Hello from Harare.
Miran, Evgeniy, Leo and Dan are all full-time MBA students working on an International Business Development project in Zimbabwe. Their client, Apsara Capital, is a UK-based family backed VC firm that seeks to make investments in water and agriculture. The Apsara Capital team has been working hard to develop a practically oriented entrepreneurship program (Codename: Grassroots Entrepreneurship) in order to create a pipeline of investable agribusinesses in Southeastern Africa.
Before we even stepped foot in country, it was evident the group had formed a cautious, yet excited attitude toward Zimbabwe. Countless medical shots? Check. Lots of Cipro? Check. Safety plan, malaria pills, and bottled water? Check, check and check. And who could blame us for being overly cautious? The only time we (collectively) hear of Zimbabwe or Africa in general is via sensationalized news coverage.
We could not have been more wrong. Africa is beautiful. Zimbabwe is stunning. It is green, luscious, and far from all our pre-conceived notions. Its people are hardworking, resourceful individuals looking to make a better country and continent.
Within an hour of landing, we were already hard at work at a Startup Harare event held at HyperCube Hub. The event challenged individuals to pitch ideas and form teams around the best ideas. Starting Friday afternoon, these newly formed teams were expected to create and implement a business idea knowing that final presentations were Sunday afternoon. The winning team created an application where people can attach nodes to pieces of fruit and turn them into musical devices. We were fortunate enough to catch the final presentations held on Sunday afternoon, and while we were amazed by how much progress the teams had made since Friday, we could not help but feel we were too late to help create an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Big Problems, Bigger Opportunities
Our client knew returning Zimbabwe to the status of being the breadbasket of Africa would be no easy task, but he knew it had to start from the ground up and it had to start somewhere. The problems of Zimbabwe can be summed up simply by supply and demand. Currently, too many people are out of work as the country suffers massive unemployment. Additionally, demand for products forces the country to import a large percentage of its goods. By focusing our attention on agribusinesses in Zimbabwe, our client hoped to proverbially kill two birds with one stone. Agribusiness could return countless people back to work, both to the farms and to value-adding companies. The collective output of these farms could again return local food to Zimbabwean shelves, radically decreasing the current prices paid for common food staples.
Our original deliverable to the client was supposed to be the curriculum for a one-year hybrid academic incubator. This academic incubator would provide Zimbabwean entrepreneurs with a physical working space, a network of mentors to work with and a fully built-out academic ‘modules’ which would allow him or her to build out technical skills while concurrently building his or her business.
We had spent most of our semester building and framing solutions via this curriculum. We imagined our time in country was to be spent interviewing potential students, creating financial projections and building out a network of mentors. Little did we know that with just over 3 weeks before we were to be in country, our client would fundamentally alter our scope and deliverable. Instead of an academic curriculum, he wanted to run a pilot program.
Our first real stop and home of our pilot program was Africa University in Mutare. About a 4 hour drive southeast from Harare, the University is home to approximately 2,500 students, 40% of whom are from neighboring African countries. During the years of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, the Vice Chancellor of Africa University allowed students to barter goods for their tuition. As measure of last resort, the Vice Chancellor accepted U.S. Dollars (instead of Zimbabwean Dollars) for tuition at a time when such a move could cause massive forfeitures and penalties. When the Zimbabwean government found out that Africa Universities was accepting USD, instead of seizing the University and halting operations, it issued a paltry fine while tacitly acknowledging the demise of the Zimbabwean Dollar. Now that’s challenging the status quo.
Though we are students always, what better way to spread the ideas and tools we learned at Berkeley than to teach others as we had been taught. From challenging the status quote with design thinking to building a successful business through strategy, we reframed what we learned in the west to fit the culture and norms of Southeastern Africa.
Time was the most challenging aspect of our pilot. First, we only had about 3 weeks to build out a logical and comprehensive pilot program. This led to many late nights.
Second, we only had 3.5 days with our students to teach topics from design thinking to storytelling, accounting to marketing. The limited amount of time really forced us to not only deliver only what was absolutely necessary, but also in only the most efficient manner.
We could not have been more impressed with the caliber of the students. Their passion and enthusiasm for entrepreneurship really led to their success with new frameworks and practical tools. Just as we taught them how feedback is a gift, we thanked them for their time and their feedback on what worked well and what did not during our time together.
Back to Harare
As the wheels touched down in Harare, we let out a sigh relieved that the pilot program was truly behind us. However, there was no time to waste. We pivoted from instructors/mentors back to business school students networking with the movers and shakers of Zimbabwe. A necessary part of any incubator is a network of mentors and industry leaders available to our future Grassroots Entrepreneurs. We spent more than a week meeting with everyone from local entrepreneurs and lawyers, to small business owners and NGO workers. Perhaps our most impressive meeting was with Zed Koudounaris, one of Zimbabwe’s most accomplished and influential businessman and investor. At the height of hyperinflation, it was Zed who was in the room with the Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe until 4 a.m. convincing the government to officially adopt the U.S. Dollar.
Work Hard, Play Harder
Somewhere between the jet lag, the pilot program and the week filled with back-to-back meetings, we did find time to take advantage of some of the beauty and wonder Africa has to offer. We finally decided to make the trek up to Mana Pools National Park, in northern Zimbabwe along the Zambezi River bordering Zambia. Though it took us hours of driving to make it to our little cottage on the river, it was an unbelievable experience. From seeing hippos and elephants outside our windows, to tracking lions to simply star gazing in the pitch dark, Mana Pools was just the adventure we were all looking for.
The End of the Road
All good things must come to an end. London would be the last stop for the Apsara team. Our time in London was short and sweet as we delivered our final presentation with recommendations to our client. We were fortunate to meet up with a British classmate back in the UK for his internship. It just goes to show you that no matter where we go in the world, there’s always a Haasie just around the corner.
Goodbye from London.
–Apsara Capital team