Building Businesses not Schools: The New Face of Development | Edward Lowe

“You are going to help a business? I thought you were going to build a school or something.”

This was a quote from a colleague at work who donated towards my fundraising target. I had repeated numerous times the purpose of the project I was embarking on, but the image of development and in particular volunteering in Africa is so pervasive that it is hard to break this stereotype of rural Africa and helping education. The change in how we think about and offer support to developing economies is well and truly underway in the development sector, but mainstream visions of charitable volunteering remain steadfastly similar to two or even three decades ago.

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If you were applying for a job, where would you start? More than likely you would examine which roles were available given your current skill set. This is the new fundamental paradigm of volunteering; helping to match skills amongst volunteers with where they are needed most in the developing world. It seems an obvious combination, but for much of the past two decades volunteering has meant well meaning individuals helping with construction and education despite no previous experience in these industries. This led to a lack of sustainable impact, an idea now at the centre of the development doctrine.

Development charities and NGOs have learnt that matching of skills and needs is important, but it is not enough. The next step is to ensure skills are built in these developing countries so that progress continues once volunteers leave. Training and mentoring is therefore absolutely crucial to ensuring that the impact is sustainable.  This requires intense collaboration amongst in-country individuals and international volunteers, a dynamic that has sadly been missing prior to this.

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Take the SME I am currently working with as an example. Vitalite is a start-up organisation selling clean cooking stoves and home pay-as-you-go solar systems to low income households. This enterprise has the potential to solve two important issues in Lusaka; reliable and affordable electricity generation for the poorest in society through a market mechanism, and the need for more innovative businesses working in the technology sector. Challenges Worldwide have supplied four volunteers with business experience ranging from Finance to Marketing at their request to help implement changes that will enable the company to grow even faster. Passing these skills and knowledge on to business employees is the central purpose of the three month placement.

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The process of volunteering is perhaps harder under these new rules of development. The successes are less defined and visible, and the work is much more collaborative.  Communication and learning with Zambian counterparts becomes crucial, and ensuring processes will succeed for the long term requires repetition and persistence. But the potential outcomes are so much greater. The reach of Vitalite and its products for the local economy, society and environment is wide, and the benefits are already being reaped.

How is working in one business going to make a dent in the development problem of Zambia? It will have a tiny impact on its own. But add up all those tiny impacts, and it is estimated that 500 businesses will be helped by Challenges Worldwide across Africa over the next three years, influencing the lives of 250,000 people. One small step at a time, and the new face of volunteering can help to give developing nations the tools to reach economic prosperity on their own.