Emilio, James, Sebastian 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 venture capital firm which invests in water and food chain enterprises. The Apsara Capital team has been working hard to develop a practical entrepreneurship program and offer it at three separate sites around Zimbabwe.
Sadza, the staple food of Zimbabwe, is deceptively simple: ground maize, a touch of oil, a splash of water, a dash of salt—and voilà. Yet this simple dish requires a chef’s expertise. Rendered poorly, the hungry eater is offered a sad hillock of mush. Whipped up by a seasoned expert, however, and sadza takes the form of a beautiful spiraling mountain of golden starch, warm to the touch and primed to be used as a satisfying scoop for other dishes.
This country, much like its beloved sadza, also appears deceptively simple to the outside eye. From afar, one sees the macro and the political: Years of failed economic policy that led to the second worst inflation in recorded human history. A country reeling from the jarring shock of economic collapse. Tenuous resuscitation in the form of the U.S. dollar. The distant watcher expects a Zimbabwe that is a failed batch of sadza, the final product of spoiled economic ingredients and a recipe of tumult and heartbreak.
This was far from the Zimbabwe we found. While the government sector is large and the state operates numerous low-flying services that citizens are all but forced to accept, room abounds for creative workarounds and fresh starts in other areas. After all, the unofficial Zimbabwean motto is, “Make a plan.” The country is teeming with bright teens and twentysomethings, hungry to build the companies and offer the services that would pull Zimbabwe by its bootstraps out of the economic morass.
Our client had worked with two previous IBD teams to investigate agriculture and entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe. Last year’s team even piloted a three day program on business creation with university students while in country. Our task was to flesh pilot program out into a 7-day boot camp for students at two universities, while also developing an application process and admissions criteria. Simple enough.
Still, we were left with nagging questions: How do you teach something as hands-on, demanding, and unremitting as entrepreneurship in just one week? How do we, as mere students, impart to others something we haven’t fully mastered? How are we to plan 60 hours of content and meet the needs of a group different from any we’d ever worked with before?
Equipped with the expertise of two former teachers on our team, we spent countless hours scoping and sequencing a curriculum for nascent Zimbabwean entrepreneurs. And, luckily, because our team members had such varied experiences and skillsets, we were able to create a one-week program that overlaid the principles of design thinking onto the skills required of entrepreneurs—persuasive pitches, well-reasoned financial projections, iterative business plan development. Fieldwork was prioritized. Mistakes, rearrangements, and fresh starts were encouraged. Excuse-making was not tolerated.
Nineteen days. Twenty-five university students. Four early-stage companies. Seven business plans and pitch decks. Four business pivots. Ten million Post-It notes, give or take. This, the scorecard of our Zimbabwe sojourn.
At Africa Unviersity, our six participants—smart, hardworking, and ambitious students (though much to our chagrin all male)—showed up for day one wrapped in sharp suits and a sense of urgency. Because our cohort in Mutare was small, we were skeptical of the value of such a tiny group early on, but the advantages became quickly apparent: We were able to spend copious amounts of time with each and help them nurse their vague ideas towards realization.
Through rounds of fieldwork that included observations and interviews, our two groups eventually honed in on two different problem and plans to solve them: One of our groups originally set out to create an online shopping service but moved on to the idea of using nearly-expired food products to open a restaurant serving nutritious, ultra-low-cost meals to the poor. The other group focused on Zimbabwe’s notoriously erratic energy grid. (Zimbabweans face frequent, unpredictable power outages, known euphemistically as “load shedding.”) After considering electricity alternatives, this group decided to develop a company that would facilitate faster, more accessible purchasing of electricity credits having observed residents’ waiting in long lines to prepay for electricity.
After a week of hustle and sweat, we held a final pitch session in front of school officials and investors. Food Box, the company set on reducing food wastage, won the day. We were also heartened that the university’s business school dean, who also chairs the food services committee, enthusiastically offered to work with the group on their business and possibly test their plan on campus. One week after we left Mutare, a revised business plan and pitch for Food Box hit our inboxes—an excellent sign of this group’s commitment to their business.
Hundreds of kilometers away in the capital city of Harare, we worked with 19 students divided in five groups at the University of Zimbabwe. The students here, including four women, had very diverse backgrounds from computer science and electrical engineering to hospitality and animal sciences. Unsurprisingly, their business ideas also ran the gamut, including a solar company with innovative financing that put the technology squarely within reach of working families and an organization that trains high school dropouts to become entrepreneurial caterers.
For the final pitch competition, three prominent local investors and fund managers served as judges. An infectious energy jolted to and fro about our cavernous classroom as students prepared slide decks and practiced their pitches. Just over a week before, our students would have laboriously constructing a business plan based on what they felt customers needed and waited until the final moment to test their concept. Now they were presenting businesses to judges that were soundly rooted in observed need and customer preferences.
The winning team presented what our judges felt was the most feasible idea: selling laptops to students through flexible, longer-term payment plans. This company would put technology squarely within reach of poorer students.
A few days after winning the pitch competition, this team is committed carry this idea forward with Apsara Capital’s support. They’ve spoken with lawyers. They’ve registered a company. They’ve sourced cheaper laptops from Dubai. They will use their summer to perfect their model and, fingers crossed, roll out their service in August for the U of Z’s incoming class.
But our other future entrepreneurs were not discouraged. Some promised to move forward with their ideas, as well. Others were profoundly, effusively grateful for the gift of design thinking.
Teachers as Students
We had planned out our entire entrepreneurship program from almost 16,000 kilometers away. Not surprisingly, we had to adjust our game plan and practice what we preached.
Our students were much stronger in some areas, and much weaker in others, than we had anticipated. For example, our first group possessed very strong presentation skills but lacked an ability to structure a logical argument. Our second group of university students was surprisingly open to creative solutions but struggled to piece together a sound problem-solution pathway. We tested numerous methods for teaching them, refining and tweaking all the way to our last day. We had to practice observations, interviews, and testing, all with the aim of gathering valuable feedback for improvement. In this sense, we were students alongside our pupils. Immersed for nine hours a day in design thinking, this felt a natural thing for us to do.
Still, we were reminded that this is not always an easy thing to accept or do. The design thinking techniques we learned at Berkeley Haas from Problem Finding, Problem Solving, and which are woven throughout the Berkeley curriculum, were invaluable tools. The wisdom James garnered from a design challenge with Specialized Bikes, an Innovation Lab course with gravitytank, and experience on the board of Haas Innovation Design allowed us to find workable solutions to challenges both teachers and students faced.
What remains to be seen for Apsara is what this program should look like in the future.
While a success, our three weeks in Zimbabwe were expensive and constrained by a number of factors. Dozens of applicants were not able to join our program. Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of qualified students never applied. How many hundreds of thousands of starry-eyed dreamers across the continent could become highly successful entrepreneurs, with the right push?
Like so many other sectors, we see the future of our educational endeavor online. With our client, we’re considering options to house portions of our program on the web. This brings with it a slew of challenges. Design thinking is notoriously difficult to house purely on the internet. Field work is an absolute necessity, and difficult to guide from afar. Interactive, engaged, sometimes heated debate regarding business ideas and models is best facilitated face-to-face. We also continue to refine Apsara’s in-person entrepreneurship program.
The future of this country, and perhaps even this continent, rests in large part in the hands of entrepreneurs. Can they create solutions to Africa’s most vexing problems? Can they build the enterprises that gainfully employ their countrymen? Can they fashion the hardware and software that will make farms more productive, electricity more accessible, and communication more reliable? Through more effective and just problem-solving, can they fashion an African tide that carries all boats, from the poorest dingy to the bejeweled behemoth, upward?
A hundred Apsaras running a thousand week-long ACT Programs could not meet this need. Our challenge now is to figure out how we can become an important cornerstone of this massive, diffuse, and critical project. While we do so, dozens of thoughtful, deliberate, newly emboldened entrepreneurs now roam the streets of Zimbabwe, hunting for problems to solve.