6 out of 6! Seven Lessons on Business and Life in Kenya

kenya col 1Balloon Kenya: A combination of two of my favourite things – Africa and business. It’s perfect. The prospect of going straight back to east Africa having only just been there for one month over the summer, as well as going there to work with entrepreneurs on the first ever 12 week ICS program was something I couldn’t pass up on.

What is Balloon Kenya?

The program aims to support the 60% of under 35s who are unemployed in Kenya, facing limited prospects for their future. I worked as part of a team of 20 selected volunteers to help local entrepreneurs in expanding, innovating and developing their businesses in the town of Nakuru for 3 months. The placement involved designing, planning, testing and launching business ideas into the real market that supported entrepreneurship through creating sustainable businesses that will benefit the wider community in helping alleviate poverty.

Having now been through the program and arrived back to the UK, I’ve had time to reflect on the path we blazed in Kenya – what went amazingly well and the challenges we faced out there. The program is fulfilling, rewarding but at the same time it can be tough and success can only be found if you are truly driven to pursue it.

After having a tough 1 month in Uganda building a school in the middle of a wildlife reserve without running water, electricity or a bed for that matter I went into the balloon program with a good tolerance level for adapting to change. Even so, the challenges I faced on the balloon program were of a different kind and more personal in nature. The program at its core is about the people and the interactions you have with them – be it hosts, other volunteers or entrepreneurs. If you can do well in this department you will succeed.

I think maybe I could become some kind of wise Balloon Yoda (yet to pitch this idea to Josh)… so consider this blog is my 7 commandments to anyone who is applying or is already on their way to Kenya for the balloon program or anything else for that matter.

How to surf the waves of success on the balloon program:

Before I left the UK on my voyage to Kenya I laid down a gauntlet to my friends. I swore to them that all of the entrepreneurs I was going to be working with would obtain funding when they pitched. Crazy right? Most of my friends believed me because they know how determined I can… however there were some that were doubtful. How could I make such a statement when I hadn’t even started the program yet? I hadn’t even met my entrepreneurs, how could I possibly know that I can do so well with them? I must be nuts… (I may actually be nuts).

There was method to the madness.

The reason I ‘put my foot in it’ so to say is because if I talked the talk, I would have to walk the walk. I love setting myself up for such pressure since it’s when I perform at my best. I am also one of those people who really won’t take no for an answer. I know I can achieve anything that I conceive in my mind.

So after having shown up to Kenya and done exactly what I had predicted, I’ve been able to recognise exactly what my team and I did in order to reach this goal. So here are the 7 key factors that helped my team obtain 6 out of 6 successfully funded entrepreneurs.

My working partners Mutai and Silah standing either side of me
My working partners Mutai and Silah standing either side of me

Lesson 1: Self Confidence (you probably guessed this one)

As much as a cliché as it may seem, I cannot put enough emphasis on bringing confidence to this program. Having confidence will fare you well in a number of contexts; both during work and also when integrating into a new culture. It is an infectious trait and will bring out confidence in others. Confidence is what remains as a driving force you when all else is crumbling; it is what tells people yes when all you are hearing from them is no.

“It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” – Muhammad Ali

From day 1 the mantra I portrayed to my Kenyan working counterparts (Silah and Mutai) was based purely on displaying extreme levels of confidence. It was the only plan I had and it was all I needed. I would always talk to them about how our team are here to set the standard and do the best possible job with our entrepreneurs and we refuse to be outperformed by anyone. This got us psyched up and roaring to go every single day.

This is not to say balloon Kenya is a competition – I understood that we are all there with a common aim, but bringing this competitive approach to volunteering is what I believe can get the best results for everyone across the board. Before we knew it we started calling ourselves the A-team and the world became ours to conquer as we set off on an amazing 3 month journey.

Where we applied confidence:

The Balloon program brings with it many hurdles that need to be negotiated; one of which is having the courage to try out a new business idea whilst having to deal with an array of cultural and business practices that are new to you. A lot is done by the structure of the balloon program to help facilitate your ability to create and pursue new ideas with your entrepreneurs, but at the end of the day the buck stops at you. It’s up to you to have the courage to go into a meeting with a big business, hoping to turn them into a customer, or to meet with somebody from the council or the dean of a university to get them on your side for an event you want to throw. You need to possess confidence to go up to new people in the street who are from a different culture and who often times don’t speak much English in order to sell or get feedback on a product; you need confidence when you go out to win a contract for your entrepreneur knowing you will walk out with the cheque. Most importantly you need to show confidence to your entrepreneurs so they believe in your team and the relationship you forge with them.

If you are the type of person who doesn’t have super levels of confidence, it’s important to note that you can obtain great peer support from other volunteers who can lend a helping hand with executing plans or coming up with new ideas for entrepreneur. Supporting each other is the main way you can achieve the aim you went out for in Kenya and also can help change and develop you as a person. (Have a read of Silah’s blog for an example of this!)

Lesson 2: Listen

Even with a business background, I did not make the mistake of thinking I knew it all when I began training my entrepreneurs. Listen to what they tell you, and also pay attention to the training you yourself receive through the balloon curriculum. By first creating a good relationship with your entrepreneurs and simply asking them questions about their life, circumstances, business and dreams for the future you will be in a better position to help them. Don’t even give 1 ounce of training, advice or input into their businesses until you have listened to what they have to say. This program is only successful if the entrepreneurs you are working with are in a position to continue running the business alone when you are gone, so make sure the business you’re working on with them is in their hearts and not just yours. You will only find this out if you don’t impose yourself or your ideas onto them and give them space to slowly come around to your way of thinking if need be.

This approach will ensure that they pursuing a business that they themselves truly love and not just because you have told them to! It will also set the tone for the program and your relationships with entrepreneurs. This contributes to making a business venture more sustainable in the future more so than you would expect.

Case study: Pharis (The star of my last blog ‘How to start a successful business in less than 3 days’)

The example of Pharis is one that demonstrates a combination of both listening and confidence together. Listening to Pharis was the main reason why we got his new business of selling eggs to work. Nobody else believed a man with a mobile banking shop could sell eggs, but we saw the genius amongst the madness and we weren’t afraid of failure, so we just went for it.


When we last left off the story of Pharis he had a stock of around 80 crates of eggs. Having now received funding he currently stocks 250 crates! (thats 7,500 eggs)… To think that we started with just 10 crates!

He has also created a counter and started offering mobile and agency banking services at his second stall alongside the eggs. Pharis’ ability to continue growing and expanding his business is an amazing display of what is possible on the balloon program.

Now Pharis not only sells eggs but also provides mobile banking services
Now Pharis not only sells eggs but also provides mobile banking services

Lesson 3: Adapt: Remember why you are on the program!

As a volunteer I saw myself as being on the program to take part in something that is primarily over and above my own interests. For me, the aims of the program are what I kept in sight – to alleviate poverty through facilitating entrepreneurship. This was my mantra while I was in Kenya. I tried my best to make sure all actions were firstly pointed towards this goal. If it meant staying up till 4am to finish a pitching document or carrying crates of eggs to help my entrepreneur make a delivery I would do it. If it meant working from 9 till 6 every day and having to deal with many inconveniences in my daily life that I wasn’t used to I learnt to deal with them and become tolerant, because I recognised what I was there for and I never forgot it.

As well as bettering the lives of the communities you are working for, volunteering is an opportunity for you to develop as a person, which is something you can only do if you push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Nobody ever achieved great things inside the boundaries of their comfort zone. Therefore, every time you feel yourself feeling uneasy or being pushed, embrace it and keep in mind how this is helping you to grow and better your abilities to work in a different setting. Breaking through and working outside of your comfort zone will not only be beneficial for you but also for the team – your actions will inspire others and make them believe that they too can work through their own hardships as you have.

Case study: Host homes

Having to adapt to living in a host home is not easy for anyone, even the Kenyan volunteers struggled! You have to mould yourself to a new lifestyle and home setting. Maybe you have to travel quite far to get home every day or you have to walk a fair distance. Maybe you don’t settle in well straight away to sharing a bedroom, maybe you don’t fall in love with the food on day one, or maybe you have a curfew (like me!). However, none of this should matter when you remember you are there to serve a community and learn from them.

I embraced the challenge of becoming part of a new culture. I did this by being adventurous through trying new foods, learning the language, spending quality time learning and talking to my host family and also getting involved with any community projects they themselves were a part of.

I wouldn’t change one thing about my host family. Our host grandma welcomed us volunteers like we were her own grand children, and I’m proud to say I now have a Kenyan Grandma who I will be seeing again very soon.

???????????????????????????????By adapting well to your home setting and embracing change it will set you up well to perform consistently during the program. Be prepared for anything and expect nothing. It will prove to be one of the best elements of the program and something you will never forget. Living on a farm and waking up to the sound of a cockerel calling, eating food that was picked from the land only moments ago, drinking milk fresh from a cow and breathing the fresh air running down from the Rift Valley Mountains reminded me of my time living in rural Uganda and I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Truly perfect.

Lesson 4: Set goals – Aim and shoot

Goals are so important – not only for your personal development, but for the entrepreneurs you are working with. You should talk to them about their goals for this program early on. Identify both their business and personal aims and write them down so you can see them every day. Keep these goals in sight and never forget them as they will keep you motivated. If you manage to achieve these goals not only will you make yourself proud, but you will see your entrepreneurs become the happiest people on this earth which is a truly a humbling experience. What more could you want?

Case study: John and Alex

John and Alex are ‘boda-boda’ drivers from the small town of Lanet just outside of Nakuru. They rent motorcycles that they use for their transport business dealing with passengers and goods alike. Both of them had aims to one day own their own motorcycles so they won’t have the burden of paying to hire them.This gave us a challenge because the cost of a motorcycle was more that the maximum amount of funds they could pitch for with the local credit union (The SAACO). Even so, we believed that if our pitch was strong anything was possible.

We kept the aim in sight and went about with them drumming up new business in the form of obtaining contracts from local businesses who were interested in using their services. This included a variety of businesses such as butcheries, bars/pubs and even a large boarding school. We knew that we needed very strong evidence of demand to present at the pitch in order to give the panel at the credit union confidence that John and Alex will be able to keep up with repayments for their highly priced motorcycles.

This proved successful as John experienced a 103% increase in money coming from contracts and Alex’s contract business increased by 221%! This shined through in their pitches along with their calm and reliable demeanour which meant they were both funded to the tune of 76,000ksh each for the motorcycles.

We forecasted it will take each of them 9 months to repay the interest free loan, after which they will be owners of the asset and will have no leasing expenses. After the 9 months they can expand their service reach through buying more motorcycles and hiring employees. There is also the idea of a motorcycle driving school which is in the pipeline.
One day Alex and John they can have a joint enterprise transport business that can not only provide sustainable income themselves but also opportunities for local unemployed youth to enter the transport industry and learn from what Alex and John have achieved. Aim and shoot!

Lesson 5: Never do things alone and take a step back!

Everything you do with your entrepreneurs should be done with them present and with their approval. It is important for them to gain experience of the task and to keep your trust with them intact. You and your entrepreneurs are a team, so they should feel that they are a part of every decision being made and their input is being valued. Doing this consistently will help you when you come to them with ideas that are more risky, forward thinking and innovative that would otherwise be hard for them to consider. Trust will open up many doors of opportunity.

Remember that after the program your entrepreneurs will be running their businesses without you. As important as it is to be hands on when working with them, it’s just as important to step back and see how your entrepreneurs can fair alone. This is a good test to gauge the sustainability of any new venture you are launching. It could be that the business is working because having you there is giving the entrepreneur considerable confidence and a little too many helping hands! It would be a shame to see a business falter once leaving the program, so remember to be realistic and always think ahead, picturing how things will be when you are gone.

The best ways to do this is to set your entrepreneur a weekly task – one that won’t involve your help. Start off small and easy, for example asking them to research some prices from suppliers. From here you can gradually build up until you get to the point where you’re setting them the task to go out and win new customers for their business without your help. This approach of slowly decreasing your entrepreneur’s dependency on having you there is vital for the aims of the program – so that these businesses can keep growing and become scalable SMEs.


Case study: Joseph, Livingston and Oscar (JLO Designs)

This trio are a very talented group of designers who manufacture handmade sandals and shoes. We learnt early on that they were already very innovative forward thinking and with their products. It was our job to get these amazing products to the people that want them. Although we gave some creative input into the sandal making to give them new ideas for designs and alternative materials, we didn’t try to take control of it. This worked effectively as they kept churning out new designs of sandals and also started to create designs for backpacks and handbags with our subtle ushers of guidance. We took their business and placed it in front of new customer segments by enabling them to exhibit their products at two university campuses and also through a partnership created with another one of our entrepreneurs (Mary) who owns a stall selling clothes in the town centre.

We branded their business, advertised, correctly placed their products, and brushed up their sales technique which led to amazing results. They went from selling and average of 2 sandals per day to selling 18 in the space of 2 hours at a university campus. This proved the demand was present for their products which shined through in their pitch. Through the partnership with Mary and efforts to create more awareness of their new brand they now sell a minimum of 5 pairs of sandals per day as well as having created new products such as their backpacks for which they have obtained many orders.

The future is prosperous for this trio as they take on a shop in the Bondeni Market which they will turn into their new workshop; using the money obtained through funding to buy better machinery, tools and materials to further expand their product offering. There are also staffing plans to teach the younger generation of Manyani the sandal business and begin wholesaling the products.New Picture (17)

Lesson 6 – Consistency is the key to victory

Don’t get complacent with successes; what’s important is to roll in another success straight afterwards. Stay consistent with all of your entrepreneurs and don’t give up on any of them no matter how tough things get. Also don’t let your old habits creep in – follow the process of innovating and idea creation taught to you in training week when things get hard.

Remember you are working in an informal market setting which requires you to adapt to certain ways of conducting business that may be alien to some of you. The key in this setting is to be more personal and create a reputation for yourself as a reliable, trustworthy and hardworking person. Having this reputation amongst the business network you create in Kenya will fare you well when trying to get results. This will also help open up new doors and opportunities that would surprise you and your entrepreneurs – which is why effective networking is so important.

Lesson 7 – Go over and above what is expected of you

For us this is the most important factor that helped our team. We took on as much as work as we could – when there were extra entrepreneurs available I didn’t hesitate to ask for them. In the end we managed 8 businesses (a total of 11 entrepreneurs) because some of the businesses were partnerships. This did not faze us and we managed to pull through, at times using the support of other volunteers to increase our manpower when we got so busy that we literally ran out of hours in the day.

Taking this approach to my interactions with everyone has opened up the gates for an array of opportunities. My host grandma told me early on that she wanted to start a children’s home and feeding program for disadvantaged children in one of the slums of Nakuru. We managed to undertake visits and do detailed research and planning for the launch of ‘The Arc Valley Foundation’ – an NGO that we will be launching this year in Kenya. With the added help of Mutai we plan to launch phase one in a rented premises located in the slum of Ponda Mali within 5 months. After which we plan for the 2017 opening of a purpose built children’s home on a 3-acre plot in the town of Gilgil. The journey will be long and hard but I am confident as always that we can make it a reality.

On top of this I have been able to establish a major business contact in Kenya that I am currently working with to launch something special… but that’s a secret for now.

One thing for sure is that I will be making my 4th visit back to east Africa very soon… so maybe you’ll bump into me in one of the narrow market alleys of Nakuru as a I haggle down the price of a t-shirt, or maybe see me sitting outside on the stoop of the Miti Kubwa Farm watching the cows graze and the sun setting over the mountains.

For anyone about to embark on their own Kenyan adventure I hope that you can see the magic of the beautiful nation for yourself so you can come back with amazing stories of your own. I hope to be a part of Balloon for the rest of my life because of how much I believe in the program. I possess many more incites and detailed strategies that helped me in Kenya – fortunately I was able to share them with many other volunteers and I will happily share them with you, so feel free to contact me and say hello.

Special thanks to the entrepreneurs we worked with:
Mary, Martha, Fridah, Pharis, John, Alex, Nancy, Benson, Joseph, Livingston and Oscar – As well as the UK and Kenya ICS/Balloon staff, too many to name.

Also thank you to everyone who donated to VSO during the lead up to this trip. I told you all I wouldn’t let you down, and that I would come on this program with no other aim except to serve the community I was in Kenya for. I hope I have done this.

kenya col 2If you want to join me on my journey in business or help with The Valley Ark Foundation then you can find me everywhere:

My personal blog for stories and pictures: www.theboulevardofknowledge.com
On Twitter: @shammi_investor
See more pictures and videos of my African journeys on Instagram: sr__13


Shammi Raichura
ICSE Balloon Kenya Volunteer 2014