After wrapping up our first semester at Wharton, we were excited to be a part of Wharton’s re-introduction of the Africa Global Immersion Program (“GIP”) led by Amy Miller, Rajith Sebastian, and Lauren McHugh. Our group of 35 began the journey in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) before ushering in 2017 in Zanzibar (Tanzania) and then jetting to Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa. It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience as the program seamlessly mixed educational, tourist, and night-life activities all in one two-week trip!
We were exposed to the entire spectrum of businesses and companies in Tanzania and South Africa, meeting leaders from African conglomerates (The Sumaria Group), rising startups (Yoco), government organizations (South Africa Reserve Bank), and social impact firms (iSchoolAfrica). We wanted to share the highlights of what we learned based on these meetings:
1. Move past viewing Africa as “Africa”: A lesson that was reinforced with nearly every leader we met was to move past viewing Africa as a single entity and assuming that an intervention in one country would necessarily work in another. Each country has its own cultural, linguistic, and business norms which are very different from another. These differences significantly impact how businesses should design their products, what markets they should target, and how they could grow their market share. Consequently, as future leaders wanting to work in Africa, we need to develop country-specific strategies that differ based on the products, services, and demographics applicable to each region.
For example, M-Pesa, was a mobile phone-based money transfer platform initially launched in Kenya and used as a tool for the financial empowerment of Kenyan women. However, it failed to catch among women in other countries in the same way because, often, the men in the family owned the mobile phones, making it difficult for women to use M-Pesa for their own businesses or to set aside money for savings.
2. Immerse yourself in the countries you want to work in: Along similar lines, we were also asked to reflect on why we were really interested in the region and how we planned to operate there. Countries such as South Africa and Tanzania did not need newly minted alums to come in and “save” them with ‘Western innovation’. What they needed were sharp, smart people who were genuinely intrigued by the challenges in these countries, who took the time to understand what innovation was already spreading, and who immersed themselves in the local culture. This meant living in Africa for an extended period of time and building long-term relationships and trust with local traders and suppliers, rather than working remotely from New York or London.
One example of this successful immersion was iSchoolAfrica – a not-for-profit organization focused on integrating technology into the curriculums of rural schools as a way to increase academic performance. To us, the innovation lay not solely in the use of technology but the way the organization had leveraged the knowledge of local teachers in developing a curriculum and incorporating culturally relevant elements in the app design. This allowed the technology to be more seamlessly integrated into the learning experience since it merely provided a new platform to engage with ideas students were already familiar with.
3. Know your collaborator to distribute your product: The trip also allowed us to see, first-hand, how the process of truly understanding local collaborators was crucial to launching a successful business in each of these countries. iDrop Water – a startup focused on creating access to clean, drinking water – shared its lessons on how it leveraged existing retail distribution networks by incentivizing local store owners to carry its product. By studying the distribution landscape across different African countries and understanding how people buy drinking water, iDrop realized that the crux of iDrop’s success lay in its ability to get storeowners to install the unit in the first place. iDrop created an incentive structure that worked really well for the storeowner by installing and maintaining the unit at zero cost while also setting up a pricing structure that allowed storeowners to earn enough of a margin to compensate for the loss of revenue from competitor products.
4. Navigate government influence carefully – While this is becoming less of an issue in larger countries such as South Africa and Nigeria, the government still has a large and powerful influence over business activities in smaller economies such as Tanzania and Nigeria. Political connections often drive large-scale industrial and commerce activity. Therefore, it is important to understand how different government agencies operate and find a successful way to navigate them.
From exploring a game reserve in Johannesburg to spice tours in Zanzibar to visiting companies in Cape Town, the two weeks were a wonderful and unforgettable introduction to the food, culture, business, and political economies of South Africa and Tanzania. Our entire group of 1st years and 2nd years formed close bonds with each other during this trip, and we had a chance to reminisce our fond memories when Amy and Ann Miller generously hosted reunion dinners once we returned to Philadelphia. The Africa GIP was a life-changing experience that none of us will ever forget!