The second in a series on the 2013 Sustainability Leadership Capstone Course.
By Peter Brinkerhoff, MBA ’13
As we met entrepreneurs, business leaders, and development workers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I encountered a cautious, yet determined, positive outlook on the future of the country. I lived and worked for the better part of the past decade in sub-Saharan Africa, and while negative news has dominated the past, I can’t help but be caught up in the current hopeful spirit. There is a sense among the people we met and news we’ve read this is Africa’s time to rise. I believe that it will rise, and rise of its own accord, as a continent full of potential and resilience that has been uniquely forged over decades of challenges within and without.
Our sustainability capstone consisted of a team of 15 students and our professors. We hit the ground running, albeit groggily, on day one of our arrival in Addis. After a couple of nights of sleep-deprived travel from Raleigh Durham airport to Addis Ababa, I think many of us felt just a bit sorry for ourselves. All self-pity went out the door, however, when we went to meet our first client, the Hulegeb Association. We watched as blind and disabled employees of this social enterprise skillfully crafted anything from beautiful rugs to sturdy brooms and brushes. They worked, deft hands and bright spirits, as if to stare adversity in the face and thrive to spite it. These and so many others we met refuse to let anyone squelch the dignity they have.
So it was with some amount of caution that we approached our work with Hulegeb, understanding early on that although we had come to “consult,” we were the apprentice in many matters of life and work. Our group decided to learn first, then focus on areas where we bring our technical skills to provide useful market and financial analysis. We analyzed Hulegeb’s profit margins by product, then studied their pricing data to benchmark their products against comparable items in the market, giving them information to make pricing and sales strategy decisions.
To gather price and other market information, we spent an afternoon in the literal market in downtown Addis. There were no online resources or nicely packaged market reports we could use. The “mercato” is one of the largest open-air markets in Africa. It is a scene of amazing order in the midst of seeming chaos – streets packed with cars, bikes, people, vendors and street hawkers balancing buckets, chairs, mattresses high on their heads. Colorful marketing, bright signs, vendors shouting at each other and clients walking by – push and pull strategies in a very literal sense. We plopped down in the middle of it all with our translator and started asking questions, listening and noting. The price and market data we gathered was useful, but we learned much more than just price information. We were talking with people who have thrived and profited in one of the hardest places in the world to do business (Ethiopia ranked #127 in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business report in 2013“. These merchants have been stretched, bent, and compressed by every form of macroeconomic and political uncertainty in Ethiopia’s past. Yet they thrive. They have marketing and supply chain strategies, operation and logistic innovations that I could hardly dream of in the relative stability of a classroom in the US.
And this is why I am hopeful. I believe the people of Ethiopia, and the people of Africa, are rising, and not in economic status only. They have fought to live and thrive at the edge of survival, and it has produced a resiliency and creativity non-existent in much of the world. From a distance we can make our simplistic assessment: poverty, natural disasters, hunger, wars, etc. But get closer, and you will see something else: raw resilience and drive, beauty and potential, creating, restoring, and thriving in the face of unimaginable challenges. I see hope in the future, and it will not come in the form of aid and assistance; it will be in the form of investment – investment in people and places not because of need, but because of potential. This to me is business at its best: allocating resources to unleash potential in people ready to rise.
Read more blog posts and learn what it takes to be part of Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Sustainability Leadership Capstone course.