Entrepreneur Seb Bishop recently graced our television screens after appearing in Channel 4 documentary Millionaires’ Mission. Being a fan of what he calls ‘disruptive businesses’, the idea of using entrepreneurial nous to tackle extreme poverty was one that appealed instantly when he agreed to take part.
In 2000, at the age of 26, he founded internet advertising firm Espotting. The company introduced pay-per-click advertising and search marketing to the UK several years before Google had even dreamt of entering the market with its AdWords product, which launched in 2003.
In 2004, after expanding the company throughout Europe, Bishop completed a merger with US company FindWhat.com in a deal which valued the company at $186m. Taking the role of president of MIVA, the name for the new merged company, still at the tender age of 31, Bishop became one of the youngest ever presidents of a NASDAQ-listed company.
A far cry from that corporate world however, was the rural village of Nyakasiru in Uganda. Bishop and a team of seven other UK entrepreneurs were given one month to create self-sustaining local businesses, which would set the region on the path towards some form of economic growth.
A healthy bank of company-forming experience between them, the eight entrepreneurs had to contend with far more pressing problems than getting a VC on board – out there it was a question of life and death.
“We were told we had £15,000 each to drop into a kitty,” explains Bishop. “The idea behind the programme was to see if we could get ventures up and running in an area where traditionally it’s practically impossible to start a business.
“You can’t build an internet company, or shop in that kind of environment because the money just isn’t there. The challenge is bringing money into the community to build an economy.”
During his month-long stay, Bishop came up with the idea for the Teach Inn hotel – a social enterprise which cashes in on the recent popularity of eco-tourism.
“You often hear people talk about going to Kenya, or South Africa, but there are lots of other African countries that people don’t consider for holiday destinations. When we first arrived here, one of the things that captured my imagination was how beautiful Uganda is, and I wondered why people don’t spend more time here.”
The Teach Inn accommodates 11 tourists each charged $10 a night equating to an annual $40,000. However, throughout their stay guests of the hotel teach English and sports to the local children.
Alongside founder of travel firm i-to-i, Deidre Bounds, pub entrepreneur Tony Callaghan, and Dominic McVey (link here to DM’s profile), Bishop turned a derelict schoolhouse into an enterprise concept which is now being repeated in several neighbouring villages.
A second project, a co-operative crop store for farmers to pool their harvested potatoes to sell when more in demand, thus earning them a better price, was only possible because of some tough negotiation skills.
With only limited funds in the kitty, Bishop and his fellow entrepreneurs had to persuade the locals to build it themselves – something achieved by insisting only those who helped build it would be able to use the store.
“Traditionally farmers were selling crop for around 18,000 shillings per bag. By setting up the crop store we managed to get the price up to 24,000,” says Bishop.
Having returned to Uganda a few months later, Bishop and his fellow entrepreneurs were rewarded by seeing the crop store going strong, and plans for a second Teach Inn well on track.
“I get a buzz out of the environment I work in today with MIVA, but this was a totally different type of rewarding feeling,” he explains. “When you start any business you want to nurture it, and all your efforts go to making sure it’s successful. Now, in the same way, the manager of the hotel, Mr Hannington, gets the same thrills as we do from running the project.”
The show saw the entrepreneurs face some tough challenges in Nyakasiru. Getting the locals to pitch in with co-operative businesses was no mean feat. Neither was trying to ignore the immediate need for aid in favour of a long-term economic solution for the region. Inevitably there were disagreements.
“When it comes to running a business, decisions are important and if they don’t work out you start again – it’s not life or death,” explains Bishop. “In Uganda it was. So yes, tempers did flare, but only for the very best of reasons.”
A pocket of economic growth within a vast landscape of poverty was created by Millionaires’ Mission. In this instance enterprise came out shining. A gushing well set against charity’s single glass of water.