Akilah Huguley is a full-time MBA student working on an International Business Development project with Kenya-based Africa Chemist and Beauty Care (ACBC).
Many of us come to business school with illustrious travel plans on the mind. At Haas, IBD provides the opportunity for an unchartered global business travel consulting project. I remember the evening of our first IBD class and how excited I was to find out that I, along with 3 of my classmates, would be traveling to Nairobi, Kenya to help a new pharmacy chain enter into the Kenyan market. This project for my team was certainly a dream come true—an assignment that utilized our healthcare & retail backgrounds plus an opportunity to travel to a place none of us had ever been before. Over the course of the semester, we built a strong relationship with our client even from thousands of miles away. All seemed to be in a great place for us to hit the ground running on field work as soon as we stepped off the plane in Nairobi. With bags packed and flight tickets in hand on Friday, May 16th (the day before leaving for our IBD trip), none of us could have predicted the turn that our trip would take.
I remember waking up quite early on Friday morning (in anticipation of our upcoming travels) to an email from our faculty advisor. The email contained the subject line, “Travel Risk for Kenya.” Kristi Raube, the Director of the IBD Program and our project advisor, was writing to inform us that the US Embassy had posted a security message informing travelers to closely evaluate their personal travel situations based on “heightened threats of terrorism and the high rate of violent crime” in Kenya.
That day in Kenya, at 2:30pm local time, two bombs had detonated in the Gikomba market, a marketplace right outside of Nairobi, killing 10 people and leaving many injured. Only hours later, the UK Embassy evacuated all of its citizens out of the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa amid threats of terrorists attacks in the area. Receiving emails of support and concern from our client and our advisor, we were now faced with the dilemma of what to do next.
One of our team members had made her way to Kenya early to spend additional time traveling the country before the kickoff of our project. We knew it was pertinent to speak with her before making our final decision of whether to go to Kenya or not.
Picture of team member (Danielle Platt) in the Massai Mara (a national game reserve in Kenya known for its vast population of wildlife and the annual migration of zebras, gazelles, and wildebeests from the Serengeti)
After much deliberation and meeting with the entire team, we decided to delay our flight a few days, giving us time to digest the information at hand. It was extremely important for us to complete and present a quality final deliverable to the client… and the question was, would we be able to do this all the way from the US? Could we turn a tough situation into a successful outcome for our client?
Over the course of the project, we had uncovered a number of insights around the low-quality of pharmacies in Kenya—including the overwhelming presence of counterfeit products as well as the grey market, the channel by which branded products illegally and unsustainably make their way into Kenya. However, we really wanted to experience and understand the state of the market better for ourselves, speaking with customers directly and building connections to best understand how ACBC could be the answer to the problems that Kenyan consumers face.
Analyzing our project plan, we found that it could be feasible to complete our project from the US with our team member in Kenya playing a crucial role as the on-the-ground eyes and ears for the team. With modern technologies like Google Hangout & Skype, understanding a customer that was thousands of miles away didn’t seem impossible. With a few more days to feel confident in our decision, the three of us that were in the US decided that we would stay locally and complete the project remotely. Our teammate that was already in Kenya decided to spend another week in-country and then return back to the US to join the team.
Over the next week after making our decision to stay in the US to complete the project, we met every morning via Skype (accommodating a 10-hour time difference) to discuss what we had completed in the prior day, conversations with the client, new insights we were developing from interviews and secondary research, and next steps in order to hold to our project plan. In the US, we were even able to meet with the founder of the company (the other half of the client team) who lives in San Francisco to discuss our project progress.
Upon our team member’s return, we held a full brainstorm day (using our learnings from Haas’ Problem Finding Problem Solving class) to aggregate customer insights we had gained from our interviews in order to pin-point the customer segments that our client should target.
Brainstorm Day in San Francisco
The outcome of our brainstorm and our semester of learning about the personal care, beauty, and pharmacy industries in Kenya was a comprehensive report of four key customer segments that our client might target. Within these segments, we found that many customers were not satisfied with the care and attention they received from pharmacies. They often leave a pharmacy still needing more information about products that better cater to their healthcare needs. In a market where most patients self-medicate and do not frequently visit doctors, customers need a place that they can go and obtain trustworthy guidance and consultation. We were able to provide actionable steps that the client could take to help the Kenyan customer gain confidence in this new pharmacy model in Kenya.
Upon completing the project, we were able to provide many insightful answers for the client. But in the process of completing the project, we also learned a crucial lesson within our team. This experience taught us that although international travel is great, going to an exciting new country is not the most important part of business school or the IBD experience. It is about helping people. With our project, we hope to help Kenyans gain access to the things that we take for granted here. We have heard people’s stories and frustrations and now look to turn these into solutions. Our ability to go beyond the status quo in the face of a tough international travel situation and our motivation to go beyond ourselves in finding ways to connect with a consumer halfway across the world allowed us to be influential in an evolutionary change that can impact millions of people. And the more inspiring part, we were able to do this even from thousands of miles away.