University of Bristol law graduate James Alexandroff (LLB 1979) has focused his energy and professional experience in creating a model of philanthropy that is sustainable and effective. We spoke to this year’s Alumni Award winner for Transformative Philanthropy about his personal journey and his approach to philanthropy.
After graduating in law from the University of Bristol in 1979 it took me a long time to discover what I wanted to do. I spent three years working for a shipping company as a management trainee and then qualified as a solicitor in shipping litigation; but I wasn’t very good at either.
So I spent a year unemployed, quite confused as to what to do, but fortunately I had a chance encounter with an old friend on a beach at Arisaig in Scotland, who told me that there was a vacancy at the fund management firm on the Far East desk where he worked in Edinburgh. One thing led to another, and I became an investment analyst; and at the age of 28 had found something which I enjoyed.
I ended up moving to a firm in Hong Kong three years later with my young family and became an early investor in the so-called emerging markets of India, China, South Korea, Indonesia, etc. I focused on small, listed businesses, the owners of which had invariably never met a foreign investor. Coming from an international family (both my parents being of Greek extraction) I loved the travel, the novelty and the sense of adventure.
Five or so years later, I decided to set up a “boutique” investment management firm called Arisaig Partners (after the aforementioned beach) with two partners headquartered in Singapore focusing on small companies in Asia. We were lucky to attract the support of US university endowment funds, like those of Yale and Princeton, and we delivered good returns, more by luck than judgement, as the small companies we selected started to attract a wider following.
Shortly after launching the firm, I transferred my one third stake in Arisaig Partners to a family trust that I had established called The Perivoli Trust (Perivoli meaning “garden” or “estate” in Greek).
Twenty years on from then, we started to hand over ownership of the firm to the next generation of employees, on the condition that they did the same to those that followed them; and aged almost sixty, I was left to think about what to do with the wealth that had accumulated into the Perivoli Trust.
Nursery schools in Africa
I don’t think it’s appropriate to prescribe what is the right or wrong thing to do with wealth. But what I can say is, having given away my share in the business already to a Trust (of which I was not a beneficiary) made it much easier for me to think about handing the wealth that it generated on to others. As a family we came to the view that inherited wealth sometimes does more harm than good.
I decided quite early on that I would focus on Africa. Having been born in Uganda I feel great affinity to the continent; and one of my children ended up being cured from an unpleasant illness (anorexia) following a long stay on a game conservancy in Namibia. While she was there, she set up a nursery school for the children who lived in the staff village.
I saw through her eyes the challenges that nursery schoolteachers face due to lack of resources. I also saw how she had solved this challenge by creating play activities out of recyclable waste materials such as old yoghurt cartons, bottle tops, egg trays, loo rolls and the like.
I also began to see the importance of early years education in an African context given the very limited provision on offer, explained in part by poverty but also the lack of understanding of the importance of play. Limited early years education seemed to be influencing primary school dropout rates and early pregnancy amongst the girls. The statistics show that a girl in Africa who reads has two children but one that doesn’t has five.
So I established the Perivoli Schools Trust based very much around my daughter’s experiences. It runs a free, two-year training programme which shows nursery school teachers – in groups of up to thirty at a time – how to organise their classrooms and how to create play and educational activities out of recyclable waste.
The programme began in 2012 and has now trained over 15,000 nursery schoolteachers in Namibia, Malawi, Zambia and Uganda in over 9,000 schools. Although I keep a close eye on it and visit the schools where the teachers work frequently, it is run on the ground by joint CEOs based in Malawi and only employs local people as trainers. In effect, it costs about 3 USD per child per annum to run and has already reached over 600,000 children. Our ambition is to reach 200,000 nursery schoolteachers across nine countries over time which equates to about twelve million children.
I am a strong believer in the power of innovation to address many of the world’s challenges and so I asked the Trustees of the Perivoli Trust to gift some of its wealth to a dedicated impact venture capital trust that they established called Perivoli Innovations.
My job, using I suppose my investment analyst experience, is to select early-stage investment opportunities for the Trustees to consider. Each idea must aim to deliver positive social impact addressing challenges in health, climate, social inclusion or human productivity.
Since its formation in 2016, Perivoli Innovations has accumulated a portfolio of almost seventy investments, in four discrete buckets: science-rich spin-outs from the research departments of UK Universities (including, of course, Bristol); Africa based businesses that leverage the power of the mobile wallet to bring the less well-off into the informal economy; software as a service (SaaS) type businesses; and, more recently, businesses using technology to address the climate crisis.
The idea is that if these businesses are successful then the profits will go to the Perivoli Foundation which is a UK charity I established in 2020. The Perivoli Foundation funds the Perivoli Schools Trust, but also two other Perivoli initiatives – the Perivoli Africa Research Centre and the Perivoli Climate Trust – as well as several, largely founder-led, charities. I am a Trustee of the Perivoli Foundation along with two others including the fellow I met on the beach at Arisaig all those years ago!
Of course, it’s very hard to predict how these super-high risk, early stage, technology-intensive, businesses will fare but for the most part they seem to be doing as well as can be expected at this stage of their journeys. The amount we are ultimately able to give away will depend on the success or otherwise of these investments.
I am also on the board of Bristol Innovations, which aims to promote the commercialisation of the University’s research efforts. This allows me to garner insights into the challenges in translating research to real world purposes but also to see the extent of the potential given the University of Bristol’s very high ranking in research.
Africa Research Centre
I had wanted to find a way of supporting the University of Bristol meaningfully and so approached the then Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, about the possibility of establishing the Perivoli Africa Research Centre in 2018 with a £1 million gift to be disbursed over four years.
The Centre, known as PARC, has evolved in a way I hadn’t really predicted. It’s led by the marvelous Professor Isabella Aboderin as an inter-disciplinary initiative. It champions research projects on Africa-focused topics such as water usage, gender rights, care for the elderly etc. but, crucially, always in partnership with an African University or Research Institution. PARC’s central purpose is to hand choices around policy back to Africa. One of PARC’s goals is to enshrine this approach into a “Perivoli Charter”.
I came to appreciate the significance of climate change rather late but now accept that nothing else really matters. So we have established the Perivoli Climate Trust which aims to fund research into possible climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies focusing particularly on Africa. The projects are run by African universities in collaboration in some instances with academics from Bristol.
We have almost twenty projects already on the go. These are into various ways of reversing land degradation, making farming practices more climate friendly, conserving water, reversing sea pollution, coming up with alternative sources of food. Many of these are very exciting but time is of the essence and so we must hope to attract meaningful third-party support to fund their implementation.
I must hope that some of the initiatives that the Perivoli Trust is undertaking are helpful. What I can say is that it is great fun trying.