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From Producing Reports Nobody Read to Helping Villagers In Zambia

27/09/2013 11:11 BST | Updated 26/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Ben Harper used to work at a big-four accountancy in London. Now, he is the CFO of Zamsolar, a social enterprise in Zambia that sells solar lights and phone chargers to people in villages that are not on the grid.

Once upon a time, Ben enjoyed his corporate job. Really, he did.

"I thought we were the good guys, helping failing businesses to work with the bank and come to mutual outcome for all parties," he says, describing his role at a big-four accountancy in London.

It was only as his seniority increased that his disillusionment steadily followed.

"As long as a partner brought in work, no one really cared about how they treated staff or what they said," he recalls. Partners were very possessive over contacts. "If you could help them win the next piece of work, they were all ears, but if not, you were just another commodity."

He was chatting to a colleague a few years ahead of him who he had known for years, asking him for advice. Afterwards, his colleague said, "Of course I can help you now, but when we get to partner... it's every man for himself."

"In short, I didn't want to work in a dog-eat-dog workplace," Ben said. "If something went wrong on a job it would become a case of who could be blamed so that the others didn't have to mention it on their half-year review and risk getting a lower grading which would ultimately affect their bonus."

The real disenchantment came after Ben's secondment at a bank: this work-exchange meant that he was working within the bank while still being employed by the accountancy firm. Post-secondment, he returned to the accountancy firm, where he worked on reports for the bank within which he had been placed.

The reports required working over 14 hours a day, to a deadline that inevitably extended onwards. Weekend working almost became the norm. From his secondment, Ben knew that these reports largely remained unread.

It seemed foolish to toss away the stability of a job at a blue chip firm when his friends were beginning to buy houses. However, he knew that he wasn't ready to settle down just yet. Ironically, it was his "anti-climactic" promotion at the accountancy firm that prompted him to quit.

"After a few weeks it was obvious that all the promotion meant was a slight pay rise to justify the firm eating away at more of my life," he says. "It dawned on me that there was no one more senior in the office whose life I aspired too. There had to be something more."

His friend Patrick, also in a corporate role, had known him for eight years when he saw that "Ben was getting less and less enthusiastic about the imagined and promised highs at the top of the ladder and he reached a real low when he wasn't motivated to work much at all."

"I was rock bottom on motivation and needed a drastic change," Ben recalls. "I looked into the future and thought about what I was going to tell my kids about my life. I didn't want the culmination of my career to be a series of lengthy reports where only the executive summary was ever read."

Patrick told Ben about "a cool website he had heard about which sought to erode whatever it is that seems to absorb people's will to live on the commute into the City." Ben signed up to Escape the City immediately and proceeded to lose the best part of a day absorbing the stories of others who had left their corporate jobs.

"He didn't have any real anchors stopping him from going," Patrick said. "I think having someone there to tell you it's a good idea and that you're not mad to leave a job you don't really enjoy is what everyone needs to take a leap of faith."

Ben initially planned a 12-month sabbatical so that he had a back-up plan but in reality knew it was highly unlikely that he would ever go back. Originally he planned to spend three months doing something that used his knowledge followed by a ski season in the Alps.

Through Escape the City, he found Accounting for International Development (AFID). AFID places accountants all over the world and put him in touch with Zamsolar (a subsidiary of Afrisolar), a social enterprise in Zambia that sells solar lights and phone chargers to people in villages that aren't on the grid. Ben agreed to do a three-month volunteer stint.

James Sawabini, a Zamsolar colleague, said, "Ben could not have come at a more crucial time. As we emerge from a scrappy start-up to an aspiring regional player on the continent, Ben's experience and financial expertise bring tremendous depth just when it is needed most."

Ben recently accepted the role of CFO as Afrisolar expands into other sub-Saharan countries. Despite working longer hours in Zambia than he did in London, he says that his real rewards come from knowing Zamsolar has given people easier access to power and light - the student that wants to study at night, the shop owners who want to show their business is still open after dark, and chicken farmers who want to improve their yield.

He recalls when he used to stand on the platform at Clapham Junction station on a Monday morning surrounded by gloomy faces as he made his way into work. Now, he spends the weekdays thinking up ways of getting Zamsolar products into the most remote villages and the weekends seeing Zambian landscape and wildlife.

"My life now compared to six months ago is almost incomparable. I was so stuck in a rut that I forgot that is important to love what you do," Ben says. "I take real pride that we are empowering Zambians to sell the products which make their lives better."

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For more about Escape the City, read here.

For more about Adele Barlow, read here.