A heated debate: Balloon ICS should only work with sustainable businesses

Curriculum Training brought up its fair share of interesting topics but this has to be the most controversial of them all. After three days of torrential rain the sun finally came out and it’s safe to say that things got heated. Faced with this statement, consciences came in to play and ideologies clashed from the go. We were split into two groups: for and against, regardless of personal standpoint, and given 5 minutes to formulate our arguments.

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Curriculum training – not just a time for learning, but also a chance to air our opinions and work with Balloon to make it the best organisation it can be

Those “For” came out all guns blazing with some strong points. They argued that, as a sustainable development agency, Balloon should not be involved with unsustainable projects. The volunteers pointed out that Balloon’s reputation could be threatened, were it found to be involved in unsustainable business practices. The whole point of a UK organisation coming to Kenya is to help the country grow economically without making mistakes, whether it be to do with the environment or business morality, that will jeopardise its long term success. The UK is where it is now after a long process of trial and error and needs to bring its expertise to a country that is at a crucial stage of its development. It would therefore be irresponsible to participate in or encourage unsustainable business practices.

Given their turn, those “Against” flipped the argument on its head, posing the simple question: ‘If we only work with sustainable businesses, what impact are we really having?’ They argued that the organisation’s focus should be on economic and social empowerment. To refuse to work with businesses that do not operate sustainably would be to deny the much needed expertise to those who need it the most. With 95% of Kenya’s businesses operating in the informal sector, an area much less bound to the rules and regulations that we are used to in the UK, expecting businesses to think sustainably would be misguided. This is particularly the case when the owners of these ventures rely on them completely for their livelihood. Can people really be expected to think about the environment or their social impact when they are struggling to put food on the table?

With both arguments laid out, trainer Ellie encouraged us all to think about whether we would simply refuse to work with an entrepreneur, denying them the chance to improve their livelihood, because we deemed their business to be unsustainable.

It was a case of ideology versus practicality but in the end the decision was unanimous. As we broke out of our pre-determined roles we all agreed that only working with already sustainable businesses would be an unrealistic aim. Rather our mission should be to make sure that sustainability one day becomes part of the agenda for our entrepreneurs. We ended up re-phrasing the statement:

Balloon should only work with businesses that have the ability and desire to become sustainable in the future.

Highlighting the value of the debate, many were left questioning their understanding of what sustainability actually means…

Next week we’ll be going out in the field talking to our entrepreneurs to find out what sustainability really is in the context of Kenya’s informal sector.

Christophe Walder, Balloon ICS, Eldoret

Quality training and guided learning means that our volunteers can support ICS projects effectively and understand how they contribute to a wider programme of development work.

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