It’s fair to say it’s unlikely that 25-year-old civil engineer; Benon Kwikiriza, from rural Uganda and accountant Faysal Ahmed, 26, from Oldham, would have met. But this week, they’ve become the 30,000th young people to volunteer with International Citizen Service(ICS).
Despite having grown up in very different parts of the world, they’ve discovered their shared passion for doing community work, while spending 12 weeks living together, something that just may not have been possible without ICS.
On placement in Iganga, eastern Uganda with Balloon Ventures, Benon and Faysal have been supporting young entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. From salonists to subsistence farmers, this dynamic duo have been using their professional experience to improve the lives of others.
"Uganda is a sleeping giant."Benon's story
"I grew up in Rukungiri District in rural south western Uganda. My mother was a small scale farmer and my dad was a policeman. As a child, I walked five miles to primary school each day.
Me and my three siblings had humble beginnings. Affording school fees was always a major problem and at times we’d simply have to go without meals and money for school.
I loved education and I was bright, but a lack of money hardened me. Through my nine years of primary school I moved through 10 schools. It affected me psychologically.
Being the first born, I had to be like a parent. I had to push my brothers and sister and take responsibility. It was me who had to be the one giving them the helping hand to succeed.
Now my sister’s at university and my brothers are at school, I’m proud to see how we’ve turned out.
The chances were stacked against us: university fees are 30 times more expensive than school, after all. I feel inspired when I remember that we made it.
Last month I completed my degree in Water Resources Engineering. In the future, I hope to be part of the next generation studying how the Nile, the world’s longest river – can restore harmony and responsibly provide for my country’s future.
Uganda is the sleeping giant. It’s a country which has a lot of natural resources that are not being well utilised or underutilised. We have some of the world’s most fertile soil but need to be doing more to make it work for us.
With the second youngest population in the world, Uganda is at the forefront of implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The youth make up 77% of the country in 2017, but only the short-sighted forget they represent all of our future population.
I’m passionate about our youth and the power of ICS. It’s inspiring to work alongside people who have a shared vision for the sustainability of our future.
On my Balloon Ventures ICS placement, I’ve been working with four young entrepreneurs running completely different businesses – from a subsistence farmer to a salonist.
In the short time we’ve been here we’ve made a big impact. When we started with one particular entrepreneur, a welder, he didn’t know English, he hadn’t been to school.
Because he was open to our ideas, we were able to work with him to introduce six new products. He’s now bringing in more orders and bigger contracts than ever before.
He’s not an anomaly. These entrepreneurs are coming away from ICS with their financial knowledge and business skills significantly improved. They’ll carry on our work even after we leave.
One of the things that attracted me to ICS was working with people from different backgrounds. Although the placement will end, the value of the personal friendships and relationships I’ve made on placement will last forever.
I’m so lucky that Faysal turned out to be my counterpart. We share the same talents and skills. We share the same ideas of how to improve and build on our careers. We’re like brothers.
My advice to anyone looking at applying for ICS? Be open minded. Be adaptive to change. And be in a position to communicate without fear.
When volunteers from the UK come, they challenge our preconceptions. My mindset has changed. I now look at those from other countries as brothers and sisters.
ICS has taught me to always put community development before my other personal interests. I’m now someone with a lifetime of helping lift people out of poverty ahead."
"I believe in the power of entrepreneurship." Faysal's story
"I grew up in Oldham, just outside of Manchester. As a second generation immigrant, my parents moved from Bangladesh to the UK in the 1980s.
Going back at 15 to visit the villages my parents grew up in was a defining moment for me. I saw the alternative life I could have been living if my family hadn’t moved to Britain 30 years ago.
Where I live, it’s easy to take the wrong track, to hang out with the wrong crowd. But after that trip my attention turned to my local community – and what I could do to help.
I began a programme supporting local kids to learn football skills. On Sunday mornings, I’d get outside with a ball and a raincoat and work with them to build their skills. Since then I’ve collaborated with my local MP to take those children on a summer school sports programme.
ICS pushed me out of my comfort zone. I’ve learnt so much in these last two weeks, I’ll come back inspired to do even more for my community. I just wish I’d gone on placement sooner.
I was open to going anywhere when I applied, but as I was going to turn 25 on placement – the cut off age for ICS volunteers – it was a rush to get me away before my birthday.
I didn’t want to go somewhere I didn’t feel passionate about. When Balloon came up, I looked at the skills I had. As a part-qualified chartered accountant, I really got on board with their belief in the power of entrepreneurship. I wanted to use my financial experience in the workplace for good.
Since being here, the entrepreneurs I’ve worked with have given it their all. They’re taking on the challenge and moving forward. They understand this is about learning, not handouts.
As volunteers, we’ve come in with fresh ideas and sometimes fresh ideas are hard to implement. If our carpenter stops working, he can’t provide for his family. He can’t afford to put work aside for a full day to come up with new ideas.
Since we introduced a catalogue of his products after realising that gap in the market, he’s won new contracts, he speaks with ease when negotiating and he’s making new contacts. He’s got a much clearer idea now of the profit he can make.
I met my counterpart Benon right at the beginning. I’ve never looked back. I didn’t think two people from two different continents could be so similar.
When he’s with his entrepreneurs, he’s professional and formal. At home, he’s vibrant and always cracking jokes. It’s my job to bring that side out of him – and I feel proud to see that.
Before I came to Uganda, I was in a steady job, I saw how my life would pan out, but I didn’t have direction."