“I was three months old, in 1956, when my parents decided they would go to Uganda with Her Majesty’s Government Overseas,” says Kevan Keegan, a UK-based Strategic and Operational Change Manager, working in international education, healthcare, and housing finance.
“My entire primary education was in Uganda, until I left for boarding school at the age of 10,” he adds. “My younger brother was born there. My first Christmas was at Mbale Sports Club with Father Christmas arriving in a Land Rover… so when I got the opportunity to be there again, to advise and invest in established small businesses, it was like completing the circle.”
Volunteering with Balloon Ventures
In 2018, more than 50 years after he left the country, Kevan saw a volunteer job advertised with Balloon Ventures, a social enterprise working since 2011 with high-potential small businesses in Kenya and Uganda. The enterprise has supported around 2,500 entrepreneurs in the two countries, offering investment and support to help them grow their businesses and create sustainable development.
The role of Volunteer Growth Consultant would mean working for three months in the southeastern city of Mbale, where Kevan’s father, a teacher, took his first job in Uganda. Emotionally it was significant but Kevan also saw the chance to make a sustainable difference.
“One of the things that attracted me to Balloon was their business philosophy," Kevan says. “They believe there has to be a traction point, where the improvements you can bring to a business translate into financial resources that are sufficiently self-generating, so that the social impact spreads. You have to turn a business into a commercial success so that it hires more people and provides change and improvements in communities.”
Kevan’s age, however, made him a slightly unusual member of Balloon Ventures’ youthful staff. The company has had many student volunteers and draws a number of helpers from large corporates such as Citi and VSO, where volunteering programmes mean young executives can make a difference while developing international business skills.
“I think Josh Bicknell, the Co-Founder and CEO, was a bit nervous about my age and whether I’d be able to hack the accommodation and lifestyle,” says Kevan explaining that hotels in Mbale can be basic and volunteers may stay with host families. “But I’m pretty relaxed about that, using local public transport, taking the pervasive motorbike taxis, and living like a modern Ugandan.”
On the ground in Uganda
Kevan travelled to Mbale with Balloon Ventures in January 2018. He was assigned three entrepreneurial SMEs to mentor in twice-weekly sessions, with the chance that they may receive funding at the end of the three-month programme.
Working alongside two local and one other overseas volunteer, Kevan’s role was to provide rapid improvement consultancy, identifying areas of competitive strengths and weaknesses, delivering marketing plans, helping with financial and strategic planning, process and financial control systems and procedures.
The three businesses, a nursery and primary school, fish-breeding farm and timber products and furniture company, played to Kevan’s interests and expertise. He is Board Chair and Head of the Finance and Property Committee at ISF Waterloo International School in Brussels. In his early career, he also worked for an American commercial bank in their commercial and agribusiness sector in London and Italy.
“My experience and the training I was given by Balloon Ventures, meant I was able to offer some real insights to the Ugandan entrepreneurs,” he says. “I could help them see that, yes, that’s the decision you want to make in terms of the next step, but what are the consequences? How does that affect the step two or three paces down the road?”
Co-investing in Ugandan companies
During his time in Uganda, Kevan’s three clients all received funding, allowing the school to purchase a new minivan, the family run fish farm to buy pellet feed production machines, and the timber company an industrial cross-cutter and spindle moulder.
Kevan also took the step of co-investing in the businesses himself. He says of the nursery and primary school, Good Foundation Bright Future, where he is now co-shareholder and Chairman: “For the past 20 years the school has operated from a typical colonial bungalow where the owners live, and the classrooms are small. They couldn't possibly get any more children into that high-quality education with the physical limits they had.”
His investment allowed for immediate extra classroom capacity. Kevan has also set up a joint venture company, which has now purchased a new campus site, to build a modern school delivering 500-600 additional nursery and primary places with lower than average class sizes – 25 to 30 pupils, rather than the 40 to 60 widely found in Uganda. The school will also be supported by the latest educational technology.
“Education is a very good area for investment,” he says of Uganda, where around one third of primary and 50 percent of secondary schools are fee paying.
“The commitment that African parents have towards their kids’ education is so powerful. They will bust a gut to get their kids through school.”
He also twinned the Ugandan school with ISF Waterloo International School. Students at ISF have been raising funds with sales and sponsored activities and two teachers spent four weeks in Mbale. They introduced modern methodologies using the Google Education platform on four donated tablets and two chromebooks, and helped build playground equipment. More ISF teachers will follow.
Kevan now visits the school every three to four months and has fortnightly Skype meetings with the headteacher and fellow Board Directors.
Along with a business partner he is now also finalising a 50-50 partnership with the fish-breeding farm, where his main priority is restructuring executive management, establishing business control systems and providing mentorship and financial support for rapid growth. He’s also agreed to take 20 per cent equity stake in the timber products company to build wood stocks and improve turnaround time on orders.
For Kevan investing for good has also helped him rediscover his Ugandan childhood.