Notes from Executive MBA’s Cape Town Study Trip

As part of the Executive MBA program at RSM, our class had to attend a Study Trip. Half of the class went to Cape Town and the other half went to Johannesburg for a week long trip. I joined the group which went to Cape Town, South Africa for from 4th August to 9th August. I arrived on Saturday after a longest flight of my life, and left Cape Town on Sunday.

I enjoyed the study trip and we learned plenty of new things at the guest lectures about South Africa visited different companies and in all had an amazing experience. I wrote down some notes and reflections from the study trip.

The Graduate School of Business in Cape Town hosted our sessions. GSB has its home in the breakwater prison. The building still has the old “charm” of the prison with the prison cells acting as break-out session rooms. We stayed at the breakwater lodge, conveniently located on the campus of GSB. I read a lot of “OMG South Africa! Dangerous” and other shenanigans on the internet. But in reality, it felt as safe as visiting any other country. When I arrived on Saturday, I took the public transport from the airport to the hotel.

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We had a packed program from Monday 8am to Friday 11pm. Before the trip, we had to investigate and submit a report on a South African company to understand the economic, political, and business situation there. Our team researched and prepared a report on RCL Foods.

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We had several engaging lectures by various professors and interesting panel discussions during the week.

Monday

Monday started with two sessions by Professor John Luiz who gave a comprehensive picture of Africa touching upon history, economics, and political scenery. Later in the afternoon, Associate Professor Mills Soko from GSB gave his personal and emotional account of his struggles during the apartheid era, and explained the political scenery of South Africa from his point of view.

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Monday evening we went to Cooking workshop hosted by celebrity South African chef Jenny Morris. In her studio we cooked food, and I got to work with dough and dessert! I enjoyed making Koeksisters with my EMBA mates.

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Tuesday

On Tuesday, we started with a session by Nkosinathi Solomon, CEO of SLG in South Africa. Nkosinathi gave his views on starting and running a business in South Africa and Africa in general. Professor Nick Binedell gave the second session of the day. Professor Nick, a well-known academic and founding director of GIBS, flew in from Johannesburg. His lecture one of the best ones during our visit, giving insights into personality development, leadership. He reflected upon his personal interactions with Nelson Mandela, which stood as one of the highlights of his lecture.

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Before heading to our first company visits, we had dinner with “Women in Engineering” and had fun chatting with couple of the participants of the program.

In the afternoon we went to First National Bank, to meet with the Head of Innovations, Yolande (van Wyk) Steyn. In most of the people’s perception innovation and technology adoption at banks and financial sector goes at glacial pace. And Yolande gave a good impression on how FNB focuses on innovation and encouraging it in the bank with various programs. Overall,they have impressive the initiatives like hackathons, new idea sharing platform, annual innovation prizes etc. We did get to peek into their beautiful tall office building with nice views over the cape.

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Wednesday

Nearly 36% of the African population lives under $2 per day known as Base of the Pyramid in the emerging markets. We got a glimpse of the “underground” economy of African townships and people living at the base of the pyramid. On Wednesday we got to see the other side of South Africa, the townships and low-income areas and meet some of the local entrepreneurs.

In the morning we had a quick debriefing by Nicolas Pascarel and his team of volunteers. With them we visited Philippi village and a small daycare run by the local woman. They explained the difficulties and challenges in running a Crèche for low income groups – such as acquiring the land, building a decent secure day care, getting enough money to pay the teachers. We discussed some options on how to improve the conditions.

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But as with many situations, coming up with a solution to complex problems without having sufficient knowledge seemed incredibly difficult.

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During the visit, We had some nice african lunch with the locals at Philippi village!

After the trip, we all gathered together to share our experiences focused around the four As of Business at the Base of the Pyramid – Acceptability, Affordability, Accessibility, and Awareness.

Thursday

On Thursday Melani Prinsloo, helped us dig deeper into Business at the Base of the Pyramid. In the session she questioned the role of capitalism and rethinking the business, especially in emerging markets. She tried explaining the difference between formal and informal economy, and creating a sustainable business on “the capability Approach“, proposed by Amartya Sen et. al, going deeper into the philosophy of business ethics.

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Before heading to our second company visit, we had a fun session by Dave Duarte, an entrepreneur and “marketing geek”, in which he explained the mobile revolution in Africa. We went to Mezzanine, a mobile software startup funded by Vodacom. While the products sounded promising, I felt a bit underwhelmed by the solutions they built. They showcased their solution for school principals – a mobile app to manage the school efficiently, like teacher attendance and other metrics. Using the app they can also report infrastructure issues to the authorities etc. They explained that availability of skilled software developers posed an ongoing challenge for the software development in South Africa.

Friday

Friday was the final day of activity and time for putting our heads together to come up with solutions. We had a business pitch competition to come up with solution that applies to South African Context. The teams came up with following ideas:

  • Brainyapp – App for improving the education in SA
  • EPAM SA plans – Expansion to South Africa for EPAM
  • Green Electricity – Portable electricity generation from biomass
  • Pharmafilter – Water cleaning, recycling technology product for hospitals.
  • T3 Teachers to Teachers – A platform for training teachers
  • TomTom – A GPS solution for Feature Phones
  • Tyco expansion in Africa – A fire prevention company’s expansion plans to Africa
  • Ubunye – A neighborhood daycare managed by locals
  • And our very own idea : Vuber :)

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We proposed a new startup idea Vuber – pitched as Uber for Virtual Reality viewers, where people get “on-demand” Virtual Reality shows broadcast by Vuber Scouts.

After the group presentation we headed out in the “wilderness” to have dinner at beautiful countryside restaurant The Table. After tasty lunch, we visited the Villiera wines to checkout out the winery and their sustainability initiatives. We had a tour around a small game reserve nearby!

The super busy and fun week came to an epic conclusion at the Gold restaurant with some great African food and music, where Paul Maughan presented the coveted Griaffe rolling trophy to the winners. Obviously our idea has worth of billion dollars :P, but we didn’t win the the prize, which went to Green Electricity folks.

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The trip to South Africa proved to be an exciting learning opportunity and provided us with incredible insight into how different economies work, challenges for businesses in emerging markets. With great lectures by eminent professors, company visits, we gained a lot of understanding in just a week. This certainly stands out as a highlight of EMBA programme.

Key Take Aways

* Africa is big – really, really, really big :)
* The opportunities for entrepreneurs are abundant.
* Africa has a complex business and political climate.
* Great food.
* Southern winter isn’t much cold.
* Each of the country in Africa is unique, yet carries some unique african spirit.
* Other Africans suffer the consequences of Xenophobia in South Africa.

Other highlights

I had some incredible interactions with the individuals who worked at the university café. They had incredible stories about living in townships and ambitions and energy. I also spoke to a couple of über drivers, first driver worked as a driver for gang before, and the other, a Rwandan gentleman driving everyday and studying for his MS in quality control.

On Saturday, I had a chance to meet a fellow clojurian and CTO of Cognician, Robert Stuttaford. We had breakfast together discussing all things clojure.

A Special Thanks

GSB’s Senior Lecturer Paul Maughan who lead the agenda of the sessions during the week. Along with Marjolijn, from MEA Global, everyday he brought incredible energy to boot us up in the morning and helped us in keeping the levels up until the last event on Friday. And of course, our very own Gea Tromp made the trip more wonderful!

I have never traveled to South Africa, for that matter to Southern Hemisphere. So I used this chance to confirm that water doesn’t actually spin different in the Southern Hemisphere.

The epic first term of EMBA came to a conclusion with an equally epic trip to South Africa. Our second term start on September 9th, I can’t wait for it!

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