Final reflections on Rwanda and Tanzania

We are now back on campus, back to our routines and the preoccupations of business school life. Career plans, recruitment, connecting with our fellow students, and everything that we want to get out and contribute during our second year at CBS. But over the last few days we also had time to reflect on the lessons we learned from our trip to Rwanda and Tanzania.

There were a few valuable business lessons. We saw how it can be challenging to operate in emerging markets (or even ‘frontier markets’, as sub Saharan African economies are often dubbed), as players like Zenufa or FabLabs showed us – production inputs are not as available as they would be in other markets, maybe their quality is not as reliable; financing is not as accessible as in countries with a longer history of venture capitalism and risk-taking; top talent is not always in strong supply. But when these challenges are overcome, success can be extremely rewarding – becoming a leader in a high-growth market and having tremendous impact on the lives of people. Businesses like Zipline have overcome some of these challenges and are literally saving people’s lives. Azam has become a powerful conglomerate catering to a booming consumer economy.

We also saw how it is possible to stick to your values and still operate a successful business. Azam is an example of this, with their commitment to running an ecological business and decision to not go into alcoholic beverages, even if this could be a very profitable move. They are preserving the values which are at the core of their group, and they are thriving.

It was interesting to see how can being ‘local’ and culturally charged can be a source of distinctiveness – Mara Phones is betting precisely on this, with their phones branded as ‘by Africans for Africans’. It will be interesting to watch how their brand develops.

And finally, it was inspiring to meet entrepreneurs who believe in their visions in the long-run, and decide to not sell or give up control even when the opportunities are attractive. Nala and Nuya Essence are examples of just this: They could have sold or opened up their capital but decided not to in order to further build out their businesses, and they were rewarded.

We also learned some impactful cultural lessons. If on the one hand we saw how differences among people, even when they only exist in our minds (and is this not always the case?) can be devastating, we also saw how a society can recover and rebuild itself from the darkest and most devastating past, as Rwanda did after the genocide.

It is also possible for emerging economies to commit to protecting the environment, even if they are on a long road towards development, unlike some large emerging economies often claim. Tanzania is an example of this, with their ban on plastic bags and green businesses like Azam, as is Rwanda – the cleanliness of Kigali will attest.

As I hope this and the previous posts made clear, this was a trip that taught us a lot, in a lot of different aspects. I’m sure the people in our group will become more globally minded and conscious leaders because of it, and I hope this impact will be lasting. I’m excited to see how Rwanda, Tanzania and its businesses and people will continue to develop.

A night view of Kigali

Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Farewell to Zanzibar

Our trip is over! Zanzibar’s mix of beautiful architecture, white sand beaches and warm and fun local people has really amazed us.

After getting off the ferry we quickly dropped off our bags at the hotel and headed for the Blue Safari – a boat trip that took us to visit a few small islands and snorkeling around colorful fish and coral reefs. Besides the sights everyone was in great spirits so we danced and laughed the entire way. A highlight was the seafood lunch we had on one of the beaches where we stopped – does it get better than lobster on a paradise beach in great company?

One of the boats at the Blue Safari

Our hotel – Maru Maru – was also very nice, as usual. We had cocktails on the rooftop all together and admired the surrounding buildings, the sunset and the call to prayer that could be heard all around.

The rooftop at Maru Maru

Our last dinner together was a little bit sad (goodbyes are!) but also very fun. Brian asked everyone what their impressions of the trip were. Everyone agreed that Rwanda was a surprise – how quickly they recovered from their recent tragedies – but there were different opinions on the company visits, which made for an interesting discussion. It was unanimous that the trip was a success and that we were all happy to have connected with each other.

We capped things off with a night of dancing at a club nearby named Tatu. More than ever before, we found a group of really fun locals! They were teaching us dance moves and chatting happily. Turnout on our side was also the highest, which helped make it a great farewell party.

The last day still had room for a couple of quick company visits. We saw Nuya Essence, a female-run cosmetics company which uses local ingredients to produce natural skincare products, and whose growth is impressive – from 1 to 3 locations in 5 years.

The group at Nuya

The last visit was Hotel Verde – a ‘green’ hotel that belongs to Azam group. It’s quite inspiring to see a company go to great lengths to create a successful business that has a minimal impact on the environment. A particularly funny feature were the ‘Verdinos’ – a currency that guests are rewarded with when they act ‘green’ – take the stairs or generate power on the gym treadmill – and which can then be exchanged for mocktails or massages.

After the visit the extremely kind people at Azam treated us to a boat ride along the coast, where we saw a few more paradise islands, and a delicious lunch at the Hotel. It was a great visit!

Visiting a room at Hotel Verde

That was the official end of the trip. A few of us came afterwards to the North of Zanzibar, to relax a few days before heading back home to New York. We will be digesting all that we took in in the past couple of weeks during the trip back – it was a rich mix of experiences!

Walking the tortuous streets of Stonetown

Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Great experiences in Dar Es Salaam

We have just arrived in Zanzibar after 2 days in Dar Es Salaam. The differences to Kigali were apparent from the moment we got off the airport: It is a sprawling city, much busier, more populated and not as clean and organized as Kigali.

After a nap to recover from our very early flight we met the founder and some team members from Nala for lunch at the hotel (which was beautiful, by the sea). They are working to advance mobile payments in the region with an app that makes this solution more user friendly, and aim to provide a wider range of financial services in the future. The team was small, young and very passionate.

Lunch with Nala at the Sea Cliff hotel

After the lunch we visited Zenufa pharmaceuticals – one of the 5 pharmas in the country. They explained us the challenges of operating such a technical business in a country like Tanzania, where resources are not always readily available. But according to Joanna, one of our group members who is somewhat of a pharma expert, they have managed to put in place impressive operating procedures, even when compared to more established companies in larger markets.

The group at Zenufa

The evening was quite fun – we went for dinner at a place that turns into a club called Samaki Samaki (Fish Fish, literally translated). As in Rwanda, the locals proved to be quite fun and friendly people!

The next day was one of my favorites so far in terms of visits. We started with the IMF Afritec, a technical training center from the institution, and met Idan’s former boss, who gave us an extremely interesting overview of the macroeconomic landscape and outlook for the region. Afterwards we visited the carbonated drinks plant of Azam, a major conglomerate with a wide range of businesses in East Africa. It was mesmerizing watching all the production lines, and the volume of their operation is respectable – 6 production lines and warehouses after warehouses full of drinks ready to be distributed. The final visit was Liquid Telecom – a large Internet Service Provider with one of the widest infrastructures in Africa. Despite being somewhat small in Tanzania versus their operations in other countries, they were one of the key drivers of telecommunication capabilities in the country, The technical director in particular stood out for how passionately he talked about their network.

The group at the IMF

We said goodbye to Dar with a wonderful dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant (I now believe that there is nothing more satisfying than eating with your hands), and a few more drinks and a lot of dancing at Samaki Samaki again. Dar was extraordinary – populated with kind people and very dynamic and entrepreneurial businesses. We expect Zanzibar to charm us with its stylish old town and paradise beaches – more updates soon!

Welcome to Zanzibar!

Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Rwanda was incredible; On to Tanzania!

We just arrived in Dar Es Salaam, and all of us are very impressed with what we experienced in Rwanda. The bar has been set high for Tanzania, but we trust it will be up to expectations.

Before the official trip started, our group was split into two pre-trips: A visit to the gorillas in Volcano National Park and a safari in Akagera National Park. They were both amazing! The gorilla group came back very enthusiastic about how close they got to them, and we saw, among others, 3 of the so-called ‘Big 5’: An elephant, two lions and a lot of buffalos. It was also exciting to find some crocodiles and hippo by a lake.

The gorillas at Volcano National Park
Luke and Joanna with their new friend
A few of the many Zebras we saw at Akagera

The official trip started on the 22nd of August – a welcome dinner in Kigali, where we finally all got together. We kicked off the company visits the next day with Mara Phones. The plant we visited is just being finished now, and both of the company’s 2 phone models are expected to launch in September. They will be phones made ‘by Africans for Africans – as well as the rest of the world’; the company will be based in Kigali, employ Rwandans – including 60% women – and initially target African markets.

After Mara Phone we visited Africa Improved Foods. The company is producing an enriched porridge aimed at providing the nutrition that pregnant women and infants from 6 months onwards require, and in the process is also helping to improve the economic conditions of Rwandan farmers. It counts large international organizations as its backers and clients.

The group at Mara Phone

We closed the day’s visits with Fablabs, where we learned how a few young Rwandan entrepreneurs are tackling problems like clean water supply with the support of this branch of the incubator. Afterwards, we still had time to visit the Genocide museum. I don’t think words can do justice to the atrocity and extent of human suffering that defined this period of Rwanda’s recent history.

The weekend was dedicated to a trip to see the chimpanzees close to lake Kivu. We drove probably over 15 hours in total to be able to see them, which allowed the group to really bond and get to know each other in the van – a nice side effect. Seeing the chimps themselves in their natural habitat was of course an amazing experience – watching them get rowdy when one of the leaders showed up in the middle of their ficus meal was really funny.

I think it’s fair to say that Zipline, the company we visited on Monday is among the group’s favorites. They started around 5 years ago and deliver medicines to hospitals and other healthcare facilities with drones, solving the problem of access in regions with insufficient infrastructure. Everything about them was impressive – their sophisticated drones, the UI they developed to track them, the logistics behind sorting out the pharmaceuticals – and it was super cool watching the drones be launched and land again. Zipline also employs top local talent and counts leading global VCs among their backers.

The group listening to our guide at Zipline

Just before leaving the town we visited the local market, where we set out to see who could knock off the most from whatever item they decided to purchase by haggling with the merchants. Gang was the winner with 70% off a pair of wooden masks, closely followed by Gavin, who got 63% off a pair of woven baskets. Pretty impressive!

Anita and Professor Brian at the market in Kigali

As you can see, Rwanda provided us great experiences and we are thrilled for Tanzania. I’m sure I will also be talking about how amazing it is in just a few days. Stay tuned!

Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Rwanda and Tanzania: We’re ready!

We have less than two weeks to go until our trip to Rwanda and Tanzania, and I think it’s fair to say that anticipation is running high among the entire group. With the exception of Dee and Idan (our organizers) who are a sort of experts on the region, for most of us this will be the first time in Africa, or at least in East Africa. We are incredibly excited to get to know the companies who are making it the fastest growing region in the continent – such as FabLabs, Mara Phone Factory (the first smartphone factory in Africa) or Liquid Telecom. We also can’t wait to become acquainted with the local people, their culture and history – which has had its dark moments, such as the recent genocide in Rwanda, which we will get to know better in our visit to the genocide museum.

The preparation process has been somewhat eventful – it took us a while to figure out that being vaccinated against yellow fever is apparently not mandatory in the region, as we originally thought, and our interactions with the Rwandan online visa system have been challenging – we hope not too much of a preamble to challenges the region may present us!

We got to know each other in the pre-departure social in New York, and shared some of our expectations – from the company visits, to the local food and culture and scuba-diving opportunities, it seems we will be aiming to enjoy the trip to its fullest potential. Personally, I’m very excited to explore Dar Es Salaam’s thriving music and nightlife scene when possible – apparently the fun and creative Singeli genre is emerging in clubs all around the city. Over the next two weeks I’m certain that feelings of anticipation and packing plans will be filling  everyone’s minds. Stay tuned for updates as we kick-off the trip and go through with our exciting itinerary!

The pre-departure social in New York

Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Start-Up Nation I: The IDF

Doron, our classmate and instructor

We’re back from Israel after an intense week of classes, company visits, and group exercises. We connected the lessons of “Start-Up Nation” to the realities of the Israeli start-up ecosystem and learned even more about what makes these ventures so special. In each of the next three posts, we’ll explore an aspect of the book and its relevance in present day Israeli start-up culture. We’ll then connect those aspects to individual company visits. In our last post, we’ll examine the start-up nation as it stands today – a decade after the publishing of the original book – and hopefully make some informed predictions about what lies ahead.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)

Featured prominently in the book, omnipresent in daily Israeli life, and mentioned at nearly every company visit – it would be impossible to discuss the start-up nation without discussing the IDF. Israel’s mandatory conscription (3 years for men, 2 years for women) is an incredibly formative experience for so many who will go on to become start-up founders.

In most of the world, an individual can travel through life without meaningfully engaging with people outside of their social strata. While of course minor interactions are inevitable, this is likely true when considering deep, sustained interactions over a period of time.

IDF units, however, select individuals on the bases of merit and ability – not family background. This meritocratic staffing system, combined with mandatory conscription, ultimately leads to a relative lack of social hierarchies – as are found elsewhere in the world.

This is furthered by the lack of hierarchy within the IDF. Young soldiers are given leadership positions early and are free to challenge the orders of their commanding officers. Israel realized early on that it could not afford to let its military get bogged down in unnecessary formalities and bureaucracy – so it simply did away with them. As a result, IDF soldiers aren’t trained to simply accept things as they are given – it’s paramount that ideas are tested, and alternatives considered.

As it turns out, this mental framework is quite useful when considering innovation in business. Inability to see past the status quo and formalized rules of society are some of the most common barriers to ideation in business. Israel didn’t set out to create super-innovators in business – rather, it has been a naturally occurring byproduct of the IDF.

Beyond flat hierarchies and a knack for innovation, the IDF also builds the mental toughness necessary to succeed as an entrepreneur. We got a taste of just how much mental toughness is required in the IDF – as we underwent an afternoon of training (edit: light training) with former officers. Running with stretchers on a hot Israeli beach is no easy task – and we weren’t even in uniform. We can only imagine what boot camp would actually feel like.

Running stretchers full of sandbags down the beach in Herzliya

SpacePharma and Zirra

Challenging the status quo can be simple or can really stretch your mind of what is possible. For the latter, two company visits stand out in particular.

Yossi Yamin at SpacePharma has a vision of democratizing access to space. More specifically, he aims to expand access to research and development opportunities in orbit for scientists in a variety of industry. As it turns out, the microgravity conditions of space can have curious and unexpected results in the fields of pharmaceuticals and biochemistry. SpacePharma provides a vehicle through which a multitude of compounds can be launched into space as one package – allowing the various compounds (and their respective researchers) to share the cost burden of accessing orbit.

Examining a model of the SpacePharma boxes sent into orbit

Moshit Yaffe of Zirra, on the other hand, has her eyes set on Wall Street. A lawyer and former investment banker, Moshit has led Zirra as it pioneers AI-driven data analysis of company data shared across the internet. Rather than relying on technical financial data, Zirra will scrape the web for press releases, job postings, and other text-based data sources that can be fed into an algorithm that ultimately renders a buy or sell judgement. Initial results indicate that Zirra is onto something, with a sample portfolio outperforming the S&P 500 over the past 2 years.

Next Time

In our next post, we’ll examine civilian life in Israel and the socio-cultural forces that help drive a successful community of ventures. Check back soon!

Casey Buckley is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Final Thoughts on Japan

Final Dinner in Kyoto:
For our final evening in Kyoto, our organizers were able to invite a Geisha over to our last dinner together. To provide context, foreigners can’t book Geishas for events (such as dinners). This was a big deal for all of us. The Geisha introduced herself, sang us a few songs for us and even taught us how to play a few games that date back eras. We ended the night with our usual photoshoot but, this time, included our new lovely Geisha friend.

Bonding and Nightlife:
With half the people on this trip being form the J-termers and the other representing Fall termers, the evenings presented the perfect opportunity to bond over sake and karaoke. From the clubs of Tokyo to the tiny pubs of Kyoto to the riverside hangouts in Kanazawa, we made the best of our evenings and met with so many locals who were kind enough to get to know us.

Final Thoughts on People and Culture:
Japan was unlike anywhere we had been to before. When I ask my Chazen buddies now about what they miss the most about the country, answers ranged from the clean streets to the kind locals to the exciting baseball games. Personally, I miss the level of respect that is deeply knitted into the Japanese culture. The way an airport worker bows to the bus filled with tourists as its leaving. The way special needs workers would lift themselves off their wheelchairs to bow to us and welcome us to their facility. It’s a different nature of respect. One that is more defined by action than words. And it positively affected us, individually and collectively, on a daily basis during out trip.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School