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.
Pedro Anjos is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School