First Balloon progamme lifts off in Ghana

Written by Balloon Ghana Fellows Selam, Laura, Efua and Nathaniel 

Ghanaian entrepreneur Winnifred bakes biscuits and sells them to the school children in her village © Lisa Freiburg

Josh Bicknell and Doug Cochrane set up the Balloon programme in 2012, starting in Kenya. In January 2016 the programme’s continued expansion took it to Cape Coast, Ghana where Balloon has partnered with MDF West Africa to work with local entrepreneurs across various sectors. Josh and Lisa, representing MDF West Africa, discuss some of the different experiences with setting up Balloon in Ghana.

Why Ghana? Why Cape Coast?

Josh: “we started in Kenya rather haphazardly actually. Uganda was the next destination primarily because it was next door.  We considered other countries such as Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia but in the end we settled on Ghana for a number of reasons. It was and still is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it’s English speaking so it’s accessible for Balloon fellows and it’s safe. Lisa, an ex-fellow, is based in Ghana and helped paint a much clearer picture of how we might run the programme here.  We chose Cape Coast because it’s home to a lot of entrepreneurial activity, but still outside of the busy capital of Accra.”

Lisa:  “Lot’s of exciting changes have taken place in Ghana recently, with lots of developments happening in the world of business. More foreign companies are entering the Ghanaian market, creating more of a demand for different goods and services . More attention is now given to entrepreneurship, especially young entrepreneurs. Ghana has a high number of young people, Cape Coast in particular is home to a number of popular schools and because of its history, there’s a lot of potential for tourism.” 

What differences have you found between entrepreneurs in Ghana compared to those in Kenya? Are attitudes different?

Josh: “In Ghana, we are working with a more formally educated set of entrepreneurs. We are also working with a higher percentage of start-ups  as opposed to established small businesses.”

Lisa: “Starting a business in Ghana seems ‘cool and trendy’ but some people do not seem to understand what this really entails. In Ghana, there are a number of successful entrepreneurs that young people aspire to emulate.  Generally entrepreneurs in Ghana appear to be more socially oriented than in Kenya – there is also a notable trend of businesses started by young Ghanaians who have schooled abroad.”

Were you worried about coming to Ghana, having never visited before?

Josh: “No, we used exactly the same method for recruiting fellows and entrepreneurs, only the destination is different.  Actually, I found that there were actually more similarities than differences between Ghana and Kenya than I had initially expected.”

“The entrepreneurs are of similar ages and the types of businesses they’re interested in are similar.”

“There are different motivations perhaps; in Cape Coast being an entrepreneur is more attractive than working for someone else. In Nakuru,  many people are driven to be entrepreneurs because there aren’t as many jobs.”

“I think the main thing we are looking for in our entrepreneurs is commitment.”

Did anything surprise you?

Josh: “It’s a lot hotter than I thought it would be!”

“There’s a lot more music and activity – it’s louder. I suppose the one thing I was slightly worried about was whether or not entrepreneurs buy into the programme. The way the Balloon programme works is quite unique, and it can be hard to communicate this sometimes.”

“The cost of living was also a concern – how do we determine the amount that should be available for the pitch? There are some clear differences; for example, renting property. In Ghana it’s not uncommon to have to pay for rent upfront for 2 or 3 years. This is something we had to take into consideration. But, the reasons we started Balloon in the first places are definitely evident here: lack of access to affordable finance; lack or product differentiation and room for quick, rapid development.”

Lisa: “I was surprised that people have very set ideas about where they want to start their business and it’s not necessarily linked to where family or friends are based. I have found that entrepreneurs  I expected to excel are struggling to embrace the Balloon approach and vice versa. These things are difficult to predict.

Do you think that fellows in Ghana need different skills to fellows in Kenya did?

Lisa: “That is a difficult question:in my experience, people say that Ghanaians are harder to read than Kenyans so it takes a little longer for them to open up. In Kenya there are more examples of innovation so there was more inspiration for the fellows. In Ghana, fellows need to be more creative and push entrepreneurs for innovative ideas.”

“Religion plays a more important role in Ghana than in Kenya. There seems to be a lot more externalisation of positive and negative circumstances; many things are God’s doing: this may affect the level of ownership and control that young entrepreneurs feel they have over their business.”

Are there any notable differences in the Ghana-based programme?

Lisa: “New features were added to the programme. We’re exploring economic and social sustainability in Ghana, and encouraging entrepreneurs to think about these ideas. We’re also awarding grants as opposed to loans.

“This year there are more start-ups and university students, this was not a conscious decision, but probably product of the fact that it is a large university town. Also, there is a high rate of unemployment amongst young people; I am assuming that young people worry about being able to find jobs when they finish so want to start businesses as a back up.”

Balloon Ventures will run 2 programmes in Ghana in Summer 2016. Find out more and apply here