Tom Ravenscroft
Tom Ravenscroft, Founder of Enabling Enterprise writes about his experience meeting Educate! In Uganda.

Never has the opening line of a blog been so elusive to me.

I was never an adventurous traveler. I was no gap year explorer or free-spirited wanderer. But what I experienced in Uganda over seven brilliant days in December was profound, and made me wonder what lessons I’d missed.

Mind the Gap

I missed going traveling by being one of those over-keen ones who marched straight out of their final university exams and into a job. In my case, becoming a business studies teacher in an inner London school through Teach First.

I quickly discovered that while there was plenty of emphasis on the grades that my students would be leaving with, there was little on whether this would be enough to translate into a successful, rewarding life. And I strongly suspected that it would be far from enough.

But it was sobering to learn about the context in Uganda: With 80% of the population under the age of 30 and 70% of young people without a formal job, the very real challenges in the UK felt relatively simple.

Learning by Doing

For my students in the UK, I combined the lesson-time project of setting up and running their own business with the opportunity to go on trips to businesses and meet the adults who worked there. The result was students who developed enterprise skills through their business project and who broadened and solidified their aspirations through finding about others’ careers.

Over the last five years, we’ve built from my original class to working with over 30,000 students. We’ve also expanded our remit to make enterprise a core part of the curriculum for 5-19 year-olds – our schools commit to delivering at least one hour every week of dedicated enterprise learning with a business trip each year for the students.

Raising the Stakes

In the UK, we’re pretty unique. So it was inspiring to meet Educate! in Uganda who are the most philosophically aligned organisation I’ve ever met. Over the last five years, the organisation has grown to work with over 200 high schools in the country, giving young people the chance to experience running a business and learning about what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur.

Spending the morning at the Educate! offices in Kampala we had the chance to meet some of the teacher trainers and sit in on a session – and it was brilliant. Sixty intensive minutes that addressed some of the essentials of why businesses fail – from inadequate finances, taking the profits out too soon, not differentiating from your rivals and more.

Writing this more than a month later, I vividly remember the energy in the tent – and the sense of urgency. It was particularly good that all of the mentors supporting the programme have set up their own businesses, giving them a wealth of experiences to draw from themselves.

Plenty of Inspiration

But Educate! were far from the only inspiring work we saw. Restless Development are another organisation working in the youth education space, and are undoubtedly the most profoundly youth-led organisation I have ever met. Meeting their staff in Jinja, a couple of hours East of the capital, it was inspiring to see such an aligned group of people. From the research they do, to their advocacy to setting the strategic direction of the organisation.

Similarly, the other organisations represented all had lessons to learn from. War Child work with some of the most affected children in the North of the country, and had real clarity of purpose and mission. And my fellow discoverers from the UK represented exceptional organisations too: MAC-UK which enables young people outside normal systems to access mental health care and Balloon Kenya which trains undergraduates in the UK to support Kenyan entrepreneurs.

Much of the learning itself of course was thanks to the able facilitation of the Forward Foundation itself, with Suraj and Michael helping us to reflect and draw out the lessons that we can apply to our own organisations.

Five Lessons

It’ll already have become clear that I can’t capture everything I learnt. I discovered that on my fifth draft on this blog piece. But here are five key things that I will take away:

  • Every context is different: What works in one context will not necessarily translate. The different support structures for youth in the UK and Uganda mean that the needs will differ, as will the cultural context of the work.
  • But many things remain the same: Broadly people want similar things out of life – security, family, challenge and reward.
  • We have more to learn than we ever can: For seven days, the amount to learn was like trying to drink from a fire hose. When you’re trying to learn that much you end up questioning everything that you believe and that’s pretty intense.
  • We can share, if we do so humbly: At the same time, you always have something to share or a new perspective to add and I’m glad that some of what we’ve learnt along the way was helpful to the organisations we met too.
  • Five piles of carbohydrates is too many carbohydrates: If you haven’t experienced the glories of a traditional Ugandan lunch, I’ll advise you in advance that no one needs rice, mashed plantain, sweet potato, ugali and yam to accompany their stew. Exercise self restraint.
  • To Take Away

    I hope this will only be the beginning of our work with the brilliant organisations I had the privilege to meet on this trip.

    Ultimately, young people are all young people. They all need enterprise skills, experiences of the world and aspirations. And this trip has proved that we’ve a lot to share, learn and discover to get there.

    Originally posted on the Forward Foundation’s Blog reposted here for Enabling Enterprise Febuary 2014

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