MBA Students Taste Entrepreneurship In East Africa

A group of French business school MBAs are consulting start-up companies in Rwanda – a country that has an emerging entrepreneurial class.

Charles Haines spent six years working in the City of London – so when he touched down in Rwanda in early July, it was quite the culture shock.

“Because of the historical events of 20 years ago… There are certain cultural challenges between businesses and the government,” said Charles, a Global MBA student at ESSEC Business School. “That makes it a little trickier.”

He is in the midst of an international immersion project, in collaboration with the African Entrepreneur Collective, a business accelerator for young, growth-oriented entrepreneurs across the continent.

“A lot of people who are looking to start a business have had a very unfortunate upbringing,” Charles said. “They need lots of training around the simpler aspects of doing business – the educational support hasn’t been there.”

For the past month and a half, the MBA student has been helping entrepreneurs flourish in the East African state. The country has been beset by ethnic tension, and nearly two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line – making business progress difficult.

But it is striving to rebuild its economy, with coffee and tea production being among its main sources of foreign exchange. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, has been trying to build infrastructure – essential for businesses to grow.

A thriving entrepreneurial class is beginning to emerge. “There’s so much hunger over here and so much ambition,” said Charles, who has been working on his MBA project since June. “African entrepreneurship is growing rapidly. We’re seeing growth in various sectors from IT to renewable energies,” he added.

His involvement with Rwanda grew out of an initiative of ESSEC designed to immerse MBA students in international locations. The French business school has completed similar projects all over the world, including in South Africa and the Philippines.

The African Entrepreneur Collective, the non-profit Charles works with, was set-up by an MBA graduate of Yale School of Management. The organization works with about 100 clients in Rwanda each year.

Charles has been consulting three Rwandan start-ups, including URTMCC, a milk collection centre. One of his first decisions was to spin off the company from its co-operative group. “It was the first business spinoff I ever experienced,” Charles said.

Along with classmates Claudia Pumarejo and Dhriti Chandrashekar, the MBA student has also consulted for clean energy company Habona Bio-gas, and Simba Constructors, a general contractor.

There is great collaboration between businesses in Rwanda, Charles said. “There’s a real sense of team spirit. Lots of future business leaders all know each other.” There are also many opportunities for impact investing and venture philanthropy, added Charles, who is half French.

He enrolled at ESSEC because of its solid reputation for finance education, and he wanted to experience business outside of London, where he spent about six years with Towers Watson, the professional services firm. “I will hopefully be granted an internship with a French bank starting in September,” Charles said.

As well as his immersion in East Africa, Charles has spent three months on an exchange program at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. He plans to spend six months interning in New York. “That’s where I see myself in the short-term,” he added.

His consulting project in Rwanda will provide a significant boost. But his biggest takeaway has been realizing the immense potential the country has. “I didn’t think it was as high as it is,” Charles added.

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