From London to Malawi: turning disadvantaged youth into entrepreneurs
Time to read: 4 mins
In 2017, Octopus Giving introduced a new volunteering programme in partnership with The International Exchange (TIE), and asked for applications from people across all Octopus businesses.
We wanted to give volunteers the opportunity to broaden their horizons and try their hand at putting their business skills to good use in completely different surroundings. Working together with TIE, which links charities with corporations that are keen to provide volunteers, felt like a great way for the people who worked at Octopus to gain new experiences and skills, before returning to work with fresh insights, motivation and a greater sense of purpose.
Chloe Allan, a Business Development Manager for Octopus Investments, was one of many applicants who showed an interest in volunteering in a developing country. During the application process, her enthusiasm and determination shone through. After Chloe’s application was accepted by Octopus Giving, TIE matched her with Chance For Change, a charity based in Malawi.
Chance For Change
Founded in 2013, Chance For Change supports young Malawians whose lives have been damaged by poverty, prison, abusive relationships, slavery or the underage sex trade.
Life chances are rare in Malawi, as Chloe soon discovered: “Education in Malawi is only free until the age of around eleven. A lot of couples have six or seven children, so can’t afford to send all of them to school. Some parents prefer to get their children working instead. If the parents can only afford schooling for one of their children, it will often be the boy.”
“It’s common for Malawians to die young. Teenagers often lose their parents. They may be taken in by relatives, such as aunts and uncles. This is often a burden as it’s another mouth to feed. Many find themselves on the receiving end of physical, mental or sexual abuse. They daren’t report it; otherwise, they find themselves homeless.”
According to Chloe, that’s where charities like Chance For Change can make a real difference. “They help teenagers develop entrepreneurial skills, so they can go on to earn their own money, rather than be dependent on others.”
Getting to work
Chloe wasted no time settling into her assignment. She was introduced to George Salijeni, Head of Entrepreneurship at Chance For Change, who wanted to find out how the charity could be more effective.
Chloe’s early observations of the programme’s participants proved valuable: “Many of the youths I met would learn a skill such as baking or farming, but sometimes didn’t have the money for cooking ingredients or equipment to get started.
“Of all the people I met, I felt around half of them could have gone on to run a successful business had they been given funding. I conducted some field research, and asked a number of the programme’s participates how much money they thought it would take to get their business going. The most common answer was around 15-20 Malawian Kwacha (£15-£20) per person.”
Piloting a loan facility
Chloe’s research gave her the insight she needed to discuss the need for a loan facility that would help the programme’s participants put everything they had learned into action. She met with Andy Ashworth, the charity’s head, and suggested drawing up a pilot scheme: “I was thrilled when Andy agreed to give it a go. Success!”
“I discovered that a bank in the local area used to provide loans for young people but had recently been taken over. We caught up with the chap who used to manage this bank for some advice. Using my knowledge of how Octopus Property and Octopus Choice lend money really helped in that meeting. The bank had originally trialled two ways to lend – individually and in groups. The default rate was considerably lower within groups, so we realised this was the best way forward.
“What’s even better is that the pilot scheme’s initial funding came from the money we raised through Octopus Giving fundraising events. So, for anyone from Octopus who participated in the bake sale and ‘Man versus Food’ speed-eating competition, your contribution has made a huge difference to some young people’s lives.”
But it wasn’t all work for Chloe, as she recalls: “A lady named Susan kindly invited me to share her home for five weeks. Susan was lovely – a larger than life character! She was my best friend during my time there. She took me under her wing and really encouraged me to throw myself into the culture.
“Everything about Malawi is so different to home and much more chaotic. I’m not sure I was ready for rats running across the dinner table. I felt so out of my comfort zone at first. But these feelings soon dissolved, thanks to Susan and everyone else making me feel so welcome.”
“We went to a wedding, bridal shower and school graduation together. She taught me how to tie a chitenje and how to cook Malawian style. African women use chitenjes for everything: it’s a baby carrier, apron, grocery sack and towel, and it’s also used to carry bowls of fruit on their heads.”
Coming home, and giving back
Now she’s returned to life at Octopus, Chloe’s outlook has changed, both professionally and personally. She says: “In my role at Octopus, I’m not often involved in project work, but I realised that I absolutely love it. I felt like a mini-entrepreneur. You often hear of soft skills – critical thinking, problem-solving, relationship building, leadership – I had to use all of these to present my idea. I built a strong relationship with George and we did everything together. I’d like to now find volunteering work here in London, so I can continue to help improve people’s lives.”