The Business of Sustainability

If you regularly read the Balloon Blog (and I recommend that you do!), you may remember a post about an inspiring woman called Metrine Akinyi who set up the first school in her community in western Kenya – Eagle Vision High School. I was a volunteer in the group that supported Matrine and having been back from Eldoret for a few months, I want to update you on her progress, share some of my reflections and give you an opportunity to help directly support the school!

Pitch day (6 months ago)

Pitch day is a tense day for everyone, especially the entrepreneurs who have put so much work into the idea they believe in. Metrine was one such entrepreneur. She was feeling the nerves because she knew she had so many people depending on her to secure the loan; her current students, her staff and the families in the area whom she felt she had an obligation to be able to keep her promise of setting up a fully functioning secondary school for. She had put a lot of her own savings into covering the initial start-up costs and though she had managed to recruit eleven students, many of them were unable to pay their full school fees – and with rent and staff wages to cover, Metrine was beginning to worry that her business was not sustainable. The traditional school fees system was not going to work in this community.

There was no quick-fix solution, though that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a viable business there, one that offered a significant benefit. Income was never assured due to Jasho being such a poor area, so it was going to be impossible to prove in our pitch that we could guarantee funds. From conducting research into the four primary schools in the area we found that they survived on the basis of overseas donations from long-term supporters and charities.

This inspired us to come up with a 3-pronged approach for the future;

  1. Metrine would continue to recruit new students who would continue to pay as much of their fees as possible
  2. She would begin lobbying local authorities to see what bursaries were available to struggling families and meanwhile
  3. I would set up a charitable aspect to the school from back home in England (this is where you come in).

We were nervous on pitch day because it was a non-traditional business model, one that walked the line between entrepreneurship and charity. Luckily, Metrine kept good financial records and succeeded in convincing the panel that paying back the loan would be a priority. She was awarded the funds to cover the coast of building a second, much-needed classroom but before any building could begin, it was time for me and the rest of the UK volunteers to go home.

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6 months later…

Metrine has faced a lot of obstacles since we left, including her landlady changing her mind about allowing them to build on the land and more families being unable to pay fees than she expected. Meanwhile I have been working and travelling in Asia – meaning that not only have all 3 people working on the charitable element (me, a web developer and Metrine) being on different continents, but I’ve been also pretty distracted. For a while, facebook conversations between us became further and further apart and to my shame, I think Metrine began to think that our three-pronged approach might be down to two.

Finally though, all the kinks in the website were ironed out and it was ready to go. We held a little fundraiser in a local bar in Manchester, where we sold cakes and second hand clothes I bought in the markets in Eldoret, and we told people about the website and how they could help. Now we have our first funds ready to send over to the school and Metrine is making strides with developments for the new term in January.

The Eagle Vision High School sponsorship website is a simple website where people can find out more about the project and also choose to donate money. Donors have the option of sponsoring a student through one year of tuition, one term of tuition or a year of school textbooks via Paypal; money goes straight into the school bank account, which is managed by an independent Community Based Organisation (CBO) who will make sure the money is allocated fairly. Sponsors have already started to get on board, but it has been a long 6 months…

Some reflections..

Sustainability is built in to the Balloon model of development. It is at its very core and I think one of the reasons many fellows choose the programme over other volunteering opportunities. People are gradually becoming more aware of the dangerous repercussions of participating in short-term ‘voluntourism’ (the name coined for projects that allow well-intentioned travellers to take part in projects they are underqualified for and do not have enough time to commit to overseas) and they look to leading thinkers like Balloon to come up with a sustainable alternative.

If you wish to continue to support your entrepreneurs after you leave your balloon placement, I’ve learned the key is continued communication. When you’re on the programme you meet almost daily to tinker with and improve the ideas that you’re testing together, and the same commitment is needed once you’re back home. Only by talking can the entrepreneur know that you’re still committed to the plan and can you know that they’re still invested too. Metrine and I talk at least once a week now to discuss plans for the sponsorship money and I keep her updated with how much interest we have had from potential sponsors. If all goes well we should be able to fulfil the promises made in pitch, and preserve Balloon’s impressive record of funding businesses that go on to be successful and sustainable.

You can sponsor one of the bright students at Eagle Vision High School at – http://eaglevisionschool.org/

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