THE BLOG

From Small Seeds Grow Mighty Trees

21/11/2014 13:53 GMT | Updated 21/01/2015 10:59 GMT

This week is Global Entrepreneurship Week. Entrepreneur Emma Sinclair, the youngest person to float a company on the London Stock Exchange and newly appointed UNICEF UK Business Mentor, reflects on how a trip to rural Zambia reinforced how business really can change the world

From small seeds grow mighty trees

My love of business, entrepreneurship and seeking solutions to address global challenges truly came together a few weeks ago when I travelled the 8,000km to Zambia with the Unicef and Barclays Building Young Futures programme.

The plan was for me to offer mentoring and advice to some of the young people who were participating in the programme, which is designed to teach basic financial skills and training to stimulate private enterprise.

Become an entrepreneur or struggle in poverty

In a country where young people make up a significant proportion of the available labour force, yet unemployment rates for 20 to 24yearolds have been estimated to be as much as five times greater than those for older adults, Building Young Futures works hard to support hard to reach people in places where there are few jobs or prospects for the bulging youth population. What's the alternative?

With 50% of the country under the age of 20 and a predicted minimum of 130,000 youths entering the job market each year, there is simply no choice for many of those the programme supports who seek a positive and stable future. Become an entrepreneur - or potentially struggle in poverty. But where to start in a country where despite steady economic growth, there are low levels of education coupled with incompatible skills, disparate infrastructure, limited access to technology and many other things we as a westerners have come to rely on?

This was one of many questions that played on my mind before I took the trip. Was a programme teaching business skills really relevant to and going to solve a problem? Who was teaching, were the lessons shared relevant, was anyone listening? It's hard to find good advice where I come from so what were the trainers going to be like in the remotest regions of Zambia?

I was also curious as to how the participants might relate to me. A Londoner, a techie, a former car park company owner, now an enterprise software business owner with a love of the stock market. An unusual combination at the best of times!

And finally, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur as far as I'm concerned. Some people have a natural inclination for risk, an ability in sales and an appetite to tread the rocky path of entrepreneurship: Others definitely don't. But what I discovered is that in most places we visited, I had something in common with everyone. Entrepreneurship, for all of us, is a form of survival.

What I saw was that providing young people with a tool kit - a set of smart, simple, punchy messages that teach clear lessons on how to carry yourself, pricing and costing, professionalism alongside financial management and core business training - matched with long term mentorship and connecting young people to wider support like access to loans to start businesses - can substantially transform the future of individuals, villages, cities and ultimately, a country.

My businesses have done the same for me. At times I have had nothing except debt and the success of my business was directly tied to my ability to eat. My access and safety net was wider but nonetheless I know what it means to start from scratch and build something from nothing. And it was hugely reassuring to see the right things being taught.

What does success actually mean?

Much like the meaning of democracy or choice or indeed poverty, the definition of entrepreneurship is definitely up for debate. Success for a young Zambian in an isolated community is clearly different to what many of my fellow British entrepreneurs might deem to be a triumph. This is something I really came to understand by touching the soil, meeting the participants and sitting in the huts of some of the young entrepreneurs Building Young Futures support.

And there is no doubt it is a life changing success. This is about creating jobs and ensuring people can feed themselves and be self-sufficient. Some of the people I met are now turning baron land into fruit trees or growing a field of peppers in a place where there was previously little more than dust and dry grass. Simple lessons are broadening the chances for success; enabling them to keep accounts, understand finance, encouraging investment into buying seeds and basic machinery: Taking simple lessons such as supply and demand, business is transforming lives.

I met Kenneth who has turned his life around, from selling illegal charcoal by the side of the road to a position where he now not only has enough fruit and vegetables to ensure his family can eat a varied diet but one year in there's sufficient surplus to sell produce at the local market. He's also negotiating small but significant deals with supermarkets which until recently would have been inconceivable. This is allowing him to save to send his son to school and - as he put it - finally gives him options and ensures his son had a life less arduous than his.

The Building Young Futures training has taught Kenneth to think big and realise his ambitions. He has fields and fields of plants, fruits and vegetables that I watched him lovingly nurture under the African sun. Mentorship and support from fellow trainees has taught him seasonality and the importance of crop rotation and he now has a bank account which he is using to save for a machine his village needs to process his maize. It is examples such as this, identifying that his neighbours walking miles to pay to use a machine is a business opportunity, that demonstrated how this programme is stimulating the economy.. And it doesn't stop there. Kenneth is inspiring friends and neighbours to join the programme and has visions of setting up a village co-operative, all with immense pride, energy and eloquence. He sees solutions not problems, identifies goals and works towards them - and is mobilising a village to do the same through his actions and success.

Setting up a new business for these young people is just the start. It is critical they learn to be focused to move to a more stable footing whilst diversifying and expanding. Mentorship and long term support is vital to secure these goals and it's here that Barclays and Unicef sharing their expertise is vital. It's amazing to see Unicef taking a major financial institution with all its skills into a remote community: The right people teaching and empowering individuals.

And it works. Mercy, a young woman who spotted a gap in the market for a rural wedding shop, with dresses and shoes on loan for local brides, has been successfully linked to a government fund. It enabled her to expand her business: From owning a few dresses she now stocks clothes, shoes and accessories for ladies and children and is saving to buy a horse and chariot and move into menswear. And I know when I go back, she will have exceeded even her lofty ambitions for her business.

I met many more inspiring people. Oliver with his barber shop and Ernest with his chicken farm who together are studying a three year mechanic course with the ultimate goal of building a garage together. Sam, a barber in Lusaka, diversified to set up an internet café,: And Mary, a young, single mother who touched me so deeply when she told me about her vegetable garden business and how the profit she makes helps her buy soap for her baby and will enable her to achieve her goal to attend teacher training school. All growing something and striving for things we all want for our family, friends and indeed ourselves.

These people whose photos now sit on my mantle piece at home and whose stories are forever imprinted on my heart and mind, give us a steer on how we can tackle youth unemployment: People who just happen to have been born with less opportunity. We all need to plant seeds because we will all reap the rewards.

We ALL need to plant seeds

From small seeds grow mighty trees is one of my favourite business proverbs or, as they say in Zambia, "Imiti ikula empanga:" A Bemba proverb which translates as today's shrubs are tomorrow's forests, the people I met are doing exactly that. As with the Building young Futures students, we all have aspirations: a seed which we nurture in the hope that it will sprout and bear fruit and continue to grow until eventually, we have a forest at our feet.

Through Building Young Futures, Barclays and UNICEF are helping to sow seeds and create what I know will be the forests of tomorrow. And people like me, who have the opportunity to be a part of this, bring fertile ideas and, innovative approaches to water those seeds across all seasons and continents. We are all farmers and it feels good to know that entrepreneurship, is a global language which, in time, will play its part in solving some of the social and economic challenges people face in every corner of the world. And I intend to be there as that forest I can see through the eyes of the people I met in Zambia continues to blossom and grow.