Global Executive MBA: A Learning Journey to the Cradle of Social Innovation
Africa has numerous faces – which are probably all a far cry from the imaginations of many Europeans. Students of the Global Executive MBA of the WU Executive Academy had the chance to explore the extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit in Kenya’s capital Nairobi on the Silicon Savannah learning journey that took place in mid-February 2022. For five days, they visited local start-ups and social entrepreneurs, listened to keynotes about the particularities of the market in sub-Saharan Africa, and developed tailor-made solutions for local companies in design thinking workshops.
“The innovative drive and research spirit we witnessed were extremely inspiring,” recounts Barbara Stöttinger, Dean of the WU Executive Academy, who accompanied the students on this learning journey, which she also helped organize. She remembers being very impressed by the attitude of the locals they met: “They have to make do with very little, and use it meaningfully to create something. There are very few ready-made solutions, no services, let alone money to pay for it. So how do they still manage? They experiment a lot and use their restricted resources to come up with astonishingly innovative solutions,” Stöttinger shares.
The learning journey’s participants were introduced to Pulselive Kenya, a digital news platform for young people aged 18 to 35 that also operates a marketing agency which designs digital campaigns for global corporations such as Samsung.
They got to know Twiga Foods, a company founded by the social scientist Grant Brooke with the aim to revolutionize food trade in Africa. Twiga Foods’ co-founder and CEO Peter Njonjo previously held the position of general manager for the Coca-Cola East Africa franchise. He shared how the retailer’s start was anything but easy. Twiga Foods delivers food to tens of thousands of micro retailers in informal settlements, many of whom have a weekly income of as little as 50 dollars. The company uses a B2B platform to simplify the value creation chain and connect micro retailers and farmers. According to Twiga Foods data, small, informal traders, who often struggle with inefficient logistics systems and selling perishable products before they get bad, account for 90 percent of retail in Africa. In the course of a design thinking workshop, the WU Executive Academy students developed entrepreneurial solutions for Twiga Foods, which they later presented to CEO Peter Njonjo.
Africa is also making a lot of progress when it comes to digital learning: providing school infrastructure is often difficult in informal settlements; in many places, a single teacher is in charge of dozens of pupils. The EdTech start-up KuzeKuze has responded to this situation by offering a solution comprising individualized learning paths that make use of analog and digital tools: pupils receive exercise sheets they can independently work on by themselves or in small groups, which allows them to study without needing a computer or smartphone. The exercise sheets are then scanned and AI-based software analyzes the children’s learning progress. Based on the results, a new individualized exercise sheet is created for every pupil for the next week.
For learning journey participant David Klement, CIO at CONFDNT, the trip to KuzeKuze was the highlight among the company visits: “I am convinced that a good education is the best foundation on which to build prosperity and fundamentally change a society. And that’s were KuzeKuze comes in: making the most of paper, technology and knowledge.”
Prof. Barbara Stöttinger
I don’t know another country in which education is considered so essential across all strata of society as in Nairobi. People agree that a better future for all will only be possible if an investment is made that yields maximum effect: an investment in education and children.
The TunaPanda training center is also active in the informal settlements, offering low-threshold IT trainings for everyone. Mr. Green Africa is a sustainable start-up that extracts high-quality materials for the global industry from recycled garbage, integrating as many as 2,500 garbage collectors, who are employed by the company, in the recycling process.
The learning journey participants also talked to Tobias Reiter, who founded the healthtech company Viebeg. With the aim of facilitating access to healthcare, Viebeg delivers medical solutions such as mobile X-ray machines to remote areas in Central and East Africa.
They also met with Bitange Ndemo, who introduced high-speed internet to the continent in the 2000s, and toured the company Neulandt, which is an Umdasch Group venture that builds affordable prefabricated housing from concrete.
Barbara Stöttinger and the two Global Executive MBA students David Klement and Roland Radlherr, Group Finance Director, COO & CIO at Constantia AG and the US-based PE Fund, have identified five key learnings about what makes East Africa’s business ecosystem so special:
Imagination drives business across all industry segments in Kenya: “I was very surprised about the large number of successful start-ups in Kenya. They engage in a wide variety of industries like healthcare, FMCG/food, digital marketing and (renewable) energy,” Roland Radlherr says.
African start-ups are focused on issues that improve and change the lives of millions. They come up with simple solutions for day-to-day problems. Not everything has to be high-tech as long as it fulfills its purpose.
Many people in East Africa already have a smartphone. “One of my biggest misconceptions was that Africa is far behind other parts of the world with regards to technology. I found that, on the contrary, quite the opposite is true”, says Roland Radlherr. “A large share of the population has a mobile phone. Many people even own a smartphone, which is how most people access the internet in Africa.” For many enterprises it is no question that digital must come first “in order to offer novel services that were unavailable in the past to the population at large,” Stöttinger adds. The mobile payment system M-PESA of the Kenyan mobile communication company Safaricom is a case in point: it enables finance transactions on simple mobile phones, through which it helps millions of people access funds. David Klement was also astonished at the level of digitalization: “Kenya has a lot of really smart solutions for everyday problems. For instance, people pay with their mobile phones, and everyone is part of this ecosystem. They register accounts needed to access online services via chat instead of using registration forms. That’s a super smart way to handle registrations.”
“We were often told that creativity is not a luxury, it is a necessity. People’s circumstances practically force them to be inventive and come up with creative solutions for the many challenges in education, everyday life, or in the retail or health sectors. And they have to figure out ways to earn money. Because as a rule, there is nobody waiting for them with a job offer; there are very few white-collar jobs there,” Barbara Stöttinger says.
Regardless of the industry, the customer should always come first. “But what was striking in this regard was the unusual combinations of low tech and high tech: particularly in informal settlements, many people did not have access to the internet. We met the very impressive headmaster of the Olympic Primary School in Kibera, where 70 teachers are responsible for 5,000 pupils,” Stöttinger recounts.
The school collaborated with the EdTech company KuzeKuze to digitalize the curriculum for the teachers. “The children do not have access to the internet. So it was not an option to make exercises available to them in a digital way; instead, the school prints out exercise sheets,” the dean explains. Also Roland Radlherr has vivid memories of this encounter: “Visiting this school was my personal highlight. The average class is made up of about 100 students. Despite such class sizes, teachers of this school do all they can to individually support students to help them improve in subjects they struggle with.”
“The people are well informed. A lot of them speak English, and thanks to the internet and YouTube, they are well aware of what’s happening in the West or globally,” Barbara Stöttinger says. “It’s really not a question of how the West should solve the problem. We can contribute our economic and entrepreneurial experiences, which will likely be helpful. But there is also so much we can learn from African countries. I was very impressed by this outstanding degree of creativity, the optimism, and the innovative power I encountered. People laugh a lot and seem to have a positive outlook even though circumstances are rather challenging for many of them,” she says.
I see great opportunities in Africa for European companies – which have, as of yet, largely remained untapped.
“European companies, which have only very recently started to see Africa’s potential, need to develop and redefine their strategies for the continent. Currently, the leading investors in this region are Chinese state-owned companies. They encounter very little competition as they build a new silk road, easily remaining the dominant players in these new markets,” Radlherr says.
For David Klement, it was not his first visit of sub-Saharan Africa. “I have been there before, but it was the first time that I met local entrepreneurs and visionary business people who are following their passion and a mission. There is actually a thriving start-up scene that has a huge impact on millions of lives in Africa already today. It’s only a matter of time until the first unicorn will rise from Africa.”