Experience strengthens local Business Clinic in Uganda

“We don’t really know how to sum it all up but it was an amazing experience and one that we can’t really articulate to others apart from saying – ‘go try it and see for yourself because then you’ll understand’. Our only hope is that the people we came into contact with gained at least half as much from our meeting as we did. If they did then we can say “mission accomplished” and thank you Big Beyond.” (Pete & Jenny June 2012)

And, yes they did! Everyone from here definitely shouts thank you : ) This blog is a bit delayed as I’m busy running around Africa but I’ve been so eager to update you on some more recent amazing volunteers! So here we go for now…

Big Beyond’s remote Ugandan site radiates an impressive entrepreneurial spirit and the emerging community ‘Business Clinic’ has taken a positive step forward with foundations strengthened by our recent business guru volunteers, the fabulous couple Pete and Jenny – they took the baton from volunteer Christina and worked to advance the vision of a local hub for enterprise projects and knowledge sharing with the goal of driving sustainable income generation across the community, creating a platform for both men and women.

Let me tell you a little about Pete and Jenny first. They’ve both reached a late career stage and this was the first time for them to do anything like this. The philosophy behind both their career histories and their current consultancy is an understanding that people generally get into business because they have a good idea – not because they are good at business. They act as mentors and see the role of a mentor to understand this and allow others to fast track their own growth by utilising the experience, knowledge and wisdom which only comes from the experience of actually having ‘done it’ – and not just reciting text books. Pete and Jenny have been instrumental in developing programmes of significant change to the strategy and structure of diverse companies in their past – always with a focus on the customer and the marketplace. Coming here to Uganda was the chance to apply their corporate skills in a totally different and challenging context.

Pete brought with him a wide range of incredible experience across marketing, communications, brand and product development, SME business consultancy… in the automotive and motor-sport industry mainly, formerly marketing director at Dunlop and much more. Jenny brought a wide range of sales, marketing, training, project management and events experience and together they now run a consultancy to support many SMEs with their collective expertise. Jenny also has a passion for teaching and is studying for TEFL. Collectively they shared invaluable experience with different projects on the ground here.

“Settling back into normal life feels quite strange and the more we tell people here about our experiences the more we realise just how fortunate we have been to have spent time with the communities in Rubuguri and Nombe and how privileged we were to have been embraced by so many strangers who soon became friends and not just acquaintances.”

From our perspective, it’s fantastic to meet more motivated and adventurous individuals enjoying life to the full and stepping a little outside their norm. We’re here to support that. Many people think volunteering ‘isn’t for me’ but at Big Beyond we’re constantly blown away by the diversity of volunteers joining the team from around the world and the growing popularity of the skills-based volunteer experience from people at all stages of life – it’s so rewarding for us and the community to see more and more people realise volunteering abroad isn’t only for the traditional young ‘gappers’… and that it’s an incredible opportunity out there for anyone with the motivation. And, enriching to see how much each individual adds to the bigger picture. The team and community here are looking forward to meeting others in the coming months taking annual leave or a sabbaticals to volunteer with us at Big Beyond in Africa.

So I recently arrived at our Uganda site to catch up with the team and project partners – brilliant to see everything in action after lots of hard work from the volunteers so far, as well as the Big Beyond team in the UK and Africa. I’ll report back more over the next few weeks from here and Malawi where I’m off to next.

The knowledge and experience that Pete and Jenny shared with the people here has without a doubt been incredibly valued and something that will genuinely stay with the people they worked with. We all have to work hard to build on that. At the moment in this site there are very very few business plans in place, yet many ideas and potential floating around. Pete and Jenny certainly planted the seed for a stronger basis on which to build a thriving local economy here – and with the help of other volunteers over the next few years we all look forward to seeing loads of success stories. This project is still at early stages though and evolving by the day. Step by step. The aim of the Business Clinic is partly to localise the tourism value chain and help different groups and individuals tap into it’s income potential as it grows here, as well as look at added value of various agricultural produce for both local and tourism markets.

Right now the UK team are working hard to bring together diverse minds, very different experiences, cultures and ideas through carefully designed volunteer placements. A huge aim of ours is to help to drive grassroots economic development for the people of Bwindi – and at our other sites we have the same goals. The power of knowledge should be far greater than the power of short term financial aid and ad hoc ‘workshops’ if we’re strategic and build local capacity well through engaging environments to enable positive impacts well into the future.

It’s all about enabling the local people to find a platform to stand on their own two feet. We want to reduce the need for external support and ultimately boost better livelihoods. We’re beyond financial handouts… towards capacity building through skills, knowledge, ideas and motivation.

“On arrival the tasks seem impossible to comprehend but with a bit of expert guidance from the guys on the ground you start to realise that if you can contribute just one more brick in the wall you will have made a small contribution to the overall task…. Having said all that, we think we managed to complete all the goals which were set form us and those we set ourselves and amazingly we think we also achieved a few more milestones as well” (Pete)

Big Beyond are eager as ever to recruit a big range of volunteers that have ‘done it’, whatever their industry background, and are willing to share what they’ve learnt to offer the low income entrepreneurs a real platform to excel and build the prosperity of their community. By facilitating the link between different volunteers, local groups and individuals, we hope to see enterprises evolve and watch this community become a model for others.

As Pete found out during his stay with us it’s really essential to develop a ‘hub’ through which business support is channelled rather than a plethora of disparate routes. Pete and Jenny said that they believe the ‘Business Clinic’ (I put it in inverted commas because we’re still debating the name!?) provides an excellent foundation for future developments.

Some of their work involved discussing simple business planning tools with pilot members of the ‘Business Clinic’ and community bank reps. They were helping build relationships between the community bank and the local business community. A key point they stressed to everyone was that no-one knows all the answers but the combined intellect and experience of the members will be extremely powerful and provide the answers to just about any business challenge they might face. They also ran sessions at schools on ‘the definition of business’ and ‘what makes business work’.  An indication of the reception enjoyed by the presentations is that both schools are keen to start Business Clubs within their schools and the Big Beyond team are committed to helping move this forward.

“You arrive on site with Western ideas of getting things done but you soon realise that this is Africa and the way forward is one step at a time and making sure that you are taking everyone with you at every single step.  As we said at the time – you can eat an elephant but don’t try and swallow it all at once – take it in bite sized chunks!”

This week on site we’ve had some more good progress. The local stretcher group of the Big Beyond house area (they’re made up of local community leaders and effectively a members support group) are considering lending their organisation’s building as the venue for the Business Clinic. The views from the building are awesome, enabling members to be inspired, gaze over the sweeping hills of Bwindi forest and the sharp line that defines the national park and community cultivation right up to its borders. One of the big issues of concern. I’ve had various meetings over the last couple of weeks looking to evolve the concept. Cheryl, an Australian volunteer, amongst others we’re excited to welcome next week, is actually tasked with setting up a women’s arm of the Business Clinic as so far it’s been hugely male dominated. Looking forward to seeing that progress a lot.

We’re lining up local guest speakers to inspire and motivate those people with very little that are perhaps starting from scratch and have little confidence. They’re going to help instill that ambition, confidence and belief in other people to go for it, alongside volunteers – leading by example. It’s a place where new ideas can be formed, ‘sick’ businesses can be addressed and existing enterprises can be strengthened. The Big Beyond team are scheduled to have sessions a few times a week, including a panel of ‘business doctors’ that will participate in brainstorming sessions. Most of our volunteers will have a place on the doctors panel if they’re keen to get involved, which helps deliver the BBBC diverse skills, even if it’s not the main placement focus. So I’ll keep the everyone posted after Saturday’s meeting anyway to see the decision of this stretcher group on the venue. Fingers crossed! The venue’s perfect. And could be the start of some really exciting developments here.

So thank you again from the team and local community here to Pete and Jenny for being such valuable short term members of the Big Beyond team!! And good luck to the guys that are here now and coming shortly with its next stage.

“I know that this experience will stay with me for many years and I hope to be able to provide further input from home and maybe even come back and see you all again in beautiful Bwindi” (Pete)  

“I have so enjoyed my stay in Uganda. I am sure I am going to take more away with me than I have given. The people, the community, is amazing – so hospitable and friendly and I know that BB is going to thrive in what is going to be a very exciting time over the next few years. Potentially the oven is ready for change – not only because of the technological advance but due to the enthusiasm of the people. And they will ensure that it is embraced with thought and sensitivity. Good luck to all and so many thanks” (Jenny) 


Tips & thoughts for other volunteers

Ask questions! Keep asking questions, and it will open up a whole new aspect. I think because they never asked the questions themselves, they were never able to come to any conclusions. The questions we asked enabled them to think that this was really what communication was about. Keep asking questions, because it allows them to think about things that hadn’t previously thought about.

When we first arrived we went through a whole spectrum of mental phases from amazement to excitement and from bewilderment to enlightenment and then back again all at a million miles an hour. On arrival the tasks seem impossible to comprehend but with a bit of expert guidance from the guys on the ground you start to realise that if you can contribute just one more brick in the wall you will have made a small contribution to the overall task.