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Interview with Dennis Muchira: Dalberg Global Development Advisors

Whilst on her MBA trek to Nairobi and Kigali this year, Gillian Benjamin had the opportunity to meet up with Oxford alumni working in social impact organisations.

Photo of Dennis Muchira

“The MBA brought a completely different way of thinking to compliment my technical mind-set. It added a dimension to my thinking that I didn’t even know I needed.” – Dennis Muchira

Dennis is a recent Oxford Saïd 2015 – 16 alum who has been based at Dalberg in Nairobi since January 2017. I had a chance to chat to him at their office while on the 2017 MBA Africa Trek, where 17 MBA students travelled to Kenya and Rwanda to meet the businesses and individuals driving Africa’s growth story.

Dennis completed his undergrad in Actuarial Science in Nairobi, followed by a Masters from Columbia. He then worked as a life insurance actuary for PwC in New York for four-and-a-half years before being overcome with an itch to come back and create positive impact on his home continent.

What made you choose Oxford Saïd?

I started looking at various programmes in the US and the UK and Oxford stood out to me for two reasons. The school is very strong in social impact and I knew this was the direction I wanted to take – the Skoll Centre was housed there – so this attracted me.

They also have quite a number of scholarships available for African students. I applied and was fortunate to get admitted and receive a Saïd Foundation Africa scholarship which helped tremendously.

How did Oxford enable your career transition?

While at Oxford I was constantly on the lookout for careers that had a social impact component to them. I joined the Social Impact Oxford Business Network (SI-OBN) and through this I learnt about Dalberg. The idea of getting into a consulting firm that was purely about impact got me interested.

Oxford was also key in preparing me for interviews at Dalberg. I went from not knowing how to do a case interview to being very comfortable with the process thanks to my peers.

In Dalberg cases you aren’t just thinking about the client, but about multiple stakeholders and the broader ecosystem, and most times you aren’t actually thinking about profit but about the impact the client should have. So I tailored the standard consulting frameworks I learnt at Oxford and honed this to Dalberg.

I also organised the Africa Trek from my cohort and while we were in Johannesburg we visited the Dalberg office. Here I met Carlijn Nouwen, the Director of the Joburg office and she put me in touch with Nairobi recruitment. Then when a position arose I was able to apply and was already on their radar.

What mind shifts did the MBA bring?

Actuarial training is very rigorous and technical but it is only one way of thinking about business situations. I’m grateful for this training as it did imbue with top-of-class analytical rigor. However, in taking courses like Strategy, Leadership and Entrepreneurship it felt like there was a brain muscle I was exercising that I didn’t know existed. The MBA brought a completely different way of thinking to compliment my technical mind-set. It added a dimension to my thinking that I didn’t even know I needed. Now I’m able to think about problems analytically and strategically – I’m able to handle the complexity that comes from dealing with projects that involve lots of stakeholders and many moving parts.

What advice would you give to other students who are thinking about pursuing an MBA?

The first step is to do a lot of introspection to figure out what your career journey has been so far, your strengths and weaknesses, and your personal and career goals. You need to be brutally honest with yourself about who you are and what you want to achieve and use that to choose a school that aligns well with your goals.

Different schools have different focus areas – for example some are renown for finance, others have a heavy focus on consulting while others provide a lot of support for entrepreneurs. This affects the type of people the schools attract and the students they ultimately admit. So figure out which schools will make you a better person, a better professional and provide you with access to a strong alumni network in your areas of professional interest.

The second step is to prepare for the applications. Take the GMAT as early as you can and get it out of the way. Do as well as you can on the GMAT because this informs scholarship decisions, in addition to other factors. Also reach out to others who have done it before who can give you guidance on your essays. My first drafts were quite unrefined, but in time I was able to craft my story and communicate this well.

Students shared lunch with Dalberg staff followed by a Q&A session.

The MBA Africa Trek 2016 – 17 visiting the Dalberg office in Nairobi.

Tell me about your job search process:

I applied to some of the larger corporate consulting firms during the MBA recruitment cycle but I didn’t quite enjoy the cases as much as I enjoyed Dalberg’s case interviews. While completing Dalberg’s I was like, “yeah, this is actually stuff I could see myself doing for the long-term.” It was interesting to me and got me engaged.

Dalberg interviews have a fit component where they try to understand your background, your motivation for being in consulting in the development space and understand whether you’ll fit with the culture – the company is not hierarchical and growing fast.

How has the city changed since you lived here?

There is a lot of infrastructure development – a lot more buildings and roads. There are also a lot more people. Walking around the city it feels a lot more crowded –almost kind of like a New York.

Also there is a lot of exciting stuff happening in entrepreneurship and innovation. There are all these really cool businesses emerging and you can just see it growing. We also have many multi-national organisations setting up in Nairobi like GE, IBM and Google. So it’s really growing in terms of infrastructure, population and business.

What is the alumni network like in Kenya?

We have quite a strong presence in Nairobi. In my cohort, there are two of us and many people from years before. A lot of people are working in social enterprises and in consulting in organisations such as M-KOPA and Open Capital Advisors.

What are you currently working on?

I have just completed my first project which was an ecosystem study of the digital financial services available to small-holder farmers in Tanzania. We did this to identify gaps in the system where our client could then intervene to ensure the farmers could access digital financial services.

What do you enjoy most about the work?

It’s really engaging and impactful. And it’s varied – for example my first project was on financial inclusion. My next one might be on health or energy. So it changes all the time.

Dalberg’s culture is flat and the people are very approachable. I have colleagues who I call friends as well. Here people genuinely care about you and you are encouraged to bring your whole self to work. It’s a different environment and I’m really happy here.

Celebrating Oxford Saïd Impact Careers

If you’re an Oxford Saïd alumnus working for an impact organisation, helping to scale a start-up, running your own social enterprise, or going down another impact path, let us know!

To celebrate the impact careers of our alumni, we are offering one individual a ticket to the 2018 Skoll World Forum. Other high impact Oxford Saïd alumni will be brought back to Oxford to give them a chance to share their story with students and the wider University community at an award ceremony in the spring. 

Find out more about this initiative, tell us your story, and apply!

Schools – The Next Domain for Technological Disruption?

Skoll Scholar 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, is passionate about education. He spend several years teaching Maths and Politics in London schools before he led the major growth of UK education charity, Future First. In this blog, Alex explores the future of our education system and the classroom experience.

It is sometimes said that school classrooms look the same today as a hundred years ago.

Students often still sit in rows of desks, writing about Shakespeare on reams of paper. They practise algebra in books and teachers mark them. Blackboards are now white, but teaching is still mostly led from the front of the room.

Yet this description masks huge cultural and pedagogical changes over the last century. Corporal punishment has gone. Girls and boys are now (usually) educated together and both take subjects historically restricted to the other gender. Children with special needs are included and catered for. And whilst teachers do often stand at the front, they employ a whole range of different techniques such as student- and peer-led learning. Our classrooms are also more diverse than ever before.

Almost all would agree these are huge, positive changes. They are. But whilst this represents seismic progress over the 20th century, the change in the last 10-15 years has, perhaps surprisingly, been slower.

Schools in the UK have improved overall. Results are getting better, albeit too slowly (especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds). Much more is known about how to turn schools around. There’s been a revolution in the use of data to help students make progress. The Academies programme was born and grew.  But in the classroom itself, progress has been evolutionary not revolutionary.

This steady classroom development has taken place in the context of one of the biggest technological revolutions the world has ever seen. Smartphones. Tablets. Broadband. Netflix. Crowdfunding. Kindles. Those George Clooney coffee machines. None existed when I was a school boy.

But we’ve yet to see these types of technology truly transform the classroom. Teachers now do more on computers than ever before. Students do too. Computer Science is being rolled out as a subject in schools across the country. In Higher Education, we’ve started to see the adoption of MOOCs.

Yet we’re only now at the advent of the technology that truly can transform our schools. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in ‘personalising’ learning.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is supporting those students finding a topic difficult, whilst stretching the others who pick it up quickly. With so-called ‘adaptive learning’ technologies, students are able to benefit from additional (computer-led) tutoring that is personalised to them according to how they’re progressing. The most revolutionary aspect of the new technologies is that not only will the technology be able to adjust according to whether a student answers a question right or wrong, but it will be able to spot where they’re going wrong and try to fix their misconceptions.

Imagine every student being given individual support, personalised to the exact stage they are at, all the time. That’s the opportunity.

As with most technological disruption, alongside opportunity comes risk. Firstly, this technology must not be seen as a chance to replace teachers, downgrade their importance, or hire fewer of them. These technologies are an opportunity to help teachers maximise their impact on students. One day computers may become so advanced that a conversation is required about whether a robot really can replace everything a teacher does. Even with this new technology, we are absolutely nowhere near that point.

Attention must also be drawn to who is providing this technology and who therefore owns the data. As leading EdTech thinker Nick Kind has observed, Google, Facebook, Amazon et al are already positioning themselves as leaders in this field too. Each relies heavily on data. So does adaptive learning. As Kind argues, schools and their pupils will miss out on great innovation unless we make sure this data is open to start-ups as well as titans.

The technology is close and getting better year by year. The need is clear. Yet teachers are tired of new initiatives.

Early adopters in the profession will bring others on board when they see what is possible, but it is imperative that the companies leading this charge engage properly with the profession. The best innovations will be co-led by teachers, technologists and experts in learning science. The companies that act on that early will win this race.

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Creating opportunities through the power of language

Macarena Hernandez de Obeso, is a current Skoll Scholar and is dedicated to economic opportunity and prosperity for deprived communities in Latin America.

She shares the story of starting her new social enterprise that aims to bring together a global community, all the while studying her Oxford MBA!

In September of 2016 I started the most incredible journey of my life so far, an MBA at Oxford. At the beginning, I was sure that I was here to strengthen my business knowledge to be able to combine a sustainable business model with a social mission. However, I wasn’t sure which path I was going to achieve it in the future. I had in mind three options:

1. come back to the social enterprise where I was working before

2. join an international organisation or enterprise focusing on the design of tools and impact metrics to enhance the work of social entrepreneurs

3. start my own venture

Surprisingly, in less than two months, one of these became a reality.

Meeting my Co-Founder

During the first week of my MBA, I met Ana Maria. Being both born in Latin America and having dedicated part of our life to social impact, we realised that we shared a powerful goal; to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential. She had the idea to fund a charitable project offering Spanish language practice for foreigners through conversations with native speakers within the project’s community. I loved the idea, but not the business model; I thought it should be a social enterprise that could fund itself by creating access to economic opportunities and a flexible way of income for all Spanish native speakers in Latin America.

Launching our social enterprise

In November of 2016, we founded Language Amigo. Today, we are connecting, through video calls, language ’Learners’ who want to practice conversational Spanish, with native speaking ‘Amigos’ from Latin America. For Amigos, Language Amigo is a flexible way of income and for Learners, Language Amigo is a flexible way to practice.

Through Language Amigo, we are not offering Spanish teachers. We are offering to language learners the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people, Amigos. I believe that the main objective to learn a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background. Through Language Amigo, you can do that.

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Challenges

I was very happy working on my new venture, but with every new path comes its challenges and scepticism. In February 2017, I was delivering a presentation about Language Amigo, to my communication skills’ group at the Oxford Language Centre. I explained that to generate income, Language Amigo keeps a percentage of the cost of the calls conducted between Amigos and Learners. The first question that I received after this presentation, from a Chilean student, was: “are you exploiting Latin American youngsters to create a business?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t sure what feeling this question had caused me. Anger? Deception? Surprise? Indignation? I realised that it is not obvious to everyone that a collaborative economy business model, such as Language Amigo, is creating economic inclusion for people who did not have an economic opportunity before. I was conscious that industries threatened by collaborative economy models, such as hospitality and logistics, have been raising critique against successful platforms and putting pressure into regulatory institutions. Nonetheless, the fact that an Oxford student from Latin American believes that we were exploiting our Amigos, completely shocked me.

But, we continue to grow

I believe that Language Amigo is creating value not only for Amigos but also for Learners. We are developing the means to create social and economic transactions between them. We are aggregating and connecting supply with demand that otherwise would never connect. We are constantly looking for potential customers to grow the economic opportunities for Amigos. We are constantly updating the Amigos’ training and generating support resources to improve the experience for the Learners.

Why is the value of creating a network and the means to include people into the economy undervalued? What is harder: to produce and deliver the product or service, or to find the market and attract it to generate demand for the product or service?

Currently, we are looking for institutions such as language centres, schools, universities, and enterprises that already have Spanish students to become our partners. We would like to be able to offer Language Amigo to their students and to co-create the best tool for them, their students, and the Amigos. Together we will be able to demonstrate that it is possible to create fair opportunities through the power of language.

Language Amigo Co-founders: Ana Maria (Left) Macarena (Right)

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Inspiration and leadership in the classroom

Skoll Scholar and design enthusiast, Ahmed Abu Bakr, shares his experience of an average Oxford MBA classroom. But it wasn’t the subject matter that he found captivating, it was the leadership of its professor that truly inspired him.

In my first week of the MBA programme, I was introduced to the idea that we can all be classified into one of four categories: activists, theorists, reflectors, and pragmatists. Now of course, that was a clear oversimplification – we’re obviously not one or the other, but a mix of each in varying quantities. Nonetheless, the exercise forced me to explicitly recognise my inclination towards reflection.

And so, as my year at Oxford comes to an untimely close, I find myself taking stock of my time spent here. So what am I taking away with me? Well, a great many things: new skills, new friends, great memories, and an expanded perspective. But most importantly, I’m taking back inspiration. And today, I want to share one such story of inspiration from my time here.

I met him in the first week of our first term, on a Friday afternoon. Half of us were feeling the post-lunch drowsiness seeping in, while the other half really just wanted to get started with the weekend. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him at first glance. The most I could have said about him back then was that he seemed decent- kind, soft spoken, and as we eventually learned, modest to a fault. And he was teaching us statistics.

But over the course of eight weeks, I found in him a real life John Keating (ref: Dead Poet’s Society– be sure to watch it if you haven’t already!). Never have I had the privilege of seeing someone so very passionately and creatively impart knowledge – and let’s face it, statistics isn’t the most exciting subject out there-  and win the heart of each and every student in the room. His name is Siddharth Arora, and his love and passion for the statistics was unmistakeable from his very first class. But what was truly remarkable was how he took on the full onus of helping us discover beauty in his subject.

Far too often have I seen teachers crush the spirit of learning in their students. Growing up, I have personally witnessed teachers ruin mathematics, physics, language, and a myriad of other disciplines for many of my fellow classmates. I have seen teachers teach through their authority, arrogantly, complacently, trying to stuff knowledge into the minds of students, and leaving no room for wisdom. Too often have I seen teachers forget that they must earn the attention that we chose to pay.

But Siddharth understood that. He cared enough to truly engage us. He showed us the presence of statistics in breath taking videos of the flight patterns of starlings, in the disturbing reality of climate change, and in the quotes of Rumi. He cared enough to go out of his way to make things like regression and conditional probabilities interesting, relevant and engaging for us all. He cared enough to voluntarily stay back on weekends and help us when we were struggling and he cared enough to provide us with snacks as we waited our turn to discuss our issues with him. And because he cared, we cared back.

It was particularly evident on the last day of his class. Incidentally, this was also the last class of term for all of us- a much needed study break was just waiting to begin. The clock struck five and he let us know that we were free to leave, but that he still had about 20 more minutes of content to cover. The weekend had begun, the term had ended, and everyone chose to stay back to finish a statistics class.

You see, over those eight weeks, Siddharth did so much more than simply teach us. He inspired us, shared his passion, gave us pearls of wisdom for life in general, and was there for us when we had needed him. He showed us genuine care, and got us to care back, and in doing so he demonstrated tremendous leadership within the classroom. And through it all, he personified humility and grace.

Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)

Section C, MBA class of 2017 with Siddharth Arora (more than 45 minutes after the end of class)

For me personally, he inspired a vision of the sort of person and the sort of leader I would like to be. Someone who doesn’t let authority, position, and credentials eat away at the intent to try harder, to be better, and to give more. Someone who empathises, and someone who cares. Someone who wins hearts through deliberate and protracted effort. And is humble and genuine throughout it all.

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How to understand public healthcare challenges

The Skoll Centre’s Apprenticing with a Problem awards support individuals to engage in experiential learning and deep immersion around the challenges that they seek to tackle.

Oxford MBA alumna, Melissa McCoy, is a 2016-17 awardee whose apprenticeship took her to South Africa to learn about the real challenges faced in the healthcare system, from those who experience it first-hand.

About two years ago, I started trying to solve South African public healthcare challenges before setting foot in the country. For my Oxford MSc Computer Science thesis project, I built a low bandwidth-optimised online telehealth platform and a machine-learning based triage tool for South African patients to solve issues of doctor scarcity and misdistribution. While this sounds logical, I jumped into creating a solution before truly understanding the problem space.

The Skoll Centre’s Global Challenge competition, which resulted in an Apprenticing with a Problem grant, was a huge blessing. It gave me the resources and thought space to understand South African healthcare challenges from several angles and ensure I was tackling the problems in the right way.

The resulting research that my team and I completed focused on visiting 15 healthcare facilities, spanning several characteristic types:

  1. Primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of healthcare
  2. Gauteng, Western Cape, North West, and Mpumalanga provinces
  3. Remote rural, rural, and urban geographies.

The research also focused on speaking with four types of stakeholders (doctors, nurses, facility managers, ICT professionals) that represent the various healthcare system perspectives.

While our findings around the problem space were extremely valuable (and are fully detailed in our report), we also took away some surprising insights:

  1. Willingness to embrace change: Contrary to our initial beliefs, people in the public healthcare system in South Africa do not enjoy the status quo. They are cognisant of the challenges and inefficiencies in the system. They also believe that while there is a lot that rests on the powers that be, there is a lot that they can do themselves to bring about change. Our visits were viewed with optimism and most facilities were hopeful and confident that our suggestions would be beneficial for them. A system that is not cynical and is open to feedback is bound to see progress in due course of time. The positive attitude of practitioners and the administration alike towards embracing technological improvements was a huge motivational factor for us.
  2. Bottom-up, Organic Tech Solutions: While many facilities lacked digital infrastructure to allow for referrals and sharing information, healthcare facilities & professionals devised their own ways to facilitate these processes. Doctors had created WhatsApp groups to discuss difficult patient cases. Nurses had equally formed networks among themselves and would send SMS messages to each other to communicate bed occupancy and information about referred patients.
  3. Learning from field interviews is hard: We came into the research with several pre-conceived ideas around the core problems and the appropriate solutions to solve them. We wanted to validate if our hypotheses were correct without biasing interviewees in the process. In Rob Fitzpatrick’s book, The Mom Test (which we referenced often), he summarises the challenges of this process well: ‘Trying to learn from field conversations is like excavating a delicate archaeological site. While each blow with your shovel gets you closer to the truth, you’re liable to smash it into a million little pieces if you use too blunt an instrument. I see a lot of teams using a bulldozer and crate of dynamite for their excavation. They use heavy-handed questions like “do you think it’s a good idea” and shatter their prize. At the other end of the spectrum, some founders are using a toothbrush to unearth a city, flinching away from digging deep and finding out whether anything of value is actually buried down there.’ We botched at least a dozen conversations with stakeholder, by either introducing our concept of interest too early or never bringing it up and getting their true thoughts. This was a skill we gradually improved upon with every interaction.

Overall, the exploration was invaluable and one-of-a-kind. It set the stage for how our company, ConnectMed, planned to work with the South African public healthcare system, as well as how we now think about engaging the Kenyan system.

Melissa recently completed her MSc Computer Science and MBA at University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and is now working on a Africa-focused digital health venture, ConnectMed, in South Africa and Kenya. She previously worked in the Americas and Africa as an engineer, entrepreneur, and consultant.

Follow @melissa_mccoy

Download Melissa’s Apprenticing with a Problem report.

Read more about Apprenticing with a Problem on the Skoll Centre website.

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Africa Trek 2017: Oxford MBAs visit Rwanda

By Gillian Benjamin, Oxford MBA (2016-17)

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.

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.

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.

Hailing a large group of moto taxis to take us to our first company visit.

Jumia Food

Operations manager Albert Munyabugingo discussing the growth of Jumia Food in Kigali.

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.

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.

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.

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 - HeadshotGillian 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.