Balloon Ventures

Balloon Ventures: Grow Business, Change Lives

London, United KingdomNakuru, Kenya
Year Founded:
Organization type: 
Project Stage:
$1 million - $5 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Balloon selects exceptional volunteers to work with entrepreneurs in Kenya, Uganda, or Ghana. Following entrepreneurship training, volunteers help entrepreneurs test ideas to develop their business. Entrepreneurs then pitch for an unsecured, interest free loan to help them realise their goals.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if we could eradicate poverty through empowerment of local entrepreneurs, using a mix of enterprise training, consultancy support and responsible finance, thereby driving economic development at the same time?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Widespread poverty in the developing world: there are some 20 million people in poverty in Kenya alone. This affects every aspect of an individual’s life: health, education, happiness, etc. A root cause is that local entrepreneurs, especially in the informal sector, lack the necessary support (finance, mentors, etc.), to succeed and therefore lift themselves out of poverty. This also critically effects the sustainable development of an economy.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

To offer the support entrepreneurs in the developing world need, in a unique way. Balloon selects exceptional young people from around the world to volunteer with budding local entrepreneurs in the developing world. Following rigorous training, volunteers work with entrepreneurs on turning their idea or start up into a growing business. At the end of the process, entrepreneurs pitch for an unsecured, interest free loan with flexible repayments - allowing them to focus on growing their business. After the successful repayment of a loan, larger loans with access to higher level support (e.g. consultant/finance experts) are available. This helps micro-enterprises graduate into SMEs, contributing to the sustainable development of the economy.


Santander Prize - Best New Venture (Cass Business School NVCP, 2011); International Social Enterprise of the Year (UK Finalist, 2012)
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Pamela runs a school in a Kenyan slum looking after 300+ orphans and vulnerable children, funded by her tailoring business. Following the theft of her five sewing machines, Pamela lost hope after she struggled to secure micro-finance loans to restart the business. Working with Balloon, Pamela was paired with 3 international volunteers who helped to validate demand for her products and secure a loan to repurchase sewing machines. The volunteers also helped to dramatically improve the operations and accounting side of the business. This helped Pamela secure a year’s worth of orders in just two months. Working with Balloon restored Pamela’s hope for the enterprise and school. Pamela, has just supported her first student through University.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Quantitative impact: • 1,500+ micro-entrepreneurs trained • £118,000 invested in 536 micro-businesses • 97% of entrepreneurs would recommend the programme to a friend • 472 international and local volunteers completed the programme • Volunteers report confidence and ability to start their own business or social enterprise doubling through the program Qualitative impact: • Income from businesses often dramatically increase while working with volunteers • Knowledge of business is increased, particularly in relation to financial management, marketing, customer development and micro-business efficiencies • Tools and frameworks learnt during the process are applied to overcome business challenges after the program ends • Ongoing support networks increased through partnerships with other entrepreneurs, savings and credit co-operatives, NGOs and government institutions

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

Starting in one town in 2011, Balloon now operates in six locations across three countries, proving the replication potential of the idea. Further expansion is core to the growth strategy: The 2016 target is 1,375 entrepreneurs. Balloon Philippines is launching this year with Sri Lanka to follow in 2016. Part of realizing our potential is growing our impact per entrepreneur, by helping them grow faster. As our network grows, we will offer higher level support (e.g. experienced consultants and financial advisors), and greater financial support (e.g. larger loans or adopting equity models).

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Balloon is profitable: revenue comes from volunteers or universities paying for places and a 3-year government contract. The short term sustainability of the initiative is therefore stable. Increasing locations, while attracting higher revenue (corporate) participants will add to sustainability (our first corporate program is launching in 2016). Long term, adopting an equity model with high growth entrepreneurs will add further revenue streams.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Balloon differs from established micro-finance institutions (MFIs) in that our volunteer support amounts to free consulting which is unparalleled by established MFIs and rated highly by entrepreneurs. With a focus on entrepreneur growth rather than scale of operations, the target segment, impact, and scale models, are different. Our high potential entrepreneurs will be supported to grow into SMEs, driving a substantial part of our impact as they provide jobs for others. In the future we envisage a model of taking high potential MFI clients and adding them to our high potential cohort.

Founding Story

Josh first visited Kenya in 2010 to better understand the 2007-08 post-election violence. Through research he came to believe that the root of the conflict was poverty and the perceived unfair distribution of resources. It was largely poor young men fighting. Some were paid to fight. Others were fighting for a share of the country’s wealth. The “aha!” moment stemmed from this realisation. Conflict was fuelled by a lack of opportunities for young people to engage in productive activities. Balloon provides these opportunities, giving aspiring entrepreneurs a chance to build a meaningful stake in society, forging a positive path for themselves and their partners (e.g. employees, suppliers).


Joshua’s (CEO/founder) passion for entrepreneurship began in his last year at school when he set up a business selling student artwork. He has experience teaching university students in Canada, working in the NGO sector in Africa, developing new models of social innovation in the UK and is a Visiting Fellow at Cass Business School. He has also been an expert panelist talking about development and social enterprise at the UNESCO/UNEVOC conference 2014 and the British Council Going Global Conference 2015. After a short-lived spell in the film industry Douglas (COO/co-founder) turned his attentions to social innovation. He has since worked on a number of public and third sector projects exploring practical ways to empower local people, at the British Council, Cisco Systems, the Young Foundation and the City of Malmo. He is an Associate at Social Life, a start-up social enterprise exploring how people are affected by changes in the built environment, and has facilitated workshops on youth enterprise at NACUE, the London School of Economics and Oxford University. After initially running every aspect of the organisation, Joshua and Douglas now manage the strategic development of the enterprise. Other responsibilities were passed on to new additions to the team. All members of staff are full time and were carefully selected to make the most of available resources. Following the award of a three year UK Government International Citizen Service (ICS) contract, Balloon recruited a manager to oversee this who was perfectly placed to ensure a high quality program. Elsie had previously consulted for the awarding body (VSO), preparing the proposal and recommendations for what became the ICS Entrepreneur Pilot. This was on the back of four years’ experience running youth volunteering programs in-country and the UK. Her key areas of focus include selection and training processes; program design and development; community-based partnership building; and team management. She is supported by two members responsible for delivery of the grant. They have completed every aspect of the volunteer journey and have been trained to deliver the program, making them well placed to carry out pre-departure activities (e.g. recruitment, marketing), support on the program, and alumni activities upon volunteers’ return. After completing his degree in English at York, Tom worked for the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in an operational capacity. He has also had operational and events management responsibilities through internship positions. Isabelle, is a graduate of French, Spanish and Business Studies and has previously volunteered with Ashoka, as well as developing her sales and marketing skills holding internships in Paris and Madrid. As the program grew, a dedicated member of team was brought in to lead Business Development for the organisation together with the co-founders. After studying International Relations, Ilma worked in the business development area of the world’s largest youth-led organisation for several years. She also has experience working in various sectors: from the government sector to charities and think tanks. Understanding the importance of monitoring and evaluation, the most recent addition to the team has been brought in to lead this function. Nicholas has a doctorate in social science, has studied social enterprise and innovation at Harvard Business School, and has previously been involved in evaluations for the European Commission and World Health Organisation. He also volunteered on the program. Our in-country staff are primarily recruited from people we have worked with on past program. For example, the majority of our Kenyan staff have been both entrepreneurs on our program, and also recruited to assist with delivering our training before joining on a permanent basis. The future talent needs of the organisation include continuing to grow existing functions as the organisation itself grows and eventually moving marketing activities to a dedicated function. A key priority is strengthening the M&E function, as a strategic goal is to develop research insights and become a thought leader in the space of facilitating the growth of SMEs in the developing world. The majority of recent hires have come through our exposure to highly talented youth who perform strongly on our programs. Being selected for the program as well as performing well in the role for a number of weeks helps to ensure that the greatest talent who understand our mission and vision are selected to grow the team.
Please confirm how you heard about the Unilever Awards:

Changemakers website

Please confirm your role in the initiative (eg Founder/co-Founder) and your organisational title:

Joshua Bicknell (co-Founder), CEO and Douglas Cochrane COO (co-Founder)

Which of the 8 UN Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) pre-selected for this competition does your solution relate most closely to? [select all that apply]

No Poverty, Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Leadership and the Unilever Awards
Please provide examples of any previous entrepreneurial initiatives you have pioneered.

Joshua and Douglas both had experience in entrepreneurial environments prior to launching Balloon, as the project lead developing a Human Centred Design practice at the Young Foundation, and as the first staff member at a start-up social enterprise, managing their business development function.

While at Balloon they have also launched a corporate training arm, a consultancy for universities looking to improve their enterprise offer to students, and Balloon Online, a web platform funded by the Nominet Trust that supports other young people to start their own self-employment journey. The beta version of Balloon Online is due for release early in 2016.

Beyond your existing team, who else are you working with to achieve your objectives, eg partners, advisors, mentors?


VSO: VSO is the world’s leading international development organisation that uses volunteers to fight poverty and reduce inequality. Over 40,000 people have volunteered with VSO, and they currently operate programs in 25 countries with over 650 local partners. Receiving a UK Department of International Development contract, in 2014, part of this was subcontracted to Balloon. With this, VSO’s contributed to Balloon’s development. Their experience in the area contributed to development of program quality as well as developing recruitment, training, and monitoring and evaluation capacity. VSO have also provided support in developing in country networks with other partner organisations.

Hope and Vision: Hope and Vision are a Youth Savings and Credit Co-operative (SACCO) that formed in 2006 and have since grown to have over 100 members with $80,000 of savings. In 2011 they were awarded “Best Managed Youth Co-operative” in Nakuru County and in 2012 they won the award for the “Best Managed Youth Co-operative” in the whole of Kenya. We work with them to recruit the Kenyan participants, manage the Balloon investment fund and offer ongoing support to funded groups.

In every program location we work with a local SACCO to support with the recruitment of entrepreneur, funding decisions and loan management.


Melinda Phillips: Melinda has 25 years of business experience leading substantial not-for-profit organisations and influencing national policy on housing, ageing and care. For 16 years she was Chief Executive of Housing 21, one of the UK’s leading housing associations with 7500 staff, 18000 rented homes and an annual turnover of over £200 million.


Ije Nwokorie: Ije is the Global CEO of Wolff Olins, one of the world’s leading brand consultancies. He was born in America, bred in Nigeria, and enlightened in England. Ije’s passion lies in interpreting business problems as creative challenges. Most recently Ije has worked with Mercedes-Benz to help transform it into a 21st Century service business, and with Skype unleashing a new generation of products.

Yvonne Roberts: Yvonne is currently Chief Lead Writer at the Observer. She has been an award winning journalist, writer and broadcaster for over 30 years and has written for every broadsheet covering social policy, politics, investigations, features and comment. Yvonne has also been a trustee for a number of charities and is a member of Channel 4’s education advisory board.

Mark Steeves: Mark is an international businessman who founded consultancy and start-up investor, Samphire & Associates, in 2010. Samphire has interests in agriculture, financial services and media. Mark is a partner at corporate advisory firm, Partner Capital, a director of the Business Council for Africa and a mentor for Femmes Africa Solidarité. Before 2010, he worked in the oil & gas industry then in financial services, latterly as Head of Africa at HSBC Insurance Brokers.