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Harnessing low-cost technology to change African lives

16 Apr 2015

Alumnus Chris Coghlan explains how the not-for-profit organisation he founded is helping to change African entrepreneurs’ lives by matching them up with volunteer consultants in an innovative skill-share scheme.

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For Chris Coghlan, painting shelves as an 18-year-old student volunteer in Mozambique was a modest contribution to the local community. 

But while his efforts felt meagre, the impact the trip had on him was profound, and would lead to him founding Grow Movement. The business is an innovative skills-sharing project, which sees members of the global business community working as volunteer consultants via phone or Skype to partner entrepreneurs in some of the poorest corners of Africa to help them develop their business. 

It’s a far cry from his first brush with the continent and some of its poorest inhabitants, but it was this visit, followed by stints working for the European Union as an election observer in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, which cemented his ambition to work in international development. 

“I was always looking to do something effective in international development or poverty relief,” explains Chris. 

“When I was a volunteer in Mozambique in my first year of university holidays, I was working with lots of kids who’d been affected by conflict. That was really the first time I’d seen extreme poverty and the effect it can have on people. That was a really formative experience for me.”

Determined to gain skills that would allow him to work innovatively within international development, Chris turned to a business career, working first as an accountant at Deloitte, then as a fund manager at Charlemagne Capital. “I felt that the experience you can gain in business can be very useful for poverty reduction, because you’re talking about growing an economy,” he says.

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“Grow wouldn’t be where it is today without the support I got from LBS”

In 2010, a year after he set up a small pilot project for what would become Grow Movement, Chris began a part-time Masters in Finance at London Business School. Balancing his studies, job and nurturing his plans for Grow made for a busy two years, but Chris says that if he hadn’t taken on the masters, the business may not have succeeded. 

“I don’t think it’d be an exaggeration to say that I don’t think Grow would be where it is today without the support I got from LBS,” he says. 

“Firstly, having access to the alumni network and current students was a tremendous source of volunteers to help grow the charity. 

“Secondly, I got access to a lot of expertise. I’m from a finance background, and as much as we like to think finance is the be all and end all, there are other aspects to business as well like marketing and strategy.

“The third way LBS really helped was in terms of brand credibility and promotion. I was lucky enough to be a speaker at TEDxLBS and that did a huge amount for our branding and enabled us to reach a wider audience. Shortly after I left LBS we won funding from the Department for International Development. I think probably the credibility and the track record I’d built up with support from LBS was a critical factor in winning that funding.”

And the support of the LBS network didn’t disappear when he completed his masters. “When I graduated I thought ‘ok, that’s LBS over’,” he admits. “But actually, in some ways I’ve almost had more involvement since I graduated. I had a few meetings with (faculty members) Jeff Skinner and Michael Hay after I graduated, who were very excited about the idea. 

“They gave me a lot of advice in terms of how to structure it and they introduced me to Stephen Anderson-Macdonald, a PhD student at LBS. That’s been a tremendous catalyst for Grow Movement, because Stephen is interested in entrepreneurship in developing countries and he’s very interested in randomised control trials, which is effectively where you test, using statistical methods, whether an intervention works. 

“It’s the gold standard of measuring impact in international development, it’s very expensive but it’s the only way you can say with any kind of statistical certainty whether what you do works.”

Not having the statistical measure of impact has been a limiting factor for Grow, which currently relies on anecdotal evidence and its own internal programme figures. Not having firm statistics is a barrier to expansion and garnering interest from NGOs and policymakers. 

But that could change in a couple of years, as Stephen is now driving a project which will see LBS partner with Stanford Graduate School of Business and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to conduct a randomised control trial on Grow, comparing the results of the programme with a test group of un-aided entrepreneurs. 

They are currently recruiting 600 volunteers as part of the programme. 

If the statistics show a significant positive impact for Grow then the implications are potentially huge for the charity and its model. 

“We can then go to policymakers and say, ‘Look, this is a proven method of helping entrepreneurial innovation in developing countries and this is something that should really be supported at scale because it’s far cheaper than any other method’,” says Chris. 

Keen to create a sustainable organisation independent from its founder, Chris has now stepped aside as CEO, having recruited a team to take the charity forward.  “Once I’d graduated from LBS and we’d got the DFID funding, I left my fund to go and work for Grow full time and scale it up,” he says. 

“As part of that I hired in an independent management team and started the transition to bring in independent trustees – LBS was a great source of support in terms of mentoring through that process.”

“Violet would sit in an internet café in Uganda and I’d sit at my computer in London”

Chris has his own reasons for believing in the model of one-on-one volunteer consultancy conducted from a distance; when he started up the venture, he recruited a young woman called Violet Busingwe to act as an in-country manager in Uganda. He trained her for the role, using the same methods the volunteers do now – Skype, phone calls and shared Google Docs. 

“I came across Violet through the recommendation of a friend who’d done some work in Uganda,” says Chris.

“She’s a former refugee from the Rwandan genocide, a very driven young woman who grew up in very tough circumstances in Uganda but despite that, she always wanted to have a professional career.
“I interviewed her, hired her over the phone and then my fund gave us a grant for the first year of operations which was very generous of them, it basically funded her salary for a year.”

Violet had very little experience working with IT and English wasn’t her first language, but the pair worked intensively to give her the project management skills she needed. “On Saturday mornings she’d sit in an internet café in Uganda and I’d sit here in London on my computer and we’d have a Google Doc spreadsheet open and I’d teach her Excel,” recalls Chris. “She ended up working for four years for Grow, and now she’s got quite a senior role at an NGO in Rwanda and she’s done a degree in business studies as well. To take her from there to where she is now in quite a senior role in development and help her realise her potential has been hugely rewarding for me.”

Chris says that despite the disadvantages of being so far away, there are advantages to building a relationship over the phone, namely the fact that both of you are in your own comfort zones for the duration of the project. 

Spreading the impact of success


As of January 2015, Grow had worked with 415 entrepreneurs, creating 714 new jobs and helping 29,706 people – a successful business doesn’t just support one entrepreneur, but often large families of employees. Astonishingly the use of cheap technology to transfer skills means that Grow invests just £263 in each entrepreneur. 

Chris cites one particularly successful example, which shows how consultancy from one volunteer can lead to someone building a sustainable business and creating precious jobs. “There was one guy in Rwanda who wanted to set up a rubbish collection business,” says Chris. “But he couldn’t access finance to do that, so he was scratching his head. 

“His consultant was British but of Zimbabwean origin so he had quite a lot experience of the continent. They researched the structure of the market in Rwanda and discovered that the way rubbish collection works in Kigali is that the local government issues a contract to a rubbish collector. That then enables the rubbish collector to go round every house and invoice them for rubbish collection, so every house has to pay a fee to get their rubbish collected.”

Realising he could ask for payment upfront, the entrepreneur got a permit from the authority, billed his customers and used the money to rent a truck to collect their rubbish. “Within six month he had 25 employees,” says Chris. “That was hugely exciting, especially as the employees were very low-skilled, rubbish collectors – precisely the kind of person, in some ways, you find most rewarding in terms of helping.”


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“To solve conflict you must solve the underlying issue – poverty”

Chris’s ideology stretches beyond simply creating jobs. As well as the cross-cultural bonds that are built and nurtured, his experience in the Congo and Rwanda gave him first-hand experience of the links between conflict and poverty. 

“A lot of people don’t realise conflict is actually a fundamental aspect of extreme poverty,” he explains. “And if you’ve experienced conflict you’re much more likely to go back into conflict and it becomes a never ending cycle.

“Ultimately you only start to solve the long-term cause of conflict if you start addressing the underlying issue which is poverty. If you’ve got a lot of people with limited resources it’s easy for people to end up in conflict trying to improve their lives and fighting over those very limited resources. 

“If you’re a young man in a less developed country where there’s conflict ongoing and there isn’t any employment or hope for you back in your village, it can appear, bluntly, to be quite an exciting calling to go off and join the local militia. But if you’ve got your own business and some form of stake in your future, the chance of having a family and everything in life that most people want, that scenario is far less likely to occur. That was a big part of my motivation behind Grow.”

Chris Coghlan studied the Masters in Finance, part-time, graduating in 2012. 

Find out more about Grow Movement here. 

Author: Hannah Marsh