Florentina-Daniela Gheorghe, Skoll Scholar 2018-19, reflects on her own personal learnings moving out of Oxford in September 2019, a few months before COVID-19 struck the whole world.
“You will really understand the value of the MBA after 2-3 years,”
a friend and Oxford MBA alumnus told me last year.
I took the MBA as a reflection and learning year: to get to know myself better, improve my leadership skills, understand my strengths and my values in contrast, get to connect with people from all around the world. Learn not only about myself but about the state of the world: of business, of economics, of government. What a ride it was: from moments of exaltation, to moments of tension, to deadlines, to a variety of projects, to cultural alignment and conflict. A ride that I appreciate more and more with the passing of time.
I moved to Oxford for the MBA in September 2018 and moved out of Oxford in September 2019, a few months before COVID-19 struck the whole world.
I am very grateful for the opportunities that reached me in these hard times.
Here is what happened since September:
I got my visa application rejected for South Africa from UK twice! When I finally received it, COVID-19 was spreading all over the world.
I had my ticket and luggage ready to fly the next day and went to the embassy to pick up my passport: I found an empty passport. I applied again; application was rejected again. I was devastated. I was so excited to spend some weeks in South Africa and do an internship with a cool payment startup for SMEs in Cape Town. I was introduced to the company’s founder by a fellow Skoll Scholar and friend from the Oxford network. Four months later, I received a visa which I never used: by now, it was February 2020.
The wine industry
I worked on a project I never imagined myself working on, in the English Sparkling Wine industry in Hampshire, UK.
With no place to stay in London and no visa for South Africa plans, in November I moved to a beautiful vineyard in the South Downs. What a splendid experience! Extremely grateful to a professor from Saïd Business School who recommended me for the project. For 3 winter months, I spend my days understanding the art of winemaking, the market and the sustainability challenges. I was dreaming to making our brand the first circular wine brand in the world! After walking my dog in the darkness of the vineyard post 4 pm every day, I spent many quiet evenings – a blessing after a busy MBA year. The most fascinating thing about wine making is that every single activity in the vineyard, every single touch of the vine can change the final taste of the wine.
My journey as an independent consultant was just beginning
Building on the relationship I developed during the class “Implementing new initiatives in business”, I continued working with an education technology startup in Oxford and helped the five people team think through its value proposition. So many wonderful ideas can arise when we put our customers’ needs at the center of our business decisions.
Social impact consulting for non-profits
While at the vineyard, far away from the city life, I found myself with extra time in the evenings. Towards the end of November, a colleague and friend at Oxford introduced me to a social impact consulting project for a London based consulting firm. Since then, together with other MBA colleagues, we mapped the fundraising markets in Romania, Egypt, Uruguay, scanned the world for emergency funds for children, and looked at global strategies for expanding the number of regular donors for different international non-profits.
My favorite project so far: access to finance in emerging markets
I got introduced to a skill development institute in East Africa by another colleague at Oxford. Since February, we together looked to map the so-called ‘missing middle financing gap’ for small businesses in Kenya and beyond and understand how we might ensure their access to the most needed capital. Then COVID-19 hit the developed world. Many African countries imposed their own form of lockdown. We are now looking at being part of the mobilization for recovery. 100+ million ‘new poor’: the African continent sees the dark consequences of broken supply chains and economic shut-down. It’s imperative we act.
As a startup founder in an emerging market, I experienced first-hand the struggles for survival in under-developed support ecosystems for entrepreneurs. Talking to some mentors and system change experts, I knew I didn’t want to work in impact investing: there is enough money in the world. It’s the time for investors to step up during the pandemic. However, what the world needs more than ever is support for entrepreneurs to become investable, to survive and recover.
NEW! Climate tech startup
What else can I do from my small office desk in St Albans, UK? This time, my mentor in the Executive MBA cohort, introduced me to a circular economy startup run by one of her colleagues. I joined the team recently. We look to create a circular sourcing gateway for the textile and packaging industry. In my partnership role, I seek to bring people together and write fundraising applications in advance of our MVP launch in July this year. It’s so exciting to see how the world is progressing to circular strategies. Here is one of my favorite videos on the change towards a circular economy.
As I write this in June 2020, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the world post-pandemic. I am humbly trying to do my best to remotely support amazing initiatives. Though, my heart is in emerging markets, on the ground, in the streets, among people.
Daniela is a customer centricity consultant, ex social entrepreneur in ed-tech in India and a Skoll Scholar at Oxford Saïd Business School. Find her on Twitter @ella_gh
Dr. Diana Esther Wangari is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA. She is the co-founder of last mile health venture, Checkups Medical Centre in Kenya where she dedicates her work to treating those who need it most. Read more about Diana’s experience as a health professional during two viruses.
It started when I was in the queue at
immigration. This was at Brussels Airport. The elegant lady looked at me,
almost apologetically, then whispered to her partner. He turned and looked,
decidedly less friendly, pulled her towards him and they moved forward.
They didn’t have to tell me what they
were thinking. I was the only African in this queue, and it was at the height
of the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa: they had no way of knowing what
country I had come from.
And by then, global news headlines had
already proclaimed the ultimate horror: a man infected with Ebola had travelled
all the way to the USA, without his deadly infection being detected.
Worse still, he had interacted with
various members of his friends and family – over and above his fellow
passengers on the flights to the US, and the airline crew – before the truth
had emerged that he had Ebola. Total panic had ensued in America, and demands
were made for all flights to the US from West Africa (if not all of Africa) to
be suspended immediately.
I knew they were looking at me and
thinking just one thing…Ebola.
It was a time of global hysteria over
this terrifying disease, and thus not really the best time for an African to be
flying to Europe or North America.
So why was I there? At that airport?
In that immigration queue?
I had travelled from Nairobi, Kenya to
My final destination was the Institute
of Tropical Medicine (ITM) Antwerp, the very institution where Ebola had been
discovered by Dr. Peter Piot back in 1976.
You could argue that this feeling of
being dehumanised – of being seen essentially as a potential carrier of a
deadly and highly contagious virus – was all in my head. But I was to have an
even more disturbing encounter in the train on my way from Brussels to Antwerp.
On the train where I was seated next
to the window, a child came and sat next to me only for the mother to promptly
grab her hand and swiftly move with her to a distant couch. The gentleman
seated opposite, noticing my facial reaction, leaned in and started speaking in
Now while I do know some French, it
certainly didn’t prepare me for the verbal onslaught of incomprehensible French
that poured forth, and so I stared at the gentleman and said, “En anglais s’il
“Aha, so you are not from a
Francophone country,” said the gentleman, “I was simply apologizing on behalf
of the lady as it is ignorance and now, I see that you are not from West
In the conversation that followed, I
explained to the kind gentleman that I was actually from Kenya. And that
despite there being no cases of Ebola in Kenya, the impact of the Ebola
outbreak on sectors of our economy would be notable.
Our parliament had officially decreed
that Kenya Airways, our national carrier, suspend all its flights to West
Africa for fear that one of the many transit passengers from West Africa would
bring the dreaded disease to Kenya.
The Kenya Airways management argued in
vain that they were taking precautions against any such possibility; that there
were even European airlines still flying to the West African nations affected;
and that flights from West Africa to Dubai or China, via the Nairobi hub, were
a key profit centre for Kenya Airways.
But the parliamentarians would have
none of it. One MP even declared that the next flight from West Africa landing
in Nairobi, would find him – along with his supporters – lying on the runway to
prevent it from landing “if that is what it would take to secure the lives of
innocent Kenyans, threatened by Ebola”.
But I digress. Bruno (for that was his
name) told me of his dream to go on Safari in Kenya and was considering going
to the Maasai Mara to witness the annual wildebeest migration, famously, “The
eighth wonder of the world”.
I was smiling and laughing by the time
I got off the train. But that night – my
first night at ITM – I cried. I just could not help it.
However, that nasty experience of
being an African traveling in Europe at the time of Ebola was quickly forgotten
as I settled into ITM, as every day I got to interact with scientists who were
travelling regularly to Liberia at the very heart of the outbreak: the kind of
courageous and dedicated biomedical researchers that the world has learned to
think of as heroes, since the COVID-19 pandemic descended on us all.
And speaking of COVID-19, six years
after the incident at Brussels Airport, I found myself in another queue. This
time at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.
After completing the re-entry
formalities, getting into the Uber, I noticed the undue speed with which the
driver picked up my bags and flung them into the boot.
And then, once I was seated in the
back of his car, ever so casually, he asked, “Where are you flying in from, my
“London,” I answered.
And I could hear the “Oh” and then a
moment of silence, before he continued in a rather accusing tone of voice,
“Kenya just confirmed its first case of “corona” yesterday. It was a lady
coming from London as well.”
I got the impression that he felt I
should have volunteered that piece of information about having flown in from
London before I got into his cab; given him the opportunity to decline to drive
An uneasy silence followed.
“Are you worried?” I asked despite the
fact that I was in the back seat with ample space between. He quickly shook his
head but did not say anything.
We drove in silence. But it was
unnerving to see the occasional glances he threw back – taking his eyes away
from the road for a second or two – as if he was checking for some indication
that he was at risk: that a fine mist of coronavirus might be floating towards
him, brought back from a contaminated London, to infect innocent people in
On arrival, I volunteered to take out
my own bags. The driver seemed relieved.
Thanks to that great Kenyan
innovation, the ubiquitous Mpesa mobile phone money transfer system, I was able
to pay him without having to hand over to him, what he would no doubt have
considered to be “corona”-infected cash.
There was a time when I would have
been very tempted to scream at him that I refused to be treated like a leper in
my own country.
But I had seen much more of the world
over the past six years. I understood fear. I just paid him and thanked him. I
even gave him a tip.
And that night, I did not cry.
For you see, I had learnt over the
course of time, life is not black and white. I was now an MBA student at Oxford
University’s Saïd Business School and I had the sinking feeling that our MBA
experience, just like the rest of the world, was not going to be the same. It
has been two months and I was right.
Perhaps the hardest part was being
torn between answering the call to aid my country as a health professional and
continuing down the path I had already embarked on at Oxford. And some days, I do
find myself volunteering in the hospital because the little we can do, we must
And as we continue with our classes
online and I think back to the classmates, the faculty, the friends and the
family I made, I know it has not been easy.
I will tell you what Bruno told me as we left the train that autumn evening at Antwerpen-Central, “Take care of yourself my dear. Don’t forget to smile. It shall pass”.
Sandra Fisher-Martins is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is also a plain-language activist and entrepreneur. Sandra shares the candid truth about leaving her 10 year old organisation to pursue an Oxford MBA.
“Can you read this letter for me?”, asked Mr. Domingos, the office center caretaker.
We stood by his desk and he watched while I sifted through it. I explained that the letter was in fact a surgery voucher from the Ministry of Health paying for a surgery in a private hospital of his choice. His smile was a mix of relief and disbelief.
“I had thrown it in the bin. Then I remembered you telling me about your job the other day…”
Mr. Domingos had his first job at the age of five and taught himself to read as an adult. He enjoyed the sports newspaper, but struggled with official letters, forms and pretty much everything else. His life story was unique, but his experience of depending on others to access crucial information was not uncommon. Nearly 4 in 5 Portuguese are ‘functionally illiterate’, which means that their reading skills are insufficient to meet the demands of daily life.
I founded Português Claro (‘Plain Portuguese’) in 2007 because I was appalled by the gap between the average literacy skills of our citizens and the complexity of the documents we had to read to get on with our lives. From electricity bills to insurance contracts, from bank statements to government websites, everything was riddled with jargon and legalese. How could anyone make informed choices? How could anyone know and act on their rights?
Sandra and the Claro team at work
Sandra delivered a talk at Productized 2016
The low literacy problem is an important and complex battle to wage, requiring massive investments in education. I was too frustrated to wait. Seeing an opportunity to meet the needs of today’s Portuguese adults, I set out to persuade businesses and government agencies to simplify the way they communicated with the public.
Having little business experience, during my first years at Claro I used to dispel the flashes of self-doubt with fantasies of getting the Skoll Scholarship and picking up, in one swift year, everything I would need to run a successful social venture.
I never applied. I was too busy running the business and learning by trial-and-error to be a plain-language expert, a salesperson, an accountant, a project manager, a recruiter, a team leader, and a CEO. Stopping for a year was impossible.
And then, after nearly a decade of challenges and growth, Claro hit a sudden wall. A change in government had led to a sharp decline in private and public investment and our sales were plummeting. Faced with the possibility of having to close the company, I started questioning the sustainability of the change we had created over time. Without Claro to provide plain-language services, would these organizations revert back to their old ways?
As my doubts grew, it became clear that I’d allowed myself to be sucked into the day-to-day of running a social enterprise when the real challenge was in creating sustainable systemic change. It was time to stop and have a rethink.
I went back to the Skoll Scholarship and the Centre had added more programming focused on system change. So I decided to apply. This time I wasn’t looking for tools to run a business. I was looking for a space for reflection within a world-class network of systems thinkers, social entrepreneurs and researchers.
It is now Week 4 in Michaelmas (in plain language, that’s the beginning of November) and although the MBA has barely started so much has happened. This is a high-frequency learning environment, with daily opportunities to engage in mind-expanding conversations. Today I met with Patrick to learn about his experience running an impact investment fund in Peru. Last night I explored with Emily the systemic consequences of an ill-conceived agricultural investment in Ghana. Through this exposure to diverse experiences and approaches, my initial questions have evolved and unexpected themes — like ‘identity’ — have surfaced. Clearly, this journey has just begun. I am eager to see where it takes me.
Some social entrepreneurs and social enterprises are expressing the desire to avoid such a label. Additionally, knowledge among citizens of what social entrepreneurship is and means is still generally low, even though the sector has been around for several decades. What might be amiss? I argue that the ongoing failure to coalesce around a recognised definition or model of social entrepreneurship is part of the problem, revealing risks and opportunities for the sector at a worldwide level.
My research on social entrepreneurship in England suggests there are three different – and only partially overlapping – conceptions of what social entrepreneurship is and of how it should be supported. The first and most prominent part of the sector is focused on the concept of social enterprise, that is, businesses trading for social purpose. It is very heterogeneous in terms of players involved and ways in which social enterprises are described and organised. Within it, the main source of funding for both social enterprises and sector intermediaries is the government, and both the citizen and business sectors are mostly seen as customers.
The second and more “niche” part of the sector is more cohesive and focused on social entrepreneurs, described as lone heroes disrupting the system to eliminate the root causes of social inequality and injustice. Here, the role of the government is very limited and businesses and charities are seen as advisors and funders, rather than customers, while communities are the beneficiaries.
The third one, despite being the original conception of the term in England and the most widely adopted “on the ground”, is presently the most neglected by the public discourse. It describes social entrepreneurs and enterprises as acting to enhance their communities, either through involving community members in economic activities and decision making, or redistributing resources within a given area or population of interest. In this part of the sector, boundaries and players’ roles are very blurred and there are multiple typologies of social entrepreneurial activity, sometimes overlapping with other areas above.
Is this division a trivial matter interesting only for academic debates? I argue that there are a number of important practical issues, which either directly or indirectly stem from the lack of a clear definition. First of all, it hinders the ability of government or international bodies to create tax benefits or effective funds to support social entrepreneurship. Without being able to constrain the field of organisations entitled to receive such support, such efforts are frequently ineffective.
Secondly, the lack of a clear definition contributes to maintaining low levels of knowledge about what social entrepreneurship and social enterprises are, and what their value for society is. This, in turn, often hampers their ability to attract private funds. I know, indeed, from the interviews I conducted for my PhD project that some social enterprises and entrepreneurs face the problem of being perceived as “too business-like” for foundations, charities and private donors and “too social” for traditional investors and businesses (and sometimes even for the social investment sector).
Thirdly, the lack of a clear definition means that it is also much harder to establish roles and rules of interaction within the sector. Businesses are sometimes requested to be commercial partners or to involve social enterprises in their supply chain and sometimes they are requested to act as advisers and philanthropists. Government and local authorities would like to outsource public services to social ventures rather than to businesses but often they find themselves unable to distinguish between the two and to obtain the guarantee that there will be no “mission drift” once a contract is awarded.
Finally, the lack of a clear definition implies a lack of clear sector boundaries and of a clear positioning within the wider economic system. Many supporters and insiders continue to proclaim their hope that social entrepreneurship will become mainstream and either change the way that all businesses operate (‘social enterprise’) or will make the whole third sector more efficient and financially sustainable (‘social entrepreneurship’). Can these things happen while the sector keeps pushing in different directions, thus reducing its relevance both within the business and the third and public sectors?
I would like to conclude this post with two thought-provoking questions. First of all: why not refer to social enterprises as sustainable businesses? This might be the first step to merge this part of the sector with movements such as the B Corporations, in order to jointly represent a new, more socially-savvy side of the business sector, able to ask for tax incentives and to attract social investors and funds. Social entrepreneurship could be reserved as a definition of innovative projects carried out by third sector organizations trying to tackle the root causes and not just the symptoms of social issues, thus distinguishing them from the traditional charities and NGOs delivering fundamental but more traditional social products and services. Activities not fitting with these two definitions but that are important at community-level could be labelled as “community-based entrepreneurship” or just be re-included in the broader third sector.
Secondly, can sector supporters and intermediaries try to find a compromise sector definition accepted by all? As expressed by some interviewees contacted for my PhD research, the most influential organisations in the sector appear to be connecting and networking with one another but are in reality very territorial. They all hold on to their own conception of social entrepreneurship and they all hope to drive the sector in their desired direction, thus making it increasingly difficult to find a solution to the definitional and support debate. Sometimes creating a good ecosystem of support might entail stepping back and coordinating what happens as a skilled director rather than as the star of the show. Allowing the formation of clarity around the sector, its definition and its boundaries, while continuing to lobby and campaign for it, might really unlock those financial resources, public support and understanding that many organisations are craving for.
A group of 2016-17 Oxford MBAs go on the annual Africa Trek. This year’s destination: Nairobi and Kigali
Part 2: Rwanda
A city in transition: the above image shows the recently built CBD which has sprung up in the past decade, while the image below shows the areas hugging the CBD.
Rwanda is a small land-locked country, with a population of 11.2 million. For most, the atrocities of the 1994 genocide come to mind when the country is mentioned. However, the government is trying hard to overcome this history through pursuing a strong development agenda, leading to impressive annual GDP growth of 6.9%.
Arriving from Kenya, the contrast between the two countries was immediately stark. During our cab ride from the airport I noticed the perfectly manicured shrubs along the side of the road and the immaculately clean streets, with workers out-and-about sweeping, cleaning and repairing. I also noticed the beauty of the city – rolling green hills covered in terracotta houses, transitioning into new skyscrapers as we neared the city centre.
New offices and hotel developments in the CBD.
Another defining feature of the city are the thousands of motorbike taxis that swarm up and down the hilly roads ferrying commuters to different parts of town. A highlight of the trip was using this mode of transport to get between company visits, with a group of nearly twenty suited-up MBAs pulling up concurrently.
Hailing a large group of moto taxis to take us to our first company visit.
Operations manager Albert Munyabugingo discussing the growth of Jumia Food in Kigali.
Jumia Food is part of the Jumia group, a leading actor in online commerce in Africa with an ecosystem of online services and marketplaces including: Jumia (online shopping site for electronics, fashion and more), Jumia Market (allows users to sell their products online), Jumia Travel (African travel bookings), Jumia Food (food delivery service), Jumia Deals (classifieds), Jumia House (real estate), Jumia Jobs (recruitment), Jumia Car (vehicle marketplace), Jumia Service (e-commerce fulfilment and delivery).
Jumia Food launched in 2013 in Rwanda and was the first food delivery service in the country. Operations manager Albert Munyabugingo described the various tech components of the business, including the customer, vendor (restaurant) and dispatching software, and how these all had to integrate seamlessly to ensure a good customer experience.
The business model is based on the 10% – 35% commission paid by the restaurants to Jumia, with higher commission getting restaurants more visibility on the platform. The restaurants are given twenty minutes to prep the orders, something we believed would be quite a challenge given the more relaxed approach to service we had experienced. Also interesting to hear was their strategy to grow their middle-band customer, as they saw a higher customer lifetime value here than targeting wealthier, ex-pat clients who are more likely to leave the region in the future.
Munyabugingo spoke about some of the issues of doing business in Kigali, including internet outages (which necessitates Jumia staff manually phoning through orders to restaurants) and heavy rainfall which can affect delivery times.
The Office and Impact Hub Kigali
MBAs visiting the Impact Hub, run by Jon Stever, third from the left.
Jon Stever is an American expat who founded The Office in October 2012, the first open community working space in Kigali. Comprising a five storey-building in central Kigail, the space brings together makers, entrepreneurs and organisations that are working in social enterprise and civic and cultural arenas. Stever is also involved in running Impact Hub Kigali, a coworking space that operates out of The Office.
Stever gave the group a great overview of the entrepreneurial landscape in Kigali. In terms of issues, he spoke about the lack of trust and collaboration between local entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial support organisations which hampers collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas. He also discussed the high cost of internet connectivity and issues of down time. However, it was extremely inspiring to hear him talk about government efforts to improve business infrastructure, and the lives of Rwandan’s more generally.
Stever previously worked as an economist for the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and spoke about the passion of civil servants and the tight performance management practices used to hold all civil servants to account.
One Acre Fund
Seeing One Acre’s work on the ground – we visited a village in Karongi to speak to farmers who use One Acre’s services and observe some of the fields where they were testing different seed.
A member of the One Acre team discusses the trials that are being carried out to test different seeds. Tests such as this one help the organisation select the seeds that are best suited to the local weather and soil conditions and produce the highest yield.
We visited One Acre’s Rwanda headquarters in Rubengera, a 2.5 hour journey west of Kigali on the edge of Lake Kivu, which separates Rwanda from The Democratic Republic of Congo. The journey was breathtakingly beautiful with lush rolling hills covered in thousands of small rectangles of cultivated land dotted with homesteads.
It was interesting to note that the further we journeyed from Kigali, the worse the roads became, eventually the jeeps we were travelling in were using the full width of the road to dodge the wide potholes that pitted the asphalt. This reminded us all of the transport and logistic difficulties companies and organisations face when working in the region. It also perhaps points to the tension in government spending between urban and rural areas.
One Acre’s headquarters are built into the hills over-looking Lake Kivu and comprise accommodation and work space purpose-built for their staff, 98% of whom live in the field. Each space has a deeply peaceful feel – the kind of place you might come to do a mindfulness retreat. The physical design of the space fits their purposeful mission: to support small scale farmers to increase yields and to move out of poverty. The organisation currently serves half-a-million small-scale farmers, with the aim of increasing their reach to a million by 2020. They deliver their highly-localised services through a field staff of roughly 5000, working in Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi.
Jeremy Golan, Financial Advisory Services Manager for Rwanda, described One Acre’s offerings, which have been refined over their ten years of existence:
Farming inputs, including high-yield seeds and fertilizer.
Credit to purchase inputs, which is later collected via community-based groups to build accountability. One Acre also offers other finance products such as crop insurance.
Distribution / delivery to bring the faming inputs to within walking distance of the farmers.
Training on agricultural techniques.
Market facilitation to increase profits.
Golan, who has a background in consulting, emphasised that the organisation is run very much like a private sector company, with many of the management team coming from corporates or consulting. This ensured that operations were kept lean and the organisation was constantly innovating to find better ways to serve their farmer clients. It was inspiring to hear that some of the best minds, pulled from the likes McKinsey & Co, where now channelling their skills and energy to help those most in need.
What struck me most about One Acres work was the level of trust they need to develop with farmers, as their work targets the heart of their client’s livelihood and identify. Offering people alternative seeds, or recommending slightly different farming methods is essentially asking farmers to shift their behaviour away from well-practiced norms. It seems this trust is created by building a staff who are farmers themselves and live in the villages One Acre aims to serve, by running highly-localised tests at village-level to show the value of different seeds and techniques, and by taking a very long-term view on building both social and infrastructural capital.
To conclude, the Africa Trek will definitely be one of the highlights of my MBA. It was a rare opportunity to have a privileged access to CEOs and other business leaders, and to learn first-hand about the business models and activities they are pursuing to help build the region. As an African, and as a business student, I am hugely excited by amazing work I witnessed in East Africa. The experience opened my eyes to the opportunities of the region, but also reminded me that there is much work to be done to ensure those living in poverty are supported to move up and live more dignified lives free of carting heavy water drums, free of preventable illnesses and free of the structural violence that comes with poverty. There is much work to be done.
Author: Gillian Benjamin
Gillian Benjamin is a social design practitioner from South Africa. Driven to use design to create social impact, she founded a design studio to serve social justice organisations and later worked at the Cape Craft and Design Institute running design thinking projects in healthcare, education and the built environment.
A group of 2016-17 Oxford MBAs go on the annual Africa Trek. This year’s destination: Nairobi and Kigali
Part 1: Nairobi
A man pushes his bicycle through Toi Market, a thriving second-hand clothing market in Nairobi that stretches multiple blocks, eventually ending in Kibera slum.
In April 2017 17 MBA’s spent an unforgettable two weeks in Kenya and Rwanda. The student-driven trek aimed to expose participants to the business context in each country. Organised by students from the region, it tapped into local networks to give an ‘insiders view’ of each city. During the April break there were three other concurrent international treks and electives taking place in Johannesburg, New York, the Middle East Singapore and Hong Kong.
I chose to join the Africa trek as I had limited experience and knowledge of East Africa (ashamedly, as I am a native South African). I was curious to learn more about the thriving economies of the region and gain a comparative understanding of Eastern versus Southern Africa.
The trek exposed us to diverse companies and business models, from a consulting firm helping international development organisations better support local SMEs to an off-grid energy company serving the bottom of the pyramid. Through each company presentation we learnt a little more about the nuances and opportunities of the region.
While the company visits were fascinating, another area of great value came from the opportunity to spend two weeks with my classmates. In the rush of a 12-month MBA there is limited time for slow, deep conversation. However, the interstitial moments of travel provided the perfect opportunity to bond; a 20-minute cab ride to the airport or sharing a meal over dinner gave each of us the opportunity to learn a little more about others’ backgrounds and future ambitions. The accrual of these small interactions created a special bond that will live on well beyond the MBA.
Open Capital Advisors
Students on the MBA Africa Trek at Open Capital consultants in Nairobi, with alumnus Holden Bonwit in the centre.
Open Capital Advisors is a management consulting and financial advisory firm with 40 employees spread across offices in Kampala (Uganda), Lusaka (Zambia) and Nairobi (Kenya). They offer consulting services to local businesses, investors and international organisations, with two-thirds of their investment work being in the social impact space. We were hosted by Oxford Saïd alumnus, Holden Bonwit (MBA 2013 – 2014).
Bonwit shared what he believes are the three of the biggest challenges for growth in the region:
Talent acquisition and lack of human capital to implement strategies
Lack of infrastructure
Lack of access to capital for SMEs (due to a miss-match between the needs of SMEs and the instruments offered by international Development Finance Institutions)
He spoke of the enjoyment he gets from working on meaningful development projects where his skills and expertise have real impact. He also introduced us to the concept of the Kenyan side-hustle (or multiple side-hustles), evidenced by the fact that a single family usually has about 11 discrete income streams.
MBA students meeting with CEO of Safaricom Bob Collymore and his team
We were honoured to spend time with Bob Collymore – CEO of Safaricom – Kenya’s largest telecom. It has a valuation of $ 8 billion and accounts for approximately 40% of the Kenyan stock market. M-PESA, the pioneering mobile money solution, is one of Safaricom’s products.
Continuing the narrative from Open Capital Advisors, Collymore spoke of how their people strategy is their biggest strategy, saying, “You can have a bad strategy but a good team and the outcome will be good, however, the opposite is not true.” With a firm belief that quality products are created by engaged staff, he spoke of how the company strives to ensure their people have a good work-life balance and get eight hours of sleep – allocating each staff member a ‘thrive-buddy’ to keep them on track and ensure they aren’t overworked.
The company takes their position as a dominant player seriously, seeing it as their responsibility to act as a good corporate citizen and set the tone for others. Safaricom was one of the first corporates to release a full sustainability report and embrace the Sustainable Development Goals, with each corporate function selecting the goals they wish to work towards and then feeding back progress directly to Collymore’s office.
Collymore’s commitment to sustainability and good corporate governance is also evidenced by his membership in the B-team, which brings together business leaders like Unliever’s Paul Polman, Richard Brandson, and Arianna Huffington to push businesses to become more transparent and sustainable, as well as sitting on the board of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.
Two Andela students working in the chill-out area of the Nairobi campus.
“Brilliance is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.”
Andela’s goal is to spread tech opportunity to Africa by finding and training Africa’s next generation of tech talent and connecting them to demand in the West. This is achieved through a two-sided business model: on the supply-side, African candidates apply to join a four-year paid Technical Leadership Program designed to shape them into elite software developers. On the demand-side, a 50-strong sales team based in the US sells Andela’s services corporates looking for excellent tech talent.
Joshua Mwaniki, Country Director for Kenya, told us they receive around 2000 applications per month from people eager to join the Fellowship. With an acceptance rate of 10 – 15 people monthly, applicants have a 0.5% chance of getting in to the programme. What differentiates the Andela from other tech training programmes is their comprehensive Learning Map, which maps a Fellow’s progress against clearly delineated hard and soft skills on a daily and weekly basis.
Andela’s biggest challenge is gearing up to train enough talent, as there is currently more work available than there are programmers to work on the jobs. But upping supply in Africa, Andela is hoping to spread opportunities a little more equally. Their new campus currently under construction will house 1000 students and will go some way to achieving this vision.
Oxford Saïd Alumni Dinner
Current students met with recent alumni who are currently working in Nairobi at Burn and Dalberg.
Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and Oxford Saïd alumnus shows students the entry-level M-KOPA solar unit.
M-KOPA is a pioneer in off-grid, pay-as-you-go solar power systems. With a team of 300 customer care agents on call 24-hours a day, and an on-the-ground salesforce of over a 1000 people, the company is growing rapidly.
Their entry level unit comprises an 8W solar panel, 3 LED lights, a LED torch, a radio and a phone charger. Customers pay an upfront payment of £22 and then pay a 40p daily instalment over a year to pay off the remainder of the unit, where after the unit is theirs. The unit comes with a one-year warranty and has an estimated battery life of four years.
On the ground sales agents help customers calculate the cost-benefit analysis of switching from kerosene to solar, by adding up how much they spend in a year on kerosene, batteries and charging their mobile phone. Once totalled, the entry level M-KOPA unit comes in around one-third cheaper during the payment year, then giving clients a further three years of energy before they need to replace the battery.
Most interesting however is how the company views solar as the foothold into a customers’ home. When a customer is nearing the end of their year-long repayment schedule they receive a call from an M-KOPA agent offering a variety of products; a solar-powered TV, a water-harvesting tank, a bicycle, a cook stove, a starter-pack for chicken farming or a smartphone – any of which can be purchased by extending their existing payment plan. Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and SBS Alum stated, “We are a finance company, selling useful capital assets that save people money.” M-KOPA is focusing their energies on building a ladder of household products, from basic to more advanced, to improve the lives of the poor.
Students shared lunch with Dalberg staff followed by a Q&A session.
“Until the change is done, our work isn’t done”. These were the words of Edwin Macharia, Dalberg Partner and Regional Director of Africa, speaking about how the firm goes far beyond the work of traditional consultants (who are renowned for leave their strategy decks for clients to implement). Dalberg is a platform of companies committed to global development and innovation, including Dalberg Global Development Advisors (consulting), D.Capital (Investment advisory and impact investing), D.Research (data, intelligence and analysis), DIG (Design Impact Group focusing on human centred design) and an implementation support arm.
Dalberg is ten years old and currently has six offices on the continent. Their client mix is one-third governments and large international organisations (such as the UN, DIFD and the World Bank), one-third social sector organisations and foundations and one-third private businesses.
The company is also focused on creating self-driven projects where they spot opportunity areas. Macharia recognises the privileged position the company holds, with contacts in just about every major foundation and development agency in the world. He said, “We are one, maybe two phone calls away from anyone in the world. What are we going to do with that?” One such example is Unleash, an ambitious project driven by Dalberg and other partners, bringing 1000 young innovators into a global innovation lab focused on the Sustainable Development Goals.
Maua Project (Wrigleys)
Mathare Slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Maua project representatives speaking to MBA students in the Mathare Slum, describing the benefits of the project on the ground.
The Maua Project is a project of the Mars Catalyst, Mars Incorporated’s internal think tank. In 2014, Mars’ leadership announced their intention to become the ‘most mutual company’ in the world, delivering value to all stakeholders involved in their value chain.
Maua, Swahili for ‘flower’, is a route-to-market mutuality project in Kenya. It develops micro-entrepreneurs, called Uplifters, who act as sub-distributors connecting stockpoints to retailers, predominantly in areas where Mars currently doesn’t distribute to outlets. This creates work for the Uplifters, and increased market penetration for Mars.
The project makes use of a ‘hybrid value chain’, partnering with a range of organisations and non-profits to support various programme elements like recruitment, training and access to tools. Partners include a logistics company, World Bicycle Relief, Ashoka, a microfinance company and M&E support. In 2016 Maua had 368 Uplifters involved in the programme and aim to increase this to 590 by the end of 2017.
Oxford and Cambridge Dinner hosted by Oxford Saïd alumna, Adema Sangale
The Africa Trek group was hosted by Adema Sangale, Vice-President of World Bicycle Relief in Africa, who brought together alums from both universities who work Nairobi.
Naivasha and Nakuru
After a week of company visits we left the city to see some wildlife and have some well-earned rest.
It’s not every day that you get to summit a dormant volcano (Mount Longonot) and then get to hike around its rim.
Day safari at Lake Nakuru National Park.
Giraffes at Nakuru National Park.
Bird watching on Lake Nakuru.
Hanging with the hippos on Lake Naivasha.
Part 2 of Africa Trek 2017 coming soon where the MBAs head to Kigali…
Author: Gillian Benjamin
Gillian Benjamin is a social design practitioner from South Africa. Driven to use design to create social impact, she founded a design studio to serve social justice organisations and later worked at the Cape Craft and Design Institute running design thinking projects in healthcare, education and the built environment.