Big Vision, Small Plans: How CrossBoundary is Shaping a New Narrative of Power
Co-founder and Managing Partner of CrossBoundary, Matt Tilleard, is on a mission to unlock sustainable growth for developing and conflict-affected countries across the world. From the “valley of death” to the exciting opportunities of renewable energy in Africa, he shares his journey in scaling big solutions for underserved markets.
When outsiders come with a top-down, really detailed plan about how to turn Afghanistan into Denmark, they fail. They fail because their plan is too distant from reality; it doesn’t respond to the nuances of local context.
We’ve been watching with awe as CrossBoundary continues to grow into a global success. You’re now in 17 cities worldwide! Is this something you expected when you founded the company?
One of our core values or founding principles at CrossBoundary is to have a big vision, but a small plan. Jake [Cusack, co-founder at CrossBoundary] and I met at Harvard for graduate school. Jake was a marine in the US military and served in Iraq. I’d been in the private sector at the Boston Consulting Group, and then went to Afghanistan and worked for the British government there. I think the lesson of those experiences as part of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan was that when outsiders come with a top-down, really detailed plan about how to turn Afghanistan into Denmark, they fail. They fail because their plan is too distant from reality; it doesn’t respond to the nuances of local context and it doesn’t respond to the thousand small challenges that they’re going to face along the way.
So we started CrossBoundary with the hope that we would have a big impact in the world, and we had been taught in this very visceral way that the way you have a big impact is you have a big vision and a clear purpose, you start out on the journey, and then you respond to circumstances as you go. We were ambitious and idealistic. Am I surprised that we’re here? No, not really. Did I have any idea how we would get here? Also, no, not really.
What excites you about the new regions you’re reaching and how you’re expanding your global footprint?
Our energy businesses remain focused on Africa, but our advisory business has expanded geographically in the last few years. We’ve now opened offices in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America — so it’s really exciting to see that our approach can add value globally in under-served markets.
What’s most interesting about it — and this is one of our beliefs at CrossBoundary — is that you get the best answer to any problem by combining a diverse group of people and providing an environment where all those people can contribute to solving problems. So, as we become more geographically diverse, I think our ability to identify and scale good solutions that work in underserved markets will increase. Colombia is a very different place than Kenya, and Kenya is a very different place than Moldova, but some of the same challenges and therefore solutions can apply. So despite our belief that real change requires contextualized action, we can still share learnings and benefit from our increased diversity of knowledge and capabilities.
Invest in people with purpose, not those prioritizing profits. Often the people chasing purpose end up making the most profits in the end.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome to get the company to this level of achievement?
Originally, we focused on bringing investment into fragile and conflict-affected states. Jake and I initially began working in Afghanistan in 2012, and then we opened an office in Juba, South Sudan. which collapsed in a coup in late 2013. After that, most of our early team, including Tom Flahive, our third partner, and Pieter Joubert, who is a leader in our energy work, moved to Kenya. What surprised us was that a lot of the challenges we were grappling with in very fragile and conflict affected contexts also existed in less fragile, but still developing contexts like Kenya, so that really widened the scope of what we were doing. We are still doing a lot of good work on conflict-affected states with a presence in Mali, Iraq and Afghanistan, but our more geographically-diverse business makes for a less fragile business.
Most businesses go through a valley of death — like we experienced when South Sudan became very unstable — but if you have purpose in the work that you’re doing, it makes it so much easier to persevere through that valley. In the early days, when we had a difficult time with the business, we could have wrapped it all up and gone and done something else, but I think our view was that if we closed down CrossBoundary, we would just start CrossBoundary again. Because this kind of work is all we wanted to do, it was better to hang in there and push through to the other side. This is what Jeff Bezos means when he says that you should invest in people with purpose, not those prioritizing profits. Often the people chasing purpose end up making the most profits in the end.
What’s been the highlight for you?
There are a couple of exciting transitions that happened over the last few years. One is we went from being a company that was founder-driven to one that wasn’t. We are now close to 130 people — and this is an extremely talented, hardworking, and purpose-driven group of people — and we’re coming into the second decade of CrossBoundary. In this next chapter, I think the history of our company is going to be written by the team, and I find that really exciting. It makes me extremely proud to have a team that can take that on.
Another thing that excites me is that our narrative has changed. Our founding story was a humble narrative, but it was still an outsider’s narrative. It was a narrative of idealistic people seeking to help others bring about change in their countries. That’s not our narrative anymore; nor is it the narrative of most people who work at CrossBoundary, because most people at CrossBoundary come from the countries and markets we are trying to enact positive change in. So the company is no longer an outsider; we are very much from the places we are seeking to impact, and I think that is really exciting!
One thing that has come out of this is that we changed our mission statement, because it used to refer to making positive change in ‘frontier markets’. That term is obviously fine and it is still the official nomenclature of the MSCI index, but we revisited it and thought, “If we’re from here, is this still a frontier?”. What we might have described as the frontier 10 years ago is now just home, so the term doesn’t make sense for who we’ve become, and I’m proud of that.
There’s a huge reservoir of capital and a vast need and opportunity to have that capital deployed to useful things. What’s missing is the pipe to connect capital and opportunity.
It’s notoriously difficult to attract investment in developing countries, particularly on the African continent. How have you managed to tackle this?
I think in tackling any challenge, half the problem is diagnosis and figuring out what the real problem is. The problem of capital coming into underserved and developing economies is not really that the money is not there. If you go to Davos or sit in boardrooms and government meetings in London or New York, or other hubs of capital, there are huge volumes of capital that have always been seeking returns and are increasingly seeking environmental and social outcomes. So there’s a huge reservoir of capital and a vast need and opportunity to have that capital deployed to useful things. What’s missing is the pipe to connect capital and opportunity. I think that is where CrossBoundary has found some degree of success — acting as a conduit between those boardrooms and the opportunities on the ground. Sometimes that’s by creating those opportunities or by facilitating investments and translating the opportunities on the ground to the capital that is available through our advisory business. That’s the role we’ve played with some success.
As one of the largest distributors of affordable green energy in Africa, what impact has your work had on the over 600m underserved people on the continent?
It’s Peter Thiel who talks about this idea of the secret that you know, that not everyone knows yet, and then building a business around that. The potential of distributed renewable energy is becoming more widely recognized, but 5 years ago, the secret that we knew, that CrossBoundary knew, was that solar was becoming a cheaper source of electricity than coal in almost every market that we work in, and that storage, primarily through lithium ion batteries, was becoming cheaper every day. Those two huge technology transformations are as significant as the motorcar or the discovery of oil in the first place. Energy is one of the largest, if not the largest, industries in the world, and we’re going to completely transform it. In the next 30 years, it will be unrecognizable. It’s well over a trillion dollar opportunity to transform centralized, fossil fuel-based electricity generation into a decentralized, resilient, more affordable, and carbon-free marketplace for energy.
The other really fascinating thing about this is that we’re going to do a lot of this transition first, here in Africa. Because there are fewer legacy systems, and access to affordable, reliable power is the greatest constraint on the growth of businesses, there’s a huge amount of infrastructure left to be built, and that’s a wonderful opportunity. Just like with mobile phones, we can skip to the future without having to dismantle as much old infrastructure. So, it’s an exciting transition that we have the opportunity to be involved with, and I feel lucky to have landed in the right place in my career — to see an immense problem, but also have a good solution.
While solar power is a renowned clean energy source, there are some who claim that it’s not as environmentally-friendly as it’s presented to be. What are your views on this? Why are you convinced that solar is the green solution of the future?
When you look at the numbers, solar produced and deployed responsibly is a net environmental bonanza!
I always like to work from the facts because I’m not sure that some of the narratives around this are entirely formed in good faith. So, let’s consider the critiques.
- The first would be carbon. Obviously, in the manufacture of anything, carbon is released. But it’s a pretty circular argument — that we shouldn’t manufacture solar using coal, so we should just keep using coal? I find it hard to take that one seriously. Solar does produce carbon in manufacture, but the evidence is clear; the lifecycle emissions per unit of electricity produced are dramatically lower for solar than they are for fossil fuels.
- Another critique is around the other forms of environmental harm — the sourcing of the materials and the manufacture of panels. This is a better critique. I do think we need to build a responsible industry. Just because we’re having a positive environmental impact, particularly on greenhouse gas emissions, doesn’t give us a free pass on everything else. And it’s not just environmental harm, it’s also the social consequences of the manufacturing process. Are manufacturing facilities being run to international health and safety standards, for instance? I do believe that’s something we need to take seriously and demand from suppliers.
- The last point, which I think is a subset of the second point, is around recycling. There isn’t a good recycling supply chain facility yet, but it’s very hard to build a recycling industry until there are a substantial number of things to recycle, and solar hasn’t quite reached that scale yet in terms of panels reaching the end of their 25 year plus lifespan. I’m not too concerned that we won’t be able to build that when the time comes to actually recycle a lot of panels.
Fundamentally, I think we should have humility. A lot of bad things have been done by people with good intentions. In fact most bad things are done by people who believe they have good intentions, so we shouldn’t be blind to the reality. But I don’t think there’s any doubt, when you look at the numbers in good faith, that solar produced and deployed responsibly is a net environmental bonanza.
In the next 30–50 years, we have a really interesting opportunity to restore ecosystems and protect habitats - urbanization.
The theme for World Environment Day this year is “Ecosystem Restoration”. If you were to suggest one action we could take to restore damaged ecosystems and habitats, what would that be?
I think in the next 30–50 years, we have a really interesting opportunity to restore ecosystems and protect habitats. Global population growth is levelling out. It’s quite a well-established trend; as health outcomes improve, people have fewer children. So we’re not in a Malthusian disaster scenario where we’ll eventually just have to build everywhere and cover the earth in concrete, so the opportunity is where those approximately 11 billion people will live. I think it is a bit of a flaw, from both an economic and ecological perspective, that a lot of development thinking is focused around the smallholder farmer. No country that is rich now doesn’t have industrialized agriculture and the majority of the population living in cities, so it’s always confusing to me why the traditional development model seems to be centered around keeping people in the countryside.
The empirically established way of making countries wealthy is for people to urbanize. Cities have more economic opportunity, and the impact of each person on the environment is dramatically less. I think if we stop fighting that, if we embrace urbanization and focus instead on trying to manage the negative consequences of it, we can transition to a world where we live in incredibly diverse, cosmopolitan, dynamic cities that provide people with huge access to opportunity, but where we don’t have the same kind of footprint on the planet that we do now. We’ll be able to return a lot of the world to wild space if we get urbanization right.
This will be perceived by some as ideological, but I’d ask people to engage on the empirical facts around population growth and the relative economic opportunity in cities. I do see the human challenges that people are concerned about. If you live in a megacity like Nairobi, like I do, you are so exposed to the negative consequences of urbanization. But the challenge is not then to keep everybody in the countryside; it’s to better manage our transition into cities in a more just and equitable way.
Do you have a close connection to nature? Where do you feel most connected to the natural world?
Yes, I grew up in a small town of about 14,000 people in a rural community in Australia. My parents were very into the outdoors, so I grew up hiking, skiing, mountain-biking and camping. I feel most connected to nature when I can do it under my own steam, whether that’s by walking, hiking or biking in remote places where there are fewer people. I think it’s that transition of being under my own power that makes me feel like I’ve actually gone away.
Because of that, I find Kenya amazing. There are plenty of incredible outdoor things to do here. I’m in Lamu right now. It’s kind of interesting in that it’s a beautiful beach, but a substantial portion of the appeal is that it’s still a real Swahili village and is part of a really ancient culture. If you come here a lot, you can become part of the community in a very small way and see people having kids and getting married and so on. It’s quite different from getting away in Australia, but it’s still a really special place. We call it the unofficial 18th office of CrossBoundary.
10 or 15 years ago, climate change was a problem that could only be solved by politicians. Today, the ‘owner’ of the answer has shifted to individuals, activists, entrepreneurs and other doers.
With the dismal reality of climate change, do you have hope that we’ll be able to create a greener planet?
I’m certain of it. Obviously from what I’ve said, I’m a techno-optimist and globalist, but that is a point of view that has been proven correct often in the last 60 years. There are still huge challenges, but I’m optimistic. 10 or 15 years ago, climate change was a problem that could only be solved by politicians. And they could have solved it. If we had just put a price on carbon, the global economy would have reshaped around that, and we would be well on track to being carbon-zero by 2050. But politicians have failed, and I think what gives me the most optimism is that the ‘owner’ of the answer has sort of shifted to individuals, activists, entrepreneurs and other doers. If politics catches up and we get past this kind of misinformation and division that seems to be holding back political action, that will make a huge difference. Any rational actor would still want that to happen. But in the meantime, entrepreneurs, scientists, technologists and engineers are getting on with it and there is a path opening up to solving the problem.