastructure-oriented entrepreneurs hone, prove, and package their solutions to attract existing public sector funding down the line. There are many roads (literally) to the impact we’re all after, so let’s go fund them.