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
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.
Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School
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?
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.
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 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!
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!
Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School
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 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.
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
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.
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!
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
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!
Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School
The Mexico City (CDMX) portion of our trip was intense and a great combination of company visits, site tours and cultural activities.
The first meeting that we had was with Metrobuildings, a local multifamily company that is one of the pioneers in the industry in Latin America. One of the founders, Francisco Andragnes (CBS Alum), walked us through the macro aspects of the industry and gave us a very informative site tour of one of his new projects in the Polanco neighborhood. We learned about what is driving the multifamily industry in Mexico and also about every small detail about the design of the apartments.
Another amazing meeting was with CBRE Mexico. There we had a great presentation made by Lyman Daniels, Mexico’s Country Manager, where he went through the Office, Retail, Hospitality and Housing industries in detail.
In a similar tone, we visited Morgan Stanley, and were able to go through a deep macro and market analysis, with a special focus on FIBRAS (the Mexican equivalent of REITS). We had deep discussion over regulation and the outlook of the real estate market in Mexico. We also discussed the current political shifts with the election of the new Mexican president (AMLO) and the effects of the Trump’s election on the NAFTA agreements.
Both CBRE and Morgan Stanley presentations were extremely useful for all of use to gain a better understanding of the markets and a better base to approach the other company visits.
Another interesting presentation was the one with O’Donnell, industrial developer in Mexico. David O’Donnell, founder and CEO, invited us for lunch at Club the industriales (business club) were we heard his perspective on the world’s industrial development and how Mexico has great conditions for this specific market. He also gave us some professional advice, and after lunch we walked through the Club and were able to see some paintings from Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
The trip has been great so far and all the information and knowledge that we are absorbing is coming together. It has been challenging to be able to stay concentrated but all meeting have been very interesting and have kept all of un engaged.
Now that we’ve returned to the joys of modern plumbing and
food that hasn’t had to be rehydrated, there’s been time to reflect on our
expedition in Patagonia.
Some students refer to the trip as “Patagucci,” the
implication being that an opportunity to earn 3 academic credits while hiking
in the Chilean wilderness must be a business school boondoggle. I’m fairly sure
the mental image conjured by most people is of a bunch of students decked head-to-toe
in Patagonia mountaineering apparel, sitting around a campfire with
marshmallows, singing camp songs. The reality
was very different. As arduous as the journey was, each of us came back grateful
for the experience. What’s more, we walked (or in some cases, hobbled) away
with some important takeaways on leadership and team dynamics.
uncertainty- don’t avoid it. There were so many moments when we
faced risky and unpredictable situations. We had to make decisions with very
little information. We’d start out on a promising route and have to change our
strategy partway through because the way we’d chosen was impassable. In some sense,
this was the way in which the trip was most analogous to the business world-
leaders face constant uncertainty in daily operations. Sometimes the greatest
measure of the leader is not how well they plan, but how well they adapt to
vs. the narrative. In every situation, there are the
objective facts and the story we tell ourselves about those facts. E.g., We’ve
been hiking for 6 hours. My pack is roughly half of my body weight. My feet are
blistering in my sodden boots. These are all indisputable things that are happening-
we have no control over the facts. The question becomes: will we choose to look
for the best in a situation, or the worst? Some of the most effective leaders
in history are those who are able change the course of events just by shaping
the narrative around them.
you make a decision, own it. On my day as designated leader, I
had a lot of doubt regarding whether I was making the best decisions for the
group, or if there was a better option. I felt personally responsible for the
well-being of my team, and wanted to make the day as smooth and easy as
possible for them. That was not to be! I had to do the best I could with the
information I had, and then stand by that choice and not second-guess it. No
one wants to follow a leader who is constantly apologizing for their decisions,
or wishing they had done something differently. Leaders should learn from their
mistakes, but should also be able to distinguish between mistakes and
circumstances beyond their control.
team is crucial. We had a lot of really tough days
during this expedition. Each of us was tested in different ways. No matter how
bad things got, I always knew I could rely on the people in my group. I was so
grateful to be part of a team that worked every day to be positive, supportive,
and helpful to one another. There were days when it was so hard to stay
optimistic, or even be pleasant, and hardly anyone complained, even despite great
hardship. Our success was due to everyone’s positivity, selflessness, and work
ethic. I realized how crucial it will be throughout my career to have a good
team to fall back on when times are hard.
As challenging as the trip was, I miss
it. There was a beautiful simplicity in having to do nothing more than get from
Point A to Point B in a day. There was a sense of pride and resilience. There
was a daily feeling of gratitude. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and
also one of the most rewarding.
Other global immersion programs can keep their 3 and 4-star
hotels, their balloon rides over temples, their drinks by the beach and their
multi-course meals. On GIP Patagonia, we sacrificed toenails, patches of skin,
broken trekking poles, and boots whose soles detached mid-trip. With our blood,
sweat, and tears, we put the “immersion” in global immersion program. It was
worth every blister and bruise.
This is an account of Columbia Business Expedition 2’s (CBLE2)
trek through Cerro Castillo National Park.
DAY 1: The Expedition
The class travels to NOLS headquarters outside of Coyhaique,
Chile to sort our gear, collect rations, and pack backpacks. Most packs weigh
in at about 50lbs each. CBLE2, which consists of 10 CBS students and 2 NOLS
instructors, is transported 2 hours to the drop-off point, where we make camp in
a field for the night. Our instructor, Pablo, delivers a memorable and extensive
demonstration on the proper technique for defecating in the woods. We learn how
to light WhisperLite stoves and pitch tents. Then it’s early to bed in anticipation
of our first full day of hiking.
DAY 2: Into the
Approximately 2km in 8 hours
Our goal for the day is to follow the river through a
forest, about 6km to camp. We set a route based on the topographical map,
avoiding areas with closely-grouped contour lines, which denote steep elevation
gains. Each contour line represents about 20m rise in elevation. What the map
does not show is gain below 20m. Nor
does it show the state of the forest itself, which consists of lenga
trees. These trees, along with thorny calafate bushes, grow thickly
throughout the terrain.
This translates to 8 hours of bushwhacking through the forest, struggling through vegetation, pulling ourselves up 10-12m ravines by prickly calafate bushes. We go as far as we can until the sun is close to setting, and then we make camp. We know that we haven’t made our intended destination for the day (we will later realize that we have only trekked 2 of the 6km we’d set as a goal for the day), but the terrain is too technical to risk hiking in the dark. There isn’t any flat land on which to pitch tents, so we hack shallow pits into the dirt and string up tarps as cover overhead. Our backpacks go under our feet to keep us from sliding down the slope, and we sleep shoulder-to-shoulder, 5 people per tarp. In the middle of the night it starts raining, but we are too tired to care.
DAY 3- And Then There
Distance Traveled: 2km
in 4 hrs
On day 3, we encounter our first group setback as a team member is medically evacuated. She experienced significant knee pain during the hike the day before, and was afraid that she had aggravated an old injury. In consultation with our NOLS instructors, she decides that she should turn back and not complete the expedition. NOLS instructor Pablo, Jamie Merolla (’19), and Lorenzo Casalini (’19) mobilize as an evac team to hike her back to the drop-off point, where NOLS will collect her and bring her back to base camp for medical examination.
The rest of the group, led by NOLS instructor Mita, will continue to the site where we had intended to camp the day before and wait for the runner team to return to us. Four hours of bushwhacking later, we make camp next to a huge drainage.
DAY 4- And on the
Fourth Day, They Rested
The group rests and waits for the evac team to find us,
which they do my mid-afternoon. The bad news: after 3 days of hiking, we still
haven’t reached our destination for day 1. This effectively means that we have
no cushion in our route; we will have push harder to make up the time lost.
DAY 5- La Playa,
Distance traveled: ~6km
in 6 hrs
For the first time, we split into two student-led teams of
5-6 people. Over the course of the expedition, each student will have an
opportunity to lead a team for the day, setting the route, navigating the terrain,
and engaging in consultative decision-making. Each team is self-sufficient,
carrying enough gear and supplies so that if for some reason we don’t reunite
at set meeting point at the end of the day, we can still camp comfortably and
Fortune finally smiles on the group. My team, led by Thirza
Koppert (’19), drops out of the lenga forest to the river. We hike along the
dry river bed and make good time to camp. We even overshoot our goal for the
day, making it further than we’d hoped, which is a real morale booster. Both
self-sufficient teams celebrate by washing our clothes in the river, sunbathing,
and building a small bonfire on the bank after dinner. Spencer Flasjer (’19),
whose rallying cry has been, “Vamos a la playa!” (“Let’s go to the beach!”) is
DAY 6- Alpinists
Distance traveled: ?km in 7 hrs
We leave the lenga forest to hike into alpine territory, almost 600m up. Now that we are out of the forest and above the tree line, I’m finally able to enjoy the scenery past my own boots. Our route is up through a mountain pass, over a saddle, and down to a glacier lake. The ground is nothing more than loose scree over sheer cliffs that drop into the valley. The higher we get, the more thrilling the view, and the more dizzying the drop. The terrain makes several of us uneasy (especially those afraid of heights), but we press on without complaint. Also troubling is the fact that the tops of Moni Vinuales’s (’19) brand-new hiking boots have started separating from the soles. Pablo has attempted to cobble them back together using duct tape and needle and thread, but it’s a losing battle. We’re not sure what alternative Moni has, since her only other pair of shoes is an old pair of running shoes- not ideal for trekking.
After a tough slog upwards, the glacier lake is a beautiful sight- the blueness of the water is inconceivable. There’s only one problem: there’s no shoreline around the lake, and we have to pass to the other side. There is, however, a ring of snow that has accumulated around the rim, and we hike through it. At one point, Mita says to me, “Elizabeth, please slow down. If you slip and fall into the lake right now, I can’t help you.” I pick more carefully over the snow.
We make camp on the other side of the lake. The view is
spectacular- on one side the lake, on the other a cliff that drops down over
100m into the next valley. There is no dirt in which to drive our tent stakes,
so Pablo and Mita show us how to anchor the tents using big rocks. We try to
find spots next to boulders to shield our tents from the wind, which is gusting
forcefully. Once it gets dark, we stay up as late as we can stand in the cold
and watch the stars come out. We all agree that it’s one of the most incredible
sights we’ve ever seen.
Before we turn in, the instructors casually remark, “So tonight we need you all to make sure you’re packed up so if the wind gets too high and we have to evacuate in the middle of the night, you can grab your stuff quickly and go.” When we ask if that is likely, Pablo shrugs and says, “Yeah.” Each time the tent is buffeted by the wind during the night (read: several times an hour), I’m up like a shot, waiting to hear Pablo and Mita yell for us to leave. We make it through without incident, however.
DAY 7- Taking the
Helm for the Day
~6km in 8 hrs
“Oh [expletive],” is
my first thought on day 7. It is my day as designated leader, where I will take
one of the two self-sufficient teams through our planned route. Today we are
descending back into a valley, down a very steep and precarious rock face, with
lots of small, loose rocks. What concerns me when I wake up is the sound of
rain- and wind- on the tent. Safety is my primary concern, and the already technical
route has become riskier with the inclement weather.
We make it down safely, thanks in large part to Max Esteves
(’19) and Ben McCabe (’19), who act as scouts, helping determine the best path
for the team. At this point, Mita has traded her hiking boots for Moni’s old
running shoes, and is hiking with very little support or traction. I am trying
to be mindful of her situation as we hike. Once we get properly into the
valley, we are dismayed to find that the forest along the river is much like
the one we’ve just left two days ago- filled with steep ravines, huge drainages,
and thick vegetation.
I start kicking myself- I feel personally responsible for leading the team through this situation. I’m convinced that I made a mistake, and if I had chosen a different path, we’d be making better time. At one point I turn to Max, an experienced mountaineer, and say, “What could I have done better here? Where did I go wrong?” He looks at me and says, “Hey, this is a tough day. There’s no right or wrong answer. We’re all here making these decisions with you- you’re not alone. This terrain is just difficult.” I appreciate his support, but have a hard time getting out of my own head.
We make it to the designated meeting spot about 10 minutes after
the other self-sufficient team arrives. They had a similarly arduous day, climbing
way up into the forest in a fruitless search for a flat way forward. During our
team debrief, my group encourages me to be a more assertive leader, and to work
harder at fighting off self-doubt.
DAY 8- A Taste of the
Distance traveled: ~8km
in 8 hrs
Eureka: my cooking group realizes at breakfast that hot
oatmeal, peanut butter, and chocolate transform into an alchemical combination.
Try it at home, it’s delicious.
The expedition is winding down, and we are racing towards the finish point. Our goal for the day is to get out of the lenga forest once and for all, and make our way to a lake, where we will camp. The next day we’ll locate the first trail of the expedition and follow it to the pickup point. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Probably a close translation of what Icarus said right before he took his wax wings for their first test flight.
Somehow my self-sufficient team is incredibly fortunate, and after a steep ascent, we find a cattle trail. No longer required to bushwhack, we make our way into a series of lush fields, with tall grasses, sweet-smelling clover, and small clumps of cattle. We are giddy with happiness. We arrive at camp at around 6pm, and pitch tents under a grove of cherry trees, which we raid and stuff ourselves with fruit.
Darkness gathers, and around 9pm, we realize that the other
team isn’t coming. We assume that they were unable to find the trail that we
stumbled across, and had to make camp for the night elsewhere. NOLS protocol
dictates that if one team isn’t able to make it to the meeting point on the
designated day, they have until noon the following day to catch up.
DAY 9- Sweet Reunion
~6km in 10 hrs
By noon, the other self-sufficient team hasn’t yet arrived, and we are starting to worry. Our team has had a leisurely breakfast (a makeshift cherry cobbler made from leftover granola, butter, sugar, and local cherries), filled our water bladders, packed our gear, and enjoyed spotting wildlife- 3 condor and a fox. We are about to strike out in search of the other team, when they straggle in around 1pm, clearly exhausted. They have been hiking since 7am, after a particularly grueling previous day. While we had crossed the river and ventured across the left side of the forest, they had stayed on the right, only to learn that there was no way to reach the lake from that side. They had to backtrack and cross the river to make it to the meeting point.
I ask Spencer what had been the toughest part. He says, “Where
we camped, there was no real water source. There was ground water falling down
the mountain, but it was more of a trickle than a stream, and we had to dig to
get to it. It was getting dark, and I was sitting alone, holding my water
bottle in one hand, and tapping drops of water off of a leaf into the bottle
with the other hand. All of a sudden, my nose started bleeding, and I realized
I didn’t have enough hands, so I sat bleeding until I finished filling my water
We give the other team an hour regroup and rehydrate before setting off for our final hike. We hike up into the mountains, searching for a part of the trail that the map indicated would lead us down to a flat plain, where we can walk on a service road out to the pickup point. However, we never find the split in the trail. We keep ascending until close to sundown, at which point we realize we have to get off the mountain quickly before dark. We have already called NOLS to see if we can push back our pickup time for the next day, but they respond: “Pickup is at 7am. We can’t change the schedule.”
Finding our way off the mountain is the first time I have seen either Pablo or Mita a bit unsettled. There is no trail, and we are forced to find our own way down a sheer cliff face. At certain points, we remove and lower our packs down the mountain, and then rappel down without ropes or harnesses, using only califate bushes (we have all taken to wearing winter gloves while hiking to minimize the number of thorns that embed themselves in our hands), or cracks in the rock as hand and footholds. Everyone is tired and dehydrated, particularly the team that has been hiking since 7am. After a hairy scrabble down the mountainside, we reach the plain around nightfall. We ford our last river and hike another 4km up the service road to the pickup point. We make camp at midnight. We have hiked about 10 hours all together; the team that was delayed has hiked 16 hours in one day.
DAY 10- Back to NOLS
We are up at 6am to pack up and ready ourselves for the bus back to base camp. We fill out evaluations and paperwork en route. Once we unload at NOLS, we have to go through gear check, cleaning out tents, washing backpacks, returning unused rations. Then we are allowed to shower for the first time in 10 days. My hair is so greasy that I have to wash it twice before the shampoo suds. Our legs boast constellations of bruises.
We are too exhausted to really reflect on the experience. We
head back to Coyhaique to eat our way through the town.
After traveling through Southeast Asia for winter break, just over 6 weeks, I had the opportunity to experience different cultures and countries through food, nightlife, human interactions, celebrations, natural beauty and historic sites. At the end of my journey, I had several peers ask me, “which one was your favorite?”
Before our Global Immersion Program (GIP), I would have had pros and cons for each country and said I loved them all. However, after spending two weeks diving into a country that was shut off for decades from the rest of the world, Myanmar has enthralled me. Through its benevolent people, mind-blowing advancement and beautiful townships, everything I had thought about this country has been completely turned upside down.
As a preface to what follows, I want to highlight an important fact that we often forgot during our trip. Our pre-travel and GIP were centered around the Bamar (Burmese) and Shan populations in the dry areas of the Shan State, Mandalay region and Yangon. Myanmar has been in conflict for decades, currently the longest running civil war. On the border states to the North and West, there are conflict zones with different ethnic groups that have been fighting the government and military since 1948. Particularly of interest, in the Rakhine state, there is a genocide occurring of the Rohingya people. Most Burmese people we encountered did not give the crisis much thought. Even the most intelligent of our speakers, local and foreign, seemed to defend the government’s actions at the very least calling the conflict complex and at most likening it to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I undoubtedly believe that the conflict is complex, therefore when I refer to the country and people of Myanmar in this post, I want to be clear that I am talking about the Burmese and Shan people, which comprise almost 80% of the population, and the development occurring within this area of Myanmar. Ultimately, the Burmese people are not directly involved in the conflict and the terrible burden lies on the government. Therefore, I want to turn the focus to the future of the country and the Burmese people.
Never in my life, have I felt so safe in a country so foreign. When I first stepped off the plane in Yangon to transfer to the Heho airport, I was cautious and reticent. I was mindful of everything I did, less I get locked up by the government for misspeaking or offending a citizen. These actions could not be more laughable now. The hope, love and optimism the Burmese people display is unmatched. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with admiration and politeness.
If asked if you wanted to buy something or a take a taxi, a simple “no thanks,” would suffice and the conversation would be done. No heckling. No pressure. If you’ve ever traveled in other parts of Southeast Asia, this is a complete shock.
Every single service counter, whether it was a convenience store, restaurant or hotel, you would be greeted with a genuine grin from ear to ear and a look that said, “how can I help you in any way possible?” Even when a mistake was made, YOU felt bad as they apologized profusely and immediately corrected the error. One classmate hilariously described riding in a taxi that was clearly cut-off by another driver and for the remainder of the ride the taxi driver would apologize sincerely about every 10 seconds.
When we asked a foreigner that had been living in Myanmar for several years why the people were so happy, he summarized it with one word: hope. Hope that Myanmar will become a better country. And every day their lives are improving. Four years ago, no one had a cell phone. Today, they are live streaming sports and movies on their smartphones at speeds faster than most of the United States. Yet another expectation shattered.
Throughout our company visits, we continuously heard the same phrase used to describe the technology and way of life in Myanmar. The Leapfrog Effect. It is an amazing case study of a country that had shut its doors for decades and finally opened them up to discover a world 50 years ahead of where they were. I have written in another blog post about how this amazing phenomenon has changed the lives of countless Myanmar citizens. Godfrey Tan, the CEO of Frontiir (the leading internet service provider in Myanmar), summarized it beautifully, “if they go out and buy cell phone service for 78 cents per person per day, and I sell them internet at 13 cents per day, I am giving them the opportunity to take that 65 cents and buy a meal. They no longer have to choose between food and internet.”
Godfrey was born in Myanmar, educated in the US, worked for many years and gained his citizenship, but eventually returned to his home country to bring technological advancement to the people of Myanmar. He saw an opportunity when he realized the country had only 1% landline penetration. Obviously, it would be incredibly costly to install lines in every single home to provide internet, so instead he developed a system of routers that line the streets of Yangon and Mandalay that give WiFi to those that sign up for his service. Through a box in their home, they can receive 4G internet at a price significantly lower than his competitors. This technology only exists in Myanmar, nowhere else in the world.
This example, and others like Wave Money, have revolutionized what was thought possible in emerging markets. With a cellular infrastructure to support apps like Instagram, YouTube, etc., one wonders why although their technological advancements are ahead, tourism is falling behind.
As we rode through Bagan and were surrounded by over 2,000 beautiful Buddhist temples erected during the 12th century, I wondered why there were so few tourists. At Inle Lake, when we stayed at a well-known hotel, we were baffled by the realization that we were 6 of maybe 15 people staying in the hotel that could hold hundreds of guests.
Although the Rohingya conflict is likely a major deterrent
for tourists, it is still astounding to be in places with such natural and
historic beauty and feel like it was carved out specifically for you.
The conflict aside, most people usually think of Thailand when planning a trip to Southeast Asia. I would make the argument that tourists should change or supplement their itinerary. Myanmar is a must-visit country in the region. It is a shame to see such a beautiful country lacking in tourism. Words and pictures cannot describe the adventure of hopping from village to village and shop to shop on Inle Lake with a group of close friends. As you fit into a narrow canoe , an Inthar native will drive you around a thriving population that lives on stilted homes and makes crafts like silver jewelry, cheroot cigarettes and lotus-weaved scarves. Fishermen pose for photographs in an iconic manner and Karen tribe women with long neck jewelry will peacefully wait while people come and visit them.
Even Bagan, the more popular tourist destination, felt like an adult playground that was abandoned long ago. After renting E-scooters you can bop around from temple to temple, climb on a few and become mesmerized by some giants. If you opt for a more expensive balloon ride on a clear morning you are stunned by the beauty of the peppered temples across the landscape. Unlike Ankor Wat or other temple compounds, there is a vibrant community of mainly farmers that live in the area and pray at the temples. The old and new represented and preserved in the middle of Myanmar.
As I reflect on ancient Burma and the present Burmese people, it is my hope that this country continues the path towards democratizing their government and advancing the lives of their people. The people deserve a country that will bring them wealth and prosperity. They deserve a future for themselves and for their children. My hope is that the world sees the diamond in the rough that is Myanmar, pulls it up from the ground and polishes it to demonstrate its brilliance.
I joked a few times with classmates that they might see my LinkedIn page in a few years and notice I’m working somewhere in Myanmar. After talking with several expats who have thoroughly enjoyed their lives there, the idea is becoming less and less far-fetched. Regardless, I truly hope that whether or not I’m living there in 5 years, Myanmar has earned what it deserves. In a country where Buddhism is so important, after suffering bad karma for so many years, good karma is finally due.
Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School
Over and over again, at each company we have visited, we hear the same story about the incredibly high penetration of smartphones in the Myanmar population. The figures shared with us have been astounding, all above the 90% mark. Thura Ko Ko, a senior adviser to TPG Capital and co-founder of YGA Capital, talked about the phenomenon. “Around 2014, the percentage of Myanmar citizens with cell phones was about 8%. From 2014 to 2018, that figure has risen to almost 100%. What is even more impressive is that over 85% of those who have a cell phone, own a smartphone,” Thura says as he leans against the podium at Myanmar Imperial University.
Thura Ko Ko, a Myanmar citizen, spent his early years as a telecommunications investment banker in London. After a successful career in private equity in the United Kingdom, he finally decided to move back home. Using his expertise, he has advised or individually invested in several projects in Myanmar over the last decade. He spoke about the smartphone penetration phenomenon as if it happened by accident. When the government realized they needed to catch-up to their neighboring countries, they passed a law allowing foreign companies to build and operate cell phone towers. This brought rapid investments with towers sprouting up all over Myanmar. Suddenly, there was 4G available wherever you went and citizens leapfrogged the normal progression of cell phone purchases of flip phones to smartphones. Furthermore, Facebook has become the go-to search engine or means for any internet use whatsoever. It has defined and molded the way citizens conduct modern business.
“It’s crazy. I walk out of the plane in Munich and pop in my SIM card and barely get 2G service if I’m lucky. I’ll fly back to Myanmar and literally everywhere I go, there is 4G service and you can download videos, movies, anything you want,” Alex Spitzy from JJ-PUN told our group.
This leapfrog effect that Myanmar has witnessed in smartphone technology is not isolated to just this industry. Thura Ko Ko believes it will also happen in healthcare, finance and retail as well. With regard to retail, he mentioned that only 30% of the population live in cities with malls and the current infrastructure issues deter those with access to traditional retail stores from shopping there.
“E-commerce and Fin Tech should do well because of the large population…the big guys are coming. Alibaba, Baidu, they’re all on the doorstep,” he says as he answers questions from MBA candidates from Columbia Business School and Myanmar Imperial University, “Financial access to banking is incredibly low. You will see us bypass the normal banking branches and head straight to Fin Tech.”
That’s exactly what Brad Jones, CEO at Wave Money, is doing in Myanmar. With an incredible story of Fin Tech penetrating Myanmar of mobile banking, Brad and his team have captured 95% of the market share. Wave Money has essentially become a cash transport system that can send money across the country in minutes. A customer goes to a Wave Money agent, pays in cash, the Wave Money agent sends this to a customer’s account, and that customer can go to one of any 38,000 active shops to receive the money. In an economy where there is only about 6% formal banking penetration and cash is king, Wave Money has become the go-to solution for Myanmar citizens who need to send money to families back home after earning wages in the major cities.
With all this rapid growth and the leapfrog effect coming soon, coupled with the high transparency in the country because of high-speed internet and high smartphone penetration, it is imperative for companies to also develop their social and sustainability programs. Large multinational corporations like Unilever, and smaller companies like Arao Company, are doing exactly that.
Trisha Mukherjee, the marketing director at Unilever for Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, talked about the importance of building the next generation of Myanmar leaders through their “Leaders Grow Leaders” campaign. From 2014-2017 they sent 4 employees to different countries to work and learn better practices to bring back to Myanmar. In 2019, they plan to expand the program and send 6 more. Of the over 1,500 employees they currently employ, there are 30 managerial roles. 11 of those roles have been localized by Myanmar citizens and they have a goal to double that number to 22 in the next few years.
When asked about the 2018 Myanmar minimum wage increase to $3.60 per day (up from $2.50) and how they were paying their factory workers, Trisha said that the Unilever-only factory workers are paid substantially above minimum wage and the two joint venture factories are slightly above with monthly incentives and benefits.
Khaing Mie Mie Win, a Burmese businesswoman with an incredible story from rags to riches (see link for full story), has built Arao Company from the ground up to several large garment factories with over 3,200 employees. The factories have been modernized and the working conditions are well above expectations. Some workers are paid minimum wage, but most above the new Myanmar standard and all with compensation incentive packages.
Not only are the facilities being modernized, but the systems and operations are being optimized as well. “Last year we were producing 35 pieces of garment per hour. After our factory manager rearranged the floor with a new system, we are now producing around 55 pieces of garment per hour. Our goal for the next year is to get to 65,” Khaing Mie Mie Win tells us at her factory.
Both visits to Unilever and Arao Company opened the discussion about gender biases and what the companies are doing to correct them. Unilever has created ads that break down the cultural norms about patriarchy and empower women with the knowledge that they can compete with men on every level. Both companies employ majority women in their factories (Unilever over 60%; Arao Company almost 90%). Khaing Mie Mie Win told us as she finished her compelling story, “that [this] become my motivation, to help these women have better lives.”
Although it seems like operational efficiencies have developed in some factories, there is still substantial room for improvement. “There is a lot of hand holding that has to be done in Myanmar operations. A job that would usually be done by 1 [person] is done by 3. The level of skill needed is still far behind other countries,” says Trisha.
Operational inefficiencies don’t just occur on the individual level, but on the corporate level as well. When asked about the potential for good investments in the airline industry, Thura Ko Ko scoffed at the idea. “We had 8 airlines in the country. Last year, 5 of them went out of business. We have 23 private banks in Myanmar. Not all of them will survive. Consolidation is not easy and will be challenging going forward,” he says as he wraps up the optimistic discussion with a bitter reality.
There is much work needed for Myanmar to become a major player in Southeast Asia, but with each visit, we become more and more convinced of the potential for success.
Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School
Day 2 of the Philippines began at the home of Secretary Mar Roxas. with a Filipino style breakfast prepared by Asia’s Best Female Chef, Chef Margarita Fores (affectionately known as Tita Margarita). Breakfast was comprised of Garlic Rice, Chorizo, Lumpia, Mangos and more! While different from a traditional American breakfast, you could tell that the group embraced it, as at the end, all of the plates were clean!
Immediately after our breakfast meeting with Senator Mar Roxas, we proceeded to a local farmers’ market, that was a few minutes walk from our initial starting point. At each stop, Tita Margarita gave us a colorful explanation of each food item and then often followed by a demonstration from the local vendors.
Keep on reading for highlights from our tour!
Stop 1: Filipino Fruits!!
Upon entrance of the market, we were greeted with lots of colorful fruits. Our fruit taste test began with mangos, locally referred to as mangaa, the Philippine’s national fruit. We then had samples of the following fruits: Lanzones, Chico, and Guyabano, which is also known for its “miracle” properties.
Stop 2: Coconut Milk + Coconut Water
We then moved to the part of the market where we watched the process of taking coconuts to create coconut milk. The coconut milk was both very creamy and flavorful. We then observed the process to cut young coconuts to obtain coconut water. Tita Margarita reminded us that coconut water is a good beverage choice after a long, late night (wink wink) due to its natural hydrating properties.
Stop 3: Lumpia
At breakfast, we had our first taste of Lumpia, a spring roll native to the Philippines. Lumpia could take shape as either a sweet or savory snack. At the market, we observed the process of creating a lumpia wrapper. The process was similar to the creation of a crepe. Lumpia wrapper is traditionally made with egg, flour, and water with a bit of salt mixed into a wet dough. We watched the chef take the ball of dough and press it into a large heated metal plate several times, to make the wrapper.
Stop 5: Yellow Fin Tuna (and more)
We then entered into the “wet” portion of the market. Upon entrance we were greeted by a very large yellow fin tuna fish. Where we learned that this fish is typically exported to Japan. We had the opportunity to taste the tuna, along with some shrimp and crab, ceviche styled.
To close, we then offered parting gifts! We had local treats to take away, for us to munch on while we were in route to the day’s company visits, as well as a straw bag and hat as souvenirs!
To follow along with us, stay tuned for more blog posts from me (Jacinta James), and be sure to follow our journey on Instagram @columbiachazen.