A Week in the Life of A Balloon ICS Volunteer.

Thomas is a current Balloon ICS volunteer in Jinja, Uganda, and is soon due to return to the UK after 12 weeks working with local entrepreneurs. In this blog post, written during his 5th week in Country, Thomas gives us an idea of what it’s like ‘on the ground’ as a Balloon ICS volunteer.

Week 5 of the Balloon Ventures Program began with a whirlwind of excitement. This week we were tasked with handing in 4 key deliverables for each of our 5 entrepreneurs:

  • Market Research (competitor analysis, existing solutions, surveys of existing and potential customers)
  • key assumptions
  • opportunities being pursued
  • testing plan.

These demands were made doubly interesting by the sheer diversity of types of businesses that Balloon works with (our entrepreneurs include a juice vendor, a farmer and agriculturalist, an IT shop owner, a cereals trader, and a tailor). Each entrepreneur presented different businesses challenges and we needed to employ creativity to work out how to solve these individually.

The early part of the week focussed on these deliverables, starting with conducting Market Research for one of entrepreneurs, a tailor called Rehema. Rehema’s business is a small shop on the outskirts of Jinja town. On our first visit, we had been amazed by the beautiful designs of her hand-crafted shirts, the quality of her tailoring, and her detailed knowledge of all aspects of her industry (from having a good handle on her costs through to the challenges she faced in diversifying her customer base).

Using the tools we’d learned from Balloon’s enterprise curriculum, we started by conducting research amongst Rehema’s existing customers, as well as paying visits to some of her competitors. The bulk of this research revolved around the market for traditional Ugandan wedding attire, which Rehema did not, at that time, make and sell.

This research was invaluable because it expanded our knowledge of the market and a new products; enlightened us to cultural differences between young and old customers, and how they purchased their wedding attire; and revealed an opportunity to improve the value proposition of Rehema’s clothing shop.

To test the findings of this new research, and the opportunity we identified, Rehema will be creating sample garments to sell, which will help us to learn of operational difficulties within the process; identify potential customer demand for the product; and to craft an effective marketing strategy of flyers and leaflets to advertise the new venture to customers.

We performed similar rounds of research, strategy and testing with our other entrepreneurs, including Eric, a cereals trader, whose business was struggling with inconsistent demand and order volumes.

After a busy week working directly with entrepreneurs in their business, the weekend was spent as a whole team on our Mid-Programme Review (MPR). The MPR is a time for volunteers and team leaders to recuperate after an intense first half of the session, to reflect upon our strengths and ways we can solve our challenges, and to have fun. Our MPR was held at Samuka Island, a beautiful offshore retreat in Jinja, approximately 30 minutes by boat ride from Jinja town. Famed for its bird sanctuary, scenic views, and opportunities for diversions such as Kayaking, the MPR was a genuinely memorable experience for all of us volunteers.

Whilst it’s impossible to identify a single highlight of the trip, one session in particular stands out – the working group session. For this, we were put into our working group teams of 3, and tasked with acting out a 3-minute skit of the most dramatic moment our group had experienced thus far. The catch, though, was that we had to act out the event taking the role of our counterparts within the group. There were some interesting approaches to drama here, with some highlights being “The time Annet lost all of the work (a working title!)”, “The magical story of the 20,000 shilling juice” and “The time David went to get a haircut”. Undoubtedly our group put on the best performance – no bias intended.

Outside of the formal sessions at the MPR, I greatly enjoyed the many fun activities like evening campfire sessions, beach volleyball and football matches, or simply swimming in the pool within the resort itself. These activities have strengthened the bond between current Balloon volunteers, as well as our resolve so that we can approach the remainder of the Balloon programme more effectively than ever.

I can’t wait for Week 6!

If you’re interested in becoming a Balloon ICS volunteer, then you can find out more about the programme and how to apply at www.balloonventures.com/balloon-ics/

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