“Challenges are good. They are the only way to grow”

The Balloon Learning Process.

One afternoon I was strolling about on campus when I received a link from a friend. It was from an organization I had never heard of. It was a link to apply to Balloon Ventures as a Kenyan volunteer. I went through the Balloon website. The organization helps local entrepreneurs in Kenya to support their businesses through the help of trained Kenyan and UK volunteers based on an entrepreneurship curriculum. I casually applied, not thinking much of it – and I was afraid it might be a scam. I write this with embarrassment. It was a time of frenzy on campus, with people applying for jobs and internships left and right.

Fast forward and a month later I was called for assessment. The assessment day was like nothing I had experienced before. There were team activities, tests and an individual interview. It was challenging yet enlightening. I remember that after leaving, I went for some stew chicken, happy about the outcome of the day. I was hopeful about the outcome of the assessment and quite intrigued as to how the assessment had been conducted. Differently.

Before I raise your expectations, let me give you a sneak preview of my short and rather disappointing CV. I failed accounts terribly after high school. I enrolled for a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) course. I disappointed many. In school, business studies had never been among my favourite subjects. I always cringe when I remember trying to cram the words products and utility in my first year of high school. I jumped ship to do Agriculture and quit business. Too many terminologies and technicalities in business, I then thought. Interestingly I have always admired people who run their own businesses. Business owners are their own boss and have the freedom to manage their time. They are a major contributor to the outcome, a factor you don’t necessarily find in employment.

Things were moving fast. One week later, I reported to the program as a Team Leader! My suitcase and I to Njoro. We underwent one week training.

I started nursery school in 1994 and I completed my undergraduate studies in 2015. Over the two decades I have been in school, the way we have been taught in Kenya has been quite similar, except for one or two special cases (I am speaking for public schools). Teacher comes to class, gives notes. We take them down and then cram for exams. It is a rote learning system. I enjoyed learning in nursery and lower primary since there were charts on the wall with many drawings and illustrations. It made the learning process more fun and quite simple. Same as the small storybooks that were in the library in primary school. From class 4 up to the completion of my degree, learning has been an uphill task. Sometimes a battle between quitting and retreating to the family farm or staying in school not to disappoint my father.

But what if you were in an environment where you found learning to be fun and fulfilling?

When I met Josh, I thought he was a UK volunteer, until I was told he was the CEO and founder of Balloon Ventures. Since day one, he was amiable, down to earth and very approachable. I must say he took my annoying habit of asking too many questions quite well. I asked him questions incessantly. Where was he from? Did he have a girlfriend? Did he consider himself a geek? Why Kenya, and in particular Nakuru, and not Namibia or Uruguay – and many more other questions. I am digressing.

Josh took a completely different approach to learning. We were 28 volunteers in the training and we were encouraged to participate. It was a Socratic approach where he put up an idea and volunteers were to give their views. It encouraged critical thinking and, with time, confidence. As I said earlier, I had tried to pursue CPA and I had failed. The approach used was: give notes, go cram and see you on exam day. It was a tense environment since personally I found it hard to ask questions, for the fear of being seen ignorant.

At Balloon, we were to study a curriculum on entrepreneurship that we would then proceed to apply with our entrepreneurs. The 103 paged book was quite basic. It covered all major topics under business; a business model canvas, finances, sales and marketing, and revenue.

Better still, it had topics that are not necessarily contained in traditional business courses, but that successful businesspeople apply in real life. Some of these include causal and effectual reasoning when creating a business, a failure CV to show what one felt they had failed at – in their personal and professional lives. The marshmallow challenge – my favourite – a challenge that encouraged teamwork and learna bout prototyping. To crown it all, there were places in the book to draw and great simple drawings that made you more attentive. It is a solution to question long posed in boardrooms and staffrooms – how do we make adults be attentive? Going back to the basics. Nursery school.

Being in that class reminded me of my nursery school days when I was curious to learn. I felt sad for the many Kenyan students who quit education prematurely not because they wanted to, but because they find it hard to cope with the tough terrain that is the Kenyan 8:4:4 system (8 years in primary school, 4 years in secondary/high school and 4 in university).

There were many breaks and many of the tasks we did were in groups. We interchanged to ensure everyone got to work with everyone else. To a great extent, I felt that this week set the tone for the coming weeks by challenging assumptions and prejudices, by trying to work with everybody. This set a stage where everybody felt that their voice and opinions counted in the discourse. Most significantly, we learned that mistakes are avenues made to learn from and that failure is not the end, but just the beginning. The class made me feel comfortable to learn.

Over the next few weeks, we intermingled with different people including the UK volunteers. By keenly observing both the UK volunteers and the Kenyan volunteers, you realise that you can join dots on the way people behave vis-à-vis the education they receive. Education in the sense of their approach to learning rather than academics.

An observation I have made from the UK volunteers is that they are more talkative, quite confident and are not afraid to ask questions. Their approach to a conversation makes them learn more. One thing I absolutely loved is how the majority of them came with books and that they are in the process of reading at least one at a time. I know one who has read only one book since week one and has not finished it but she’s still reading, yet we are in week six. Reading makes us more diverse and open-minded and this in turn makes us able to have different discussions and also cultivate empathy. Not to say that there were no Kenyan volunteers doing the same, but we remain challenged.

As a volunteer, over the last six weeks I have learned about one very crucial aspect that can help us in personal growth and development and that is quite interconnected with the learning process. Taking criticism positively – or rather professionally – with a brave face and working on it. On several occasions, I have been on the receiving end of such criticism due to mistakes that I made and shortcomings on my part. Initially I would take it personally and I felt that I was being ‘targeted’, as Kenyans would love to say, but I have learned to challenge my assumptions – this is one of the favourite phrases here at Balloon. Challenging my assumptions means asking “what have I done wrong?”, “How can I improve?” but more importantly, is asking myself how I can sustain the positive change – how it can be more permanent?

One example is that I am clumsy and quite result oriented. Not process oriented. Another thing I learned with Balloon. I am more interested in the finished product as opposed to the process and this makes me more of a last minute person. As I have always been told by my father, as you grow older, there are more responsibilities, you cannot juggle everything if you’re not organized. I challenged my presumption of being a last minute person and I decided to slowly, bit by bit, be more organized in my undertakings.

In the field meeting entrepreneurs, we have to see their businesses and they have to come up with ideas as to how they will improve before and after they receive funding. It is our role to assist them in the idea generation process. The creative process becomes easier if you are open- minded and willing to learn. You also become quite flexible.

Six weeks down and four to go. It’s a challenging environment. When I think of it at times, I see Balloon Ventures as a small school – a mini university to all those who have a hand in it. The entrepreneurs learn from the volunteers, the founders and coordinators learn from the volunteers, but overall it’s the volunteers who take home the greatest part of the loot. Young people who haven’t previously had much responsibility juggling between their homes, entrepreneurs, fellow volunteers and coordinators. It’s a challenging environment that calls for flexibility and open-mindedness, challenging assumptions each and every day and doing away with prejudices.

What I have personally learned is that challenges are good. They are the only way to growth. That is what education is meant to do.

In a nutshell, for long my education system has been like a donkey who is given strokes to work harder. These strokes include actual strokes of the cane, fear of failing, fear even of trying and general uncertainty. Confusion and chaos have been the order of the day. It has been a least encouraging process where we are not expected to thrive and learn, but rather survive for the next entry… university, a job etc.

And here is the paradigm shift. At Balloon, the donkey has a carrot dangled in front of it. You work without necessarily knowing you are working. It is more about independent thinking and taking responsibility. You feel you’re in the driver’s seat rather than the passenger’s seat. There has been an immense paradigm shift. This process has incentives and you are able to see growth each day.

That day I decided to open the link and apply was not in vain.

Samuel Matundura – Kenyan Team Leader, Njoro, Jun-Aug 2015