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Helping hands

May 2014

An innovative charity has helped to create hundreds of jobs in Africa through virtual volunteer mentoring, helping to transform the lives of thousands through a simple phone call. Liz Jones reports


At the launch of BITC’s Give and Gain volunteering initiative back in January, Stephen Howard, the business charity’s ceo, put the emphasis this year on volunteering skills and experience rather than just time.

That take on volunteering is at the heart of Grow Movement, a charity that pairs up business consultants across the world with businessmen and women in Uganda, Rwanda and Malawi to give advice over Skype, phone and email.

‘Volunteer Consultants’ use their specialist knowledge to share information with anyone from chicken part sellers and tailors in Malawi, perfume shops in Uganda and rubbish collectors in Rwanda and identify areas for improvement, eventually growing the business and creating vital jobs in the community from the comfort of their desks.

It was set up by fund manager Chris Coghlan in 2009 after studying the Rwandan genocide at university and witnessing the extreme levels of human suffering when volunteering in Mozambique, the DR Congo and Rwanda. Frustrated by current methods of tackling world poverty, and seeing how easy it was to get a mobile connection in even the most remote areas, he identified a way to utilise this to empower business owners.

The charity has now helped to create almost 500 jobs – 84 in Rwanda, 27 in Malawi and 371 in Uganda - with the aim of creating another 1,000 jobs by 2015. Through this success, approximately 15,216 people have been positively affected – be they families, children, friends or the wider community. 21 % of the businesses involved have also evolved from micro to small businesses, and 41% have seen an increase in profits.

Ceo of Grow Movement Claire Jenkins, a former international fruit product manager for Tesco, has seen first-hand the difference that experienced advice can make to businesses. She tells the success story of Jean Claude, an entrpreneur in Rwanda who initially told his volunteer mentor that his business plan was to secure a loan for $300,000 to set up a mobile toilet business. His mentor advised him to rethink and with careful remodeling, Jean Claude now runs a waste business employing 26 people.
Currently the organisation has 500 volunteers. A third are in the UK, one third in the US and Canada and the rest of the world accounts for the remainder (although 10% are in India).

Jenkins told Ethical Performance that there is a strict criteria for being a volunteer mentor: “We have very high standards because we want people with lots of dedication and commitment as well as loads of business experience. Generally our volunteers do have a higher age profile because of that level of experience. We find this age profile are also more patient and tolerant.”

Survivalist entrepreneurs
In Uganda the charity works with Enterprise Uganda, a heavily subsidized government agency. They provide start up training for 5000 people a year. In Malawi it works with the National Association of Business Women and in Rwanda it works with a variety of partners including the Danish ngo, Educate, an organisation that focuses on start-up training.
Volunteers are dealing with survivalist entrepreneurs, says Jenkins. “The impact volunteers can have on such businesses is phenomenal. If a business can hire just one or two more people, that’s a massive change.”

Volunteers need to be able to adapt to cultural differences and be aware of the need to be very clear in their communications. For example, price promotions are simply seen as a way of losing money rather than a way to drive sales and copy-cat businesses pop up within days of anyone coming up with a new idea.

Mentoring is done over the phone or by Skype and therefore the possibility of miscommunications is high. Jenkins tells the story of a woman running a very small chicken farm in Uganda who when asked for a business plan thought the mentor was wanting to steal her business idea. Another entrepreneur in Rwanda when asked about her financial details, failed to understand that the mentor wanted to know if her business was profitable, not insult her.

“Awareness that you are dealing with someone from a different culture is very important,” Jenkins emphasizes. “You need to ensure that the person you are mentoring is understanding what you are saying. Very often the local culture dictates that asking questions is insulting, a factor that can get in the way of effective mentoring.”

Following a career in private equity at Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, Ryan Wagner has been a volunteer with Grow Movement more than once now. His involvement stemmed from his desire to work with small businesses in developing markets and by chance came across Grow’s website.

The real challenge
Wagner says that working with Rwandan entrepreneur, Martial, and his farming business, was predominantly about getting Martial organised. “Martial is a bright, ambitious, young guy who has a lot of ideas, we worked towards focussing and honing in on specific goals and finding a real path for his business,” he says.

“The role as mentor is challenging in a different way from I thought,” Wagner admits. “Problems in business aren’t that dissimilar; but in emerging markets it takes more effort to make things happen, to make things work.”

He regards Martial’s ability to become more self-reliant as a major result from his involvement with Grow. “As a consultant, you gain a tremendous sense of empowering someone accomplish their goals, and the experience on both sides is very rewarding. What you have to remember when working as a mentor is it’s about coaching, not solving. That’s a real challenge.”

*BITC’s Give and Gain Day takes place on 15 May 2014. 




Global | Volunteering

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