2015, the Rotana Hotel, Dubai, 4am. There I was, lying awake, wondering how it had come to this. As a socially orientated guy, spending time consulting for a morally questionable company in Dubai just seemed completely incongruent with my life goals. It was in the subsequent frustration-inspired web-search that I found the Balloon Ventures Fellows programme (at around 4:17am).
The premise was simple, if selected, you travel to one of Balloon’s programme locations (Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, and the Philippines) for a six-week programme where you “grow business, change lives”. The first week involves meeting the rest of the group and an intensive training programme in entrepreneurship, and innovation.
Following this, you are paired with micro-entrepreneurs from the informal sector (typically living very close to the poverty line). Your role over the next five weeks is to help develop the entrepreneurs’ businesses through applying the tools learnt at the training. At the end of the programme entrepreneurs pitch for a loan to support the idea you have tested together.
I was hesitant. I had read a lot about the damage poor volunteering programmes and dodgy micro-finance has done in the world. Reports of making things worse instead of better alongside the huge opportunity cost that had been wasted. Would this programme be any better?
Coming to the end of my PhD I needed to make a decision on what direction my life would take (academia was a no). I decided that the programme was a great way to meet like minded people, learn more about countries I was interested in and experience what being an entrepreneur was about. As for my concerns on impact, if my fears were realised, at least I would have learnt how not to run a social enterprise. Two days later I applied and within the month I had passed the selection process, I was off to Kenya!
My concerns were alleviated straight from the off. The curriculum was very high quality: despite the PhD, and consulting there was still loads for me to learn. If there is a good way to do volunteering this is it. Everything on the curriculum is a tool to co-create value for entrepreneurs. The narrative of foreigners coming in and telling locals what to do is something Balloon works hard to fight. For example, using the Business Model Canvas, you work with entrepreneurs to map out their business and then develop innovations which can drive growth. Using the Lean Start-up approach, entrepreneurs have a framework to quickly test whether these ideas are good or bad. The pitch for a loan is also completely done by entrepreneurs.
The experience really is mutual. Living in host homes and things like using public transport (not to be compared to UK public transport…) helped to create a deep understanding of the communities we were in. Working at entrepreneur’s work places everyday meant that we were solving the real problems that they faced everyday. It also meant that the ideas we created together were actually relevant. Hearing our entrepreneur’s life stories was also truly inspiring, it brought a whole new light to the idea of ‘first world problems’.
In terms of impact, I’ve kept in touch with the entrepreneurs I worked with. Charles has built his diagnostics laboratory adding around £250 profit per month! Pamela has set up her tailoring business to provide funds for her orphanage and school. Simon has grown his delivery business so that he can deliver timber as well as water. Even more impressive, he is following up with all the ideas we had on the programme that were not related to what we pitched for. The entrepreneurs have used the increased income to continue to grow their businesses or invest in education or healthcare. If this isn’t empowerment and long lasting impact, I don’t know what is.
The microfinance was also like nothing I had read about before, a true testament to how dedicated Balloon is to helping entrepreneurs. It is interest free (not even inflation is taken into account!); given without a guarantee; and is given on a flexible repayment schedule. This means that entrepreneurs benefit 100% from the growth of their business; even if they fail they are not pushed into debt; and they can pay back the loan when is best for them and their business.
It’s no surprise that I returned to the UK slightly disappointed that life was back to ‘normal’. In my time as a PhD student I did an internship at the World Health Organization, went on a Fellowship to Harvard University, and undertook freelance consulting. The Balloon Fellowship was the most valuable experience both personally and professionally. Perhaps that’s why, a month after returning to the UK, I joined Balloon to lead on our Insight & Impact work!