Ballon Kenya: empowering young Kenyans

Witnessing the impact of poverty and unemployment inspired British social entrepreneurs to start a social enterprise in Kenya

In the summer of 2010 I visited Kenya to interview members of the different communities that fought in the 2007-08 post-election violence for my master’s thesis. What struck me most was the impact of poverty and unemployment. Only the poor fighting. Some were paid to fight. Most were fighting for a better and more prosperous life for themselves and their families.

But it wasn’t just the direct results of poverty on the violence that were so troubling. It was the much wider influence on society – the anger and disappointment of the current generation and the fear of what future generations will do. As Betty Odour, the manager of an orphanage with 115 young children said, “I really don’t know what our children are going to do when they finish school. They will have to find work but there are no jobs here. I fear some could end up back on the streets …”

I returned to England understanding the desperate need for jobs across all sections of Kenyan society. At the same time I was increasingly frustrated by the lack of job opportunities in the UK for fellow ambitious young people who wanted to pursue meaningful and exciting opportunities in life. While interning I met Doug Cochrane who was feeling a similar frustration, fed up with being told that he “didn’t have enough experience” for entry level positions. We both had enough friends facing the same challenges to know that there were plenty of others feeling the same way.

Together we decided to set-up Balloon Kenya to address these two social issues directly, believing that the passion and commitment of UK graduates combined with the energy and drive of young Kenyan men and women could be a force for profound change.

For six months we listened to a lot of negativity. People telling us that we were too young and inexperienced to embark on such a challenging mission. That the young people we recruit will not have the knowledge and expertise necessary to create successful businesses.

We are now 14 months into our journey and we have made good progress. We have just finished our first full programme where we brought six university students and recent graduates from the UK to work with around 100 young Kenyans in Nakuru, the fastest growing city in east Africa. For eight weeks we all worked together supporting the Kenyans to develop innovative business ideas and at the end of the programme invested £1400 in seven startup businesses that are now employing over 20 local people – ranging from a computer centre for disabled people to a bike courier service to move goods around town.

Within this model, Balloon Kenya does two things that are particularly valuable. First, we work with those young people who would never normally be able to access funding. We trust exactly the same young people who banks turn away. But we don’t fall into the trap of just focusing on money. We call our approach interactive microfinance. We don’t just offer loans, but offer support for the entire business journey. Encouraging ideas, developing them, funding, mentoring, and applying for expansion loans.

Second, we strongly support the idea of bringing together young people from different backgrounds and traditions to work together because we see on a day-to-day basis that innovation and creativity happens at the margins.

For us the power of entrepreneurship is hugely exciting – it provides jobs and income and builds a better society. Entrepreneurs at the most basic level solve problems. In recent times this has been increasingly forgotten as business has become unbalanced in pursuit of profit. But by encouraging, funding and supporting young Kenyans to solve problems that matter to their communities Balloon Kenya is providing jobs, defeating disadvantage and improving community wellbeing through business, not aid.

People are increasingly arguing for new ways of doing things and seeking a new model of capitalism. Whatever you call it: the triple bottom line, moral capitalism, social enterprise – Balloon Kenya is empowering young people to pursue a model of economic development that values people and planet alongside profits.

Joshua Bicknell is the director of Balloon Kenya.

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