For asset stewards, people of faith, and those navigating professional and vocational decisions, Alex Tee of Beneficial Returns offers meaningful life advice.
This intersection between our passion and our skills and the world’s unmet need is generally a good place to be looking at where we can go deep - Alex Tee
And he has – quite literally – gone deep. For the first fifteen years of his career, Tee worked in the banking industry, culminating in his role as the Chief Executive of Bank of America Singapore.
But in 2018, he made a significant professional and life shift. In his words, he left the industry 'to pursue human flourishing in a deeper and fuller way, and that has taken me down the road of impact investing.' Today, he uses finance to address two of the world’s greatest unmet needs: the crisis in soil health and the pursuit of sustainable agriculture.
In 2020, Tee met Ted Levinson, the founder and CEO of Beneficial Returns. Beneficial Returns is an impact investment fund manager that supports the growth of leading social enterprises that alleviate poverty and protect the natural environment in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
For Tee, the connection between finance, poverty alleviation, and ecological sustainability is readily apparent. 'So many of the world’s poor are farmers,' he says. And farmers, like other vulnerable groups, are bearing the disproportionate weight of the growing climate crisis:
The challenges accompanying climate change, such as changing weather patterns and the erosion of topsoil, have placed farmers in precarious economic positions. Often, they face a real temptation to resort to chemical agriculture, a short-term solution that does not serve long-term fertility.
'The idea is that we have tried to make plants grow by supplying them with chemical fertilisers that will increase yield in the short term. But in fact, what we are actually doing when we pour and inundate the soil and the plants with chemical fertilisers, is we are unwittingly killing the life, the microbiology in the soil in that process. When that happens, the soil gradually over time turns to dirt.' Tee explains more below in this short clip from his interview with Kelli Hickey.
Click to watch this short clip of Alex Tee in conversation with Kelli Hickey
Aside from damaging the long-term health of the land and polluting precious waterways, chemical fertilisers are also expensive. And, because they destroy living soil, they jeopardise future yields – enslaving poor farmers in a tragic economic cycle.
Here, Pope Francis’s critique of the 'technocratic paradigm' in his encyclical Laudato Si’ finds ground:
This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object…we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us…
This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that ‘an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed’ (Laudato Si', 106).
The idea is that we can 'think' our way out of the crises we face. Chemical agriculture is one such manifestation of the technocratic paradigm, a phenomenon that solves problems 'now' but leaves future generations at a loss.
Capital has influence
But the team at Beneficial Returns is working toward a different reality, one that uses impact investing as a way of pairing access to capital with expertise in sustainable agriculture and soil health – both important pieces of the puzzle . 'I believe that capital has influence,' Tee says. 'And I really hope that at Beneficial Returns we steward this influence well.'
For Tee, sometimes this means leveraging influence by saying 'temporary no’s' to loan requests. Beneficial Returns does not lend to enterprises that:
Practice chemical agriculture and
Have no intention of moving toward regenerative agriculture.
For farmers who receive loans, it serves as a partner that educates and shares best practices in sustainable agriculture. Often, this involves dispelling myths. In one example, Tee worked closely with a partnering farmer to understand how the use of 'natural fertilisers' like chicken manure can be as harmful as pumping nitrogen into the soil.
Investor trip to Mexico
Beneficial Returns also stresses the importance of encounter in finance. In February, the team led an 'investor trip' to Mexico to help investors and the communities and enterprises they fund enter into deeper relationship.
To supply loans to farmers, Beneficial Returns stewards two funds. The Beneficial Returns Fund pools charitable contributions from family foundations, donor-advised funds, and faith-based organisations to provide loans of $50,000-$500,000 to social enterprises. Beneficial Returns also manages the Reciprocity Fund, which focuses exclusively on supporting indigenous communities, which are among the most vulnerable to climate change and which also work to protect over 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
Stability for borrowers
For borrowers, Beneficial Returns offers stability through long-term loans. As such, investments in the Beneficial Returns Fund have a 7-year maturity and are paid back at a 0% return to investors. Beneficial Returns also operates with a loan-loss reserve, allowing them to tell their investors with confidence that they can fully expect to have their money returned.
As of June 2022, Beneficial Returns had supported 50 borrowers across 24 countries in Latin America and South East Asia. From its launch in 2016, Beneficial Returns has lent over $5 million dollars to social enterprises. It has since returned in excess of $2 million to investors.
Epidemic of short termism
For Tee, conventional finance has a lot to learn from the slow growth of soil. He explains that, as investors and financiers, we – and the world with us – are suffering from an 'epidemic of short termism.' He identifies the temptation to focus almost exclusively on instant gratification, a mindset that spills over into the way we set our terms and analyse investment metrics like risk, return, and liquidity.
Instead, he reminds us that fruit takes time to form and roots take time to deepen. 'As investors, be aware of our need for instant return,' he says. 'Instead, have a portfolio or a part of a portfolio where we are literally asking the enterprises to build strong systems – especially the younger enterprises – because that is a leading indicator that will set you up for eventual success.'
And these strong systems, like the natural growth of soil, prompt cause for faith:
'This is a kind of agriculture – local wisdom – that is cyclical, that requires diligence, sure, but doesn’t require a lot of expensive inputs into the system … this is a system that is beautiful, that can be abundant and miraculous. And I remember just being struck by how nature works. And this, to me, had God’s fingerprints all over it. He is a Father that doesn’t require us to have things that are beyond our reach – expensive inputs – but he orders a kind of nature and way of being that flourishes with diligence but not with something that is out of our reach.'
Relationship with the land
For Tee, investors and asset stewards of faith are called to cultivate a deep relationship with the land: 'Early in the creation – as early as Genesis, second chapter, verse 15, it says that the Lord God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and to keep it. Implicit in this verse is the responsibility that us, human beings, have this responsibility to steward and to care for creation.'
Tee understands the connection between faith, finance, and care for creation. He invites us all – no matter our faith, vocation, or work in the world – to pay attention to and learn from the many lessons hidden in the created world.'
There is so much in the created nature that has lessons to teach us. It’s like a huge amphitheater of life lessons. Whether it’s for investing or parenting or for our relationships or for our communities, let’s be people who wander out our doors and take in the fresh air and observe what this natural amphitheater that God has ordained has to teach us.'
For more about the work of Beneficial Returns, visit beneficialreturns.com.