Thursday 4 August 2016

Balloon Ventures

Remember our students who signed up for the Balloon Ventures volunteering programme?  The seven students are spending six weeks of their summer in a developing country, helping local communities to devise, develop and launch new businesses that will improve their community wellbeing as a whole.

Miguel Pascual Acheson, who graduated this summer from our BA Creative Writing degree, is over half way through his stint in Akuefe, Ghana. He has written a blog detailing his time in Africa, which is online in full here.

He writes: “With almost one week left to go, the program’s nearly over. Over the next few days, we’ll visit our entrepreneurs one last time, say our goodbyes, and finish putting together our pitch documents. Each of us will sit down with our programme co-ordinator and team leader and we’ll reflect on the program. What did it do for us? Do we think we did well?

“The program started with a crash-course on entrepreneurship. In truth, it started earlier. We landed in Accra, travelled to Ho, got to know the town and each other and dined at a hotel for teachers. Then the course began. We attended class from 9 to 5 for a week, learning entrepreneurship theory and revelling in case studies, both from Balloon Venture’s history and outside it. There were also practical activities. In one of them, we formed groups, thought up a business idea from scratch and roamed Ho, searching for interest. It was invigorating. Before this course, I had little business knowledge to speak of – I’ve just graduated with a Creative Writing degree. This was what helped me catch up with the Economics students on my program, and it made us relative equals.

“When the course ended, we met our entrepreneurs. First of all, we conducted seminars on the basics of business planning, entrepreneurship theory and finances. They were similar to the ones we were part of the week before. This was us passing our new knowledge onto them. After two hour-long sessions, we started meeting them on one-to-one bases. Some of them were running shops. Others only had an idea. We outlined ways they could innovate on their businesses and optimise their plans. As means to this end, we ran through several models with them, such as Business Model Canvases and SWOT analyses. We accompanied them through their development. Now we’re in the final stages of our time with them. Our next meetings with each of them will be our last. Completing their pitch documents means wrapping things up. It almost feels too soon. We’ve promised to stay in touch, though.

“Last week, we had to drop a few of our entrepreneurs. They were far behind on market research and testing, leaving them unprepared for pitching. We have moved on to next month’s program, though, where they’ll engage with a new set of volunteers. The entrepreneurs that stayed with us, though, have all found ways to expand and strengthen their businesses. They took full advantage of the program’s opportunities. Now it’s time for them to build up on their enterprises and hatch their ideas. If they succeed, it’ll be because of their hard work. We were only there to help.

“We didn’t just work with them. On many weekends, we travelled or at least got to know Ghana. Two weeks ago, we visited the Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary and then hiked a mountain to Wli falls, the largest cataracts in West Africa. We spent last weekend at a cheap beach resort in Ada Foah. This chunk of Ghana felt worlds apart from Ho, with its gargantuan palm trees, rickety huts and cream-coloured shore.

“For the most part, though, we stayed in Akuefe. It’s a village five minutes from Ho by car. We were treated to dinner every night by the chief and his cooks. Usually, it was traditional Ghanaian food, but some of us took up the task of cooking for the village. We stayed in host homes dispersed across the village. One of them belongs to the chief. The rest are unoccupied during the summer or looked after by select villagers. We have electricity and beds. The shower in our house doesn’t work, but, over the past few weeks, I’ve become used to bucket showers. We also have communal hand-washing sessions each Sunday, with the villagers teaching us the ropes. I am consistently tired in Ghana – some say it’s the change in environment – and it’s still overwhelmingly different to home sometimes, but I feel safe here. The kids have learned our names. I am almost one of the villagers.

“There were two reasons why I signed up for Balloon Ventures. The first was to challenge myself. I applied on the deadline out of impulse as I figured it was something new to do this summer. It was only before, during and after my phone interview with Matt from Balloon that I understood what the opportunity was. I fell in love with the idea of landing in a foreign country with total strangers doing things I’d never had the chance to do. There were challenges I hadn’t expected but I was met with challenges I hadn’t yet conceived of before arriving. The second reason was that I wanted to help, even if just as an extra pair of hands. I hope I did. At the very least, I tried, and I hope future Northampton students get the chance to do so as well.”

Thanks to the continued commitment of Santander and the Centre for Employability and Engagement, the University of Northampton was able to sponsor the cost of all participants by paying the full cost of the programme, with students only needing to cover the cost of flights and any spending money they wish to take.

Wray Irwin, Head of the University Centre for Employability and Engagement, commented: “The Balloon Kenya experience is a unique opportunity for our students to develop new skills and improve their employability. We are incredibly grateful to Santander whose sponsorship of this year’s programme has ensured that we can offer more students this opportunity.”

Seven University of Northampton students are taking part in Balloon Ventures this year. Brian Waweru, Rosalie Tshimanga and Stephanie Nixon will be volunteering in Kenya, Kimberley Nguyen and Mohammed Alkhafajiy are heading to the Phillipines, and Alysha Burrell and Miguel Pascual Acheson have been working in Ghana.

You can read more information of what the experience entails at www.balloonkenya.com.

Pictured: a selection of Miguel’s photos from Ghana. Group photo:Our Balloon Ventures participants for 2016, left to right – Mohammed Alkhafajiy, Stephanie Nixon, Rosalie Tshimanga, Brian Waweru, Miguel Pascual Acheson, Kimberly Nquyen and Alysha Burrell.

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