John Baker

MBA Immersion in Rwanda, Building Sustainable Enterprises

Mention Rwanda to most people and they’ll probably think of rampant poverty and the immense tragedy of the 1994 genocide. The economy of this rural, landlocked country – based mostly on subsistence agriculture – suffered greatly during the ’90s. Still, despite its status as an emerging nation and its claim to very few natural resources, Rwanda is enjoying a remarkable economic rebound.

For the students and professors in Carey’s Global MBA program, the three-week Innovation for Humanity Project (also held not just in Rwanda but in Kenya, India and Peru) was much more than an opportunity to help a dozen overseas organizations develop business plans – valuable as those experiences were. Most significantly, those of us from Carey learned valuable lessons in how to conduct business in the new global setting – a landscape characterized by cultural diversity and ambiguity, and demanding an approach that embraces intellectual flexibility and empathy. Indeed, such locales will be where much of the business in the 21st Century will be conducted, so business people must become as knowledgeable about them as possible. This is the philosophy behind Innovation for Humanity (I4H), and indeed the philosophy behind the Carey Business School.

Nearly all of the 87 students in the Johns Hopkins Global MBA program participated in I4H project overseas; the several other students worked on a similar project in California. Preparations started in November when the faculty began to help each of the dozen project teams develop a deeper understanding of each country and then outline a plan for the projects. That was phase one of I4H. Phase two consisted of the actual in-country work. The third phase, completed after the students returned to Baltimore, consisted of wrap-up work and report presentations to faculty and other students.

My assignment was to supervise 22 of our students working in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on projects with African Medical Supply (administering less costly, more rapid testing for syphilis in pregnant women); Great Lakes Energy (strengthening the company’s corporate identity in the region and helping it better penetrate the rural market); the Rwandan Health Ministry (developing new ways that Short Messaging Service technology could be used to improve the efficiency of the Rwandan health care system); and the Polyfam Clinic (improving patient processing by making the clinic’s database more efficient).

One of the students working on the Polyfam project, Matt Gillis, wrote a blog that included his observations while in Rwanda. On his fifth day there, Matt blogged about an emotional visit to a genocide memorial – a key part of the process for anyone visiting or working in Rwanda who wishes to understand the heart of the place:

“Wow. I’m having a hard time finding words to describe my day today. Depressing, riveting, incredible all come to mind but fail to encapsulate fully what we experienced.

Our day started with a visit to a genocide memorial near the town of Mayange. The memorial was an actual church where hundreds of Rwandans were killed as they sought refuge from the ravages of war. Today the church contains thousands of pieces of clothing of those murdered. There are gunshot holes and dried blood throughout the building. There are mass graves containing roughly 10,000 victims. It was a horribly tragic scene. I have never experienced anything like it my life. It’s probable that I will never see anything quite like it again.”

You can read Matt’s entire blog here.

While our teams were busy in Rwanda, my Carey Business School faculty colleague Isaac Megbolugbe led four groups of students in Kenya, in projects at the Upperhill Eye and Laser Center (UHEAL), the Nairobi Women’s Hospital, Juhudi Kilimo, and the Kenya Red Cross.

(Image courtesy of Carolyn Nold).

One of our Global MBA students in Kenya, Carolyn Nold, was assigned to work for the Water and Sanitation Department at the Kenya Red Cross (KRC). Through grants from the European Union, the KRC is implementing projects that are working toward the Millennium Development Goals to halve the number of those without sustainable access to drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. These projects install hardware such as solar pumps, bore holes, and water dams, and they promote sanitation awareness through training on the community level, which ultimately ensures local ownership of the projects’ long-term goals.

“Our deliverables included a desk review of two past WATSAN [water and sanitation] projects which provided a benchmark for auditing the proposed implementation plan for the future Isiolo WATSAN project,” Nold said. “Using this benchmark created from the PMI framework, we also delivered a formal report of our findings on areas of improvement within the overall project implementation process. Finally, as per the client’s request, we delivered a thorough yet concise set of guidelines and checklists of the EU policies and procedures relevant to the expenditure and financial processes pertaining to EU-funded projects.”

For Nold, as for the other students working in Africa, the Innovation for Humanity course was a revelation. “I learned a lot of the unique nature of doing business in the field where there are not the same infrastructures or processes in place as those I am accustomed to in the U.S.,” she said. “For example, many of the vendors found in the field while implementing the water and sanitation projects do not provide official receipts or recognize tax-exempt status. Also, as expected with any international experience, I gained further skills and insights as to how to navigate and function professionally in new cultures, whether that’s with overall customs of Kenyan society or the specific organizational structure and norms of Kenya Red Cross.”

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