15 Voices: An Interview with Kevin Starr

kevin_starr_headshot_cropWe recently sat down with Kevin Starr, managing director of the Mulago Foundation and the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Program, both of which are focused on scalable solutions to meet the basic needs of the very poor. Kevin also teaches and mentors fellows in numerous other programs for social entrepreneurs and serves as the chairman of Big Bang Philanthropy, a group of funders working together to direct more money to those best at fighting poverty. In our interview, Kevin talks about the Mulago Foundation’s history with Root Capital and the “ah-ha” moment that provided him greater insight into the catalytic role of agricultural finance.

Root Capital: When did you first encounter Root Capital? 

KS: In the early 2000s, it seemed like everyone was talking about Root Capital. I kept hearing about the organization from all these different sources, but I only got bits and pieces here and there; I didn’t really understand what the organization did until I met Willy at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford seven or eight years ago.

Root Capital: Why have you been involved with Root Capital? 

KS: The Mulago Foundation funds organizations that are addressing basic needs of the very poor so we often become involved with organizations providing solutions through smallholder agriculture. As we became increasingly interested in the space, people we knew and respected kept telling us we needed to take a closer look at Root Capital. We did, and we’ve been funding the organization since 2010.

Root Capital: What is one word that summarizes Root Capital in your mind? 

KS: Leverage.

A few years ago, I traveled with Root Capital staff to an area of Uganda that had been devastated by widespread violence instigated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The area’s once-thriving cotton industry had all but come to a halt due to the unrest, but there was one cotton enterprise – a Root Capital client – that was trying to revive the local cotton ecosystem by refurbishing an old cotton ginnery. When Root Capital provided both the money and the technical assistance to get that ginnery back up and running, it revitalized the industry and put thousands of smallholders back in business. One critical element, in this case much-needed finance from Root Capital, set the whole industry in motion. 

That was the moment it all clicked for me. I saw directly and exactly the kind of impact that Root Capital’s financing could accomplish.

Root Capital: What excites you most about what Root Capital can achieve in the next 15 years?  

KS: Root Capital has innovated a whole new way of financing that now is influencing an entire industry. We think Root Capital’s track record makes it clear that the organization can deploy increasing amounts of capital to influence the industry at large, crowding more and more players into this important space. I’m confident Root Capital will continue developing innovations to spearhead the evolution of the industry for at least the next 15 years to come. 

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