The fellowship experience

Last week I returned from my ESMT Responsbile Leaders Fellowship (RLF) in Cape Town. Time flew. Driving to the airport, it felt like yesterday when I drove on the same road exactly five months ago, in the opposite direction. As I was wrapping up in Cape Town, someone asked me why I chose ESMT for my MBA. This made me go over my ESMT application and I found this.

ESMT Application

RLF was one of the major reasons why I chose ESMT. I am passionate about empowerment and was certain of seeking RLF even before I joined ESMT. After the program was introduced to us, TSiBA popped up as an interesting option. TSiBA is a non-profit private B-school in Cape Town that offers business degree to the underprivileged, and business training and mentoring to disadvantaged entrepreneurs. After talking to the MBAs from the past year who had done their fellowship at TSiBA, I was convinced that it fits my bill perfectly.

Why TSiBA?
Early in my life, I learnt that when one chooses to focus on problems, one sees only more problems, but the moment focus shifts to possibilities, we see opportunities. This is a paradigm shift in thinking which is very difficult to attain given the nature of circumstances you grow up in such areas. There is a lot of conditioning you go through that you have to undo in order to make that shift. And I believe examples are the best way to demonstrate this possibility. I chose TSiBA because I saw the opportunity to be that example. When I learnt of the circumstances the entrepreneurs and students at TSiBA go through in life, I thought I could share my experiences with them to instill the belief that it is possible. I however don’t think this can happen over a guest lecture or talk. I was convinced that being a part of their learning journey is the best way to make that impact, and I saw RLF providing me that opportunity.

The RLF Experience @ TSiBA
TSiBA is a great organisation and I loved the experience there. There are a lot of things to do, and there is a shortage of skilled people who are willing to support. So when I started there, I got to chose what I wanted to do. TSiBA gave me complete freedom in executing the projects that I had taken up. Staff members are very friendly, supportive and collaborative. They are more like a family than coworkers. There is a lot of friendly banter in the staff room. Interactions with students were energising and humbling. The RLF experience made several indelible impressions on me that I am sure will stay with me for a long time. Here are the most important lessons I learnt.

Planning is good, having an open mind better!
The MBA experience gave me fresh perspective on how things don’t always go as planned, and helped me appreciate how important it is to be temperamentally ready to handle any kind of situation, not only in business but also in life. The RLF @ TSiBA helped me put this to practice. Last October, when I interviewed with TSiBA, we agreed on the areas that I would support TSiBA with. By the time I arrived in Cape Town, more than 3 months had passed, and things had changed a lot. The work that I wanted to do was not possible due to unforeseen circumstances. Instead I had a completely different set of projects to choose from. And I chose to manage a brand new program, Juta-TSiBA-EME program, which involved building a small business, ground up, in a tripartite set up.

Juta-TSiBA-EME Program
This program is a concerted effort by two organisations committed to black empowerment in South Africa. The program was conceived of in late 2015 and the execution began in February 2016. The program was sponsored by Juta, a leading publishing house in South Africa. The vision of the program was empowerment of the disadvantaged. The goal was to identify a disadvantaged black entrepreneur and to use donated stock to set up an Exempt Micro Enterprise (EME) business. Juta chose TSiBA to do that and I anchored the program execution for TSiBA. My activities involved research of the target market, coming up with a value proposition for the business, building partnerships with potential partners, drafting contracts for the tripartite collaboration, and selection of a previously disadvantaged black entrepreneur as the business partner (to take up the business once I leave South Africa). To provide experiential learning to entrepreneurship students, I anchored the end-to-end execution of the student project of the program as well. Towards this, I created simple processes for stock reporting, pricing, order placement, invoicing, payments, order collection, stock returns, and reporting. I also provided business coaching and mentoring to students. This was a complete start up experience for me. I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Student project launch

I went to Cape Town with an open mind about my work. And in retrospect, I think this mindset helped me see the opportunities available rather than getting disappointed by the changed circumstances.

Preparing for failure is an important business skill
The most important lesson I learnt from the Juta program is, how important it is in business to be prepared for failure. My lack of exposure to business landscape in South Africa made the selection of an entrepreneur the more challenging of the work-streams I had to manage. When we announced the program and invited applications, there were quite a few interested in coming onboard as the EME. One of the applicant teams showed the drive and motivation required for our program. We interviewed and found them suitable for the EME. The prospects sounded promising. We were about to confirm their selection, and they pulled out citing workload and alignment issues. In the meantime, the interest of other parties also dwindled and I missed the deadline to select the EME. Within a few weeks, things that seemed very promising faded away one after the other, and I was not prepared for that. This was a major jolt to the program. What I learnt from this experience is that in business even the most promising lead may not materialise and being prepared for that eventuality is very important. This learning came in handy in another project. A few Northeastern University (USA) and TSiBA students collaborated to start a social enterprise and agreed to have me in an advisory role. Drawing from the failure of the Juta program, I was able to make recommendations for strategy that ensured that we were prepared for failures and thereby we could better manage the risks.

You learn a lot more when you teach/coach
At TSiBA, I had a variety of interactions with students. As part of the student project of Juta program, I coached students on setting up businesses and mentored a few of them. I also had an opportunity to be a tutor for entrepreneurship and leadership. There were many brilliant ideas discussed, personal stories and issues shared and discussed, ideas challenged, solutions proposed and debated, agreements and disagreements, viewpoints countered and so on. Those discussions helped me learn a lot about the South African culture, and I also felt I got a good understanding of how the youth think (Not saying that I have grown old!). The element of vicarious learning associated with such interactions is fascinating and it taught me a lot. There were many eureka moments when sharing my experiences and beliefs with students gave me a fresh perspective on my life.

Wrap up
The feedback on my programs has been very positive and the results promising. In a span of three months, the student arm of Juta program sold 1,571 books, resulting in a revenue of ZAR 18,105.30.

Revenue

At the time of my leaving Cape Town, the EME had sold about 140 books and generated about ZAR 12,600 in revenue. The revenue from the student project and a part of the EME revenue will go to TSiBA scholarship fund for future students. Reading through the reflection papers submitted by students at the closure of the student project, I felt the project met its goal of providing experiential learning to the students. Personally for me, what stood out was students giving feedback that my guidance helped them sell to customers, made them think differently about doing business, and that they made real changes to their business approach.

Farewell

Thanks to ESMT and TSiBA for the wonderful opportunity!
santom

Senegal: A cultural paradox

After staying in Senegal for four months I have grown accustomed to the question – What do you think of Senegal? I always ask the other person to be a little more specific because I have a mixed bag of YES and NO’s in my repository of experiences. If you ask me whether I like people, culture and life in general? Then, it’s a yes to all three questions. Do you think that the economy is in good shape and poised to grow? Then the answer is NO.

People in Senegal are extremely warm and welcoming. This is reflected in their day-to-day lives, community functions, work place and even clothes. Unlike India, which is also undergoing economic transformation, people in Senegal are patient, content and easy going. A dinner in a restaurant can easily extend beyond an hour because most people delve into conversations while the staff takes 20-minutes to bring the menu. It takes another 20-minutes to order and then another 30 minutes finishing the food. Sometimes my urgency in placing the order and eating food surprises the staff at the restaurants and cafés. Senegal is so easy-going and laid back that if you don’t ask for the check it never arrives. Similarly, confrontations in the society are resolved by arguing politely about the issues and sometime involves several volunteers that listen to the parties and help them reach a settlement. For e.g. if one cars slightly rubs off another car on the road then there is small exchange of words by pulling cars aside or some honking. If the damage is serious then settlement is immediately reached by involving the curios bystanders to assess the damage. That’s it! I have never seen people getting into heated arguments, heckling or brawls. I’m sure it happens but is not so visible in regular life.

This sense of calm and satisfaction is also observed at work. People show up early but morning discussions are important and small talk takes priority. If something goes wrong with the equipment at a convention or an event then you don’t see people running helter-skelter to fix it. Usually a person is sent out to find the person who can fix the problem. While the technician takes 5 minutes to arrive and fix the issue, the crowd breaks down in chatter as if it was expected. The speaker/ organizers stay calm as if this were a part of the show. This is how most things work here. In the beginning I had reached a pre-mature conclusion that people were lazy and productivity at work was extremely low. This is the point where I was completely wrong. For I had assumed that people didn’t do enough. In the process I missed the point the people don’t want to do more.

Understanding culture and people takes time, observation, and interaction. People in Senegal are deeply rooted in their culture. The culture of Senegal is defined by four words namely – Kersa (respect for others), Tegin (good manners), Terranga (hospitality) and Thiossane that stands for history, tradition and culture. These four tenets of Senegalese life pretty much define how they conduct and live their lives. It took me four months to understand this aspect of life and accept it. In the process I learned that people were more happy, content and in harmony with each other. This is contrary to the life of modern societies, in which materialistic wealth is seen as an important factor for achieving happiness but we are always short or looking for it. From the western perspective output at work may seem inadequate but from the Senegalese perspective it’s adequate as long as someone is working on it. Relationships and people are given priority over work and its often more important to preserve those rather than getting the work done. I have now come accept this way of life and it raises a profound question in my mind – We live to work or work to live? I’m glad that I experienced this and I hope that I would take these values back with me.

Although these ideals are a good way to lead a life, they cannot exist without a stable/economically developed society. Ignoring the fact that economic development and good quality life are not mutually exclusive is like ignoring the very peaceful existence Senegal has enjoyed till now and the factors responsible for it. Thus it becomes all the more important for Senegalese people to be economically stable, which will ensure survival of this culture and values. An economically unstable society cannot thrive on good conduct and culture. This is where most people in Senegal disagree with me and firmly believe that they are better off given the prevailing economic environment, simply blaming the government for all shortcomings. Most Senegalese are oblivious to the fact that the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and it is this constant influx of capital that it has managed to avoid wars, coups, and economic collapse that most of it neighbors have experienced in recent history.

Majority Senegalese believe that low agricultural productivity and underdeveloped infrastructure is an outcome of bad government policies. They also think that its entirely government’s responsibility to take care of agriculture and infrastructure industries. Although it is true to some extent, it would be wrong to just blame the government. Most millennial, start-up founders and businessmen have jumped onto the bandwagon of digitization/ ICT and ignored the opportunities in these foundational industries. They see digital businesses and service industry as the key to change the economic landscape. Universities, business schools and research centers also echo similar outlook with hardly any investment in R&D of agriculture, infrastructure and primary industries. It is only the foreign countries that see the opportunity and are thus investing heavily by leasing large swaths of land, building highways and investing in medical services amongst other industries. Senegalese people have nil or very little investment in these businesses. In my opinion agriculture forms the basis of a strong economy. All modern economies were built on agrarian societies, whose first goal was to become self sufficient in terms of food. Only when there is enough food for everyone, the governments and society can think of progressing into industrialized economy. It is very hard to find a country that was entirely able to skip this crucial step in transitioning from a developing country to a developed country. China and India are prime example of this transformation. Many young people are oblivious to this fact and strongly believe that recent growth in the ICT sector is the answer to end this dependency on foreign aids.

Even if we are to assume that ICT holds the key for economic transformation in Senegal there are other factors that pose as a major challenge. Some of these challenges are:

  1. Language – Today’s businesses are global and the primary medium of communication is English. People hardly speak English in this part of the world and this limits their reach and access to information.
  2. Limited natural resources –Senegal is not so rich in natural resources. For e.g. the entire energy requirement of Senegal is fulfilled by producing energy from imported oil. There is no hydro electricity or other forms of energy production. Surprisingly no one here in investing in renewable energy production given the high incidence of wind and sun all year long.
  3. Poor banking infrastructure and weak policies – BCEAO is the sole central bank for eight West African countries and the French treasury is the only guarantor. The French treasury sets the exchange rate between countries and the CFA is pegged to the Euro at a fixed rate. The French treasury also plays a big role in defining the policies that govern the BCEAO. Need I say more?
  4. Interference of international politics – Every government decision is heavily influenced by their French or American counterparts. I guess that’s the price you pay for This interference is noted not only in politics but also in the economic sphere. Most telecommunication companies, tourism businesses, and other important industries have international organizations holding majority stake.
  5. Dysfunctional relationship with neighbors – Senegal’s relationship with its immediate and extended neighbors is dysfunctional. One day they are friends and the next day you have a trade embargo that jeopardizes all the past efforts.
  6. Lack of R&D in agricultural, indigenous industries and life sciences – I met a lot of students, professionals and government officials but none seem to focus on mentioned areas. Other indigenous industries such as fishing, which is one of the biggest employers, are rapidly deteriorating and no investment is being done to improve its performance.

So going back to the original question – what do I think of Senegal – I have to say that I have mixed feelings. Most debates that start with that question somehow end with the preceding context. Although I am able to convince some people and my counter arguments raise a doubt in their minds it does not deter their belief in the Senegalese way of life. At one business event a similar conversation had captivated about 5 people and there seemed to be no end to it when one gentleman, who after patiently listening to all the arguments, turned to me and said – “You may be right but life goes on. The dinner is served and its time to eat. Everything else can wait but food should not!” For a moment I was stumped but I knew that he meant to say that with all the respect and warmth in his heart. Although the western values and way of life slowly creep into the Senegalese culture, I am hopeful that Senegal will continue to carry on the traditions and build upon that a progressive and sustainable country that will serve as an example for other West African nations.

Till then JerraJef !

Cape Town Chronicles – III: Food For Life

Hunger. A primal need. To me it’s a special idea that brings forth vivid images from my childhood, some of my strongest memories. Growing up in poverty, starving was one of the constants in my life for more than two decades. The physiological and psychological feelings that empty stomach causes are so indelibly etched into my psyche that they have influenced an essential part of my conscious and reflex behaviors. When I see food getting wasted a part of my stomach aches and I feel the burning of an empty stomach. Perhaps this is why, almost unknowingly, I don’t waste food. Seldom, but if I waste food, I get livid on myself. My friends and family tell me that I never criticise the taste of food, and that I don’t waste food. I didn’t notice these about my eating behavior, until many people gave me this feedback. On my 25th birthday, my best friend inspired me to think about the hungry and the homeless people and feed at least one hungry person before I celebrate. I started doing that, and soon it became a regular activity and not associated with any occasion.

According to the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we human beings are driven to satisfy our higher needs of social bonding and self-actualization only after we satisfy our basic level needs. That leads to an interesting observation, that our ability to realize our potential, as an individual, as well as as part of a collective unit, is contingent on how well we are able to meet our basic needs. Hunger being one such basic need implies that malnourishment is an impediment to our individual and collective progress.

Consider these facts*

  1. In 2015, close to 800 million people suffered from chronic malnourishment worldwide. This is more than three times the total number of people affected by HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined (about 37 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, approximately 214 million malaria cases reported, and close to 10 million people fell ill with tuberculosis).*
  2. More people worldwide die of hunger than of AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined.
  3. Every night, one in every nine people, sleeps with an empty stomach.
  4. About 45% of deaths in children under five – 3.1. million each year – are attributed to poor nutrition.

*Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organization.

These numbers reveal a grim reality of the state of malnourishment globally. It is sad that the problem of malnourishment does not merit the same level of concern in a majority of us as much as the idea of AIDS or Malaria or any other disease does. But there are a few individuals and organizations that are contributing their mite to fight hunger. During my fellowship here in Cape Town I got an opportunity to add value to one such organization, Food For Life Cape Town.

In Mitchells Plain. A mother with her young toddler after receiving food PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography
In Mitchells Plain. Children waiting in line for food PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography
In Mitchells Plain. Children waiting in line for food
PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography

Food For Life Cape Town (FFL CT)
A colleague at TSiBA introduced me to FFL CT. It’s a non-profit volunteer organization that distributes freshly cooked vegetarian food in townships in Cape Town on Saturdays, and is affiliated to Food For Life South Africa (FFL SA), which is affiliated to Food For Life Global (FFL G).

How FFL came into being, is an inspiring story. It happened in 1974 in India. Srila Prabhupada, a well-respected wise man and founder of ISKCON, once saw a few hungry children fighting with street dogs to scavenge food. This sight shocked and deeply upset him, but more importantly inspired him to his vision that led to FFL, that no one within ten miles of a temple should go hungry. He urged his yoga students to immediately start serving food to the hungry. This became the seed that slowly and steadily grew into a global humanitarian organization, a worldwide network of kitchens, cafes and services, that feeds the hungry, including daily routines in many cities around the world. Today, FFL feeds more people worldwide than the UN. Amazing!

What we at FFL CT do?
FFL CT uses the kitchen at ISKCON Temple in Rondebosch. There is a lot of emphasis on cleanliness, consciousness and compassion when cooking. Those who cook attend their morning nature routines and shower before entering the kitchen. Once they start cooking they don’t go to the restroom. However, if one needs to, then that person should take a head bath before entering the kitchen again.

Every Saturday morning, one or two volunteers cook vegetable biryani (Biryani is an indian rice-based dish). The vegetables for the biryani are prepared on Friday evening. Cooking starts early morning, between 5:30 and 6 am, on Saturday. Alongside biryani, beans are cooked, to be served as a side dish. Once the food is cooked, it is offered to god. After a little while, the offerings are then mixed with the rest of the food. This is believed to sanctify the food, and the food is called Prasadam (sanctified offering). We then transfer the food into plastic containers, garnish them up with mint and coriander, and load them into the mini-truck. While the food gets decanted into the containers, volunteers enjoy the delicious biryani for breakfast.

Volunteers enjoying delicious biryani for breakfast
Volunteers enjoying delicious biryani for breakfast

In addition to the biryani and beans, we also prepare juice and load it up into the truck. The truck and the participating volunteers then leave, usually between 11 am and 12 pm, for the day’s destination where distribution takes place.

Currently we cook 1,800 meals and distribute in Grabouw, Mitchell’s Plain, Nyanga, Phillipi, Overcome Heights, Stellenbosch, Hanover Park, Kensington and a few shelters. We visit a different township every Saturday, and rotate every two months.

In Overcome Heights. People lined up to receive food
In Overcome Heights. People lined up to receive food
In Hanover Park. Volunteers dishing out food
In Hanover Park. Volunteers dishing out food
In Overcome Heights. Volunteers serving food
In Overcome Heights. Volunteers serving food
In Grabouw. Recipients line up to receive dishings
In Grabouw. Recipients line up to receive dishings

The recipients of our food are predominantly young children, with some elderly and other community members.

In Stellenbosch. Thank you!
In Stellenbosch. Thank you!
In Overcome Heights:. Innocence and curiosity
In Overcome Heights:. Innocence and curiosity
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Grabouw. A child receiving food
In Grabouw. A child receiving food
In Mitchells Plain. Food and friends
In Mitchells Plain. Food and friends
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights. A child receiving food from our community anchor Mymoena
In Overcome Heights. A child receiving food from our community anchor Mymoena
In Stellenbosch
In Stellenbosch
In Mitchells Plain. Happy children posing for the lens
In Mitchells Plain. Happy children posing for the lens
In Stellenbosch. Food, juice and camera - all I ask!
In Stellenbosch. Food, juice and camera – all I ask!

Temple devotees also join us for the food distribution. They bring a lot of joy and celebration to the atmosphere by joyously singing and drumming mantras with the children.

Regardless of the location, children rejoicing and celebrating the music, singing and dancing with our volunteers is an inspiring and a beautiful sight. And this embodies the true spirit of service that we at FFL CT strive for. One of the things that has impressed me about this organization is that none of the people involved, volunteers and management likewise, carry the feeling of charity. No one looks at, and feels, what we do, as an act of charity to underprivileged people. The attitude is one of compassion, and selfless service to fellow human beings. And that sets them apart.

In Hanover Park. Children enjoying their chance to play music
In Hanover Park. Children enjoying their chance to play music
In Overcome Heights. Children dance to Perez's tunes
In Overcome Heights. Children dance and sing in tune with our volunteers
In Hanover Park. FFL brings food and .. Superman too!
In Hanover Park. FFL brings food and .. Superman too!
In Mitchells Plain.
In Mitchells Plain.
In Grabouw. Children getting into vibe with our music master
In Grabouw. Children getting into vibe with our music master

My contribution to FFL CT
I volunteered to help FFL CT by joining them on Saturdays for food distribution. Soon came an opportunity to help the organization with strategy and management. As part of the core management team, I am helping the team with strategy for future. Based on my understanding of the activities involved and the vision for the future, near and long-term, I suggested a simple organizational structure to achieve three-fold impact (1) Make sustainability a key strategic focus for the organization (2) Build and strengthen the brand, and (3) Focus on efficiency for the business-as-usual activities/routines.

Core Team meeting
Core Team meeting

I have been fortunate that around the same time I came onboard, some enthusiastic and energetic folks started volunteering for FFL, and agreed to help us with the execution of above strategy. We formed a task force and we meet once a week to explore, discuss and debate different options to achieve our goals. We’ve made good progress on branding, and we are heading in the right direction with fund-raising and operational efficiency. We have big plans for the next few months, and are pursuing multiple threads to grow our network of benefactors.

The path forward
Strategically, we are evaluating the option of turning our weekly program into a daily one to create a stronger and longer-lasting impact on the communities we serve. This is a major strategic shift in the way our organization works. I am convinced that the current volunteer-based organizational structure has to give way to a few salaried office-bearers, part or full-time, in order for us to make and sustain this strategic shift. We also want to bring joy and smiles into the lives of more people and set ourselves the target of increasing our weekly capacity to 5,000 meals in the near-term. And we are launching a literacy project for young children in townships.

We are pursuing three major options on our path forward.

  • Living The Legends: On 23rd of July 2016, FFL CT will celebrate the legacy of two legends, Nelson Mandela and Srila Prabhupada, whose vision led to the efforts of FFL. Living the spirit of service of these two visionaries, 10,000 meals will be cooked and distributed on this day. This will be a flagship event of FFL CT going forward. This year’s event will have about 50 students from Northeastern University (NU) joining us. NU students will conduct free vision tests, and has sourced 2,000 eyeglasses from VisionSpring, an India-based NGO, to distribute to the needy for a nominal-to-zero price. Work is underway to raise funds, and to source volunteers for the event.
  • TSiBA-NU Consulting: We pursued the TSiBA-NU program for Entrepreneur Business Consulting, where business students from these universities will review and consult businesses in Cape Town to address business challenges, and have been shortlisted as one of the finalists on the program. We are excited to be on the program and hope the recommendations from these young business students will give us insights into how we can create more and sustainable sources of revenue and how we can take the brand closer to the young.
  • Read For Life: We are embarking on a literacy project that will be rolled out as a pilot in one township to begin with, and gradually developed into a working model that can be scaled for a wider roll out across townships, with minimum to no changes. I am anchoring this project for FFL CT and I am very excited about the execution of the pilot. The project has already generated keen interest in some of the people, and we look forward to the pilot roll out. More on this project soon.

How you can help
Every Saturday after our food drive in townships, I return home feeling glad that my efforts brought joy to people who are not as fortunate as I am. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that I grew up in a slum, and I had faced hardships caused by poverty. I can empathise with the people I see on Saturdays, who are living in abject poverty. Seeing the circumstances they are living in, is a humbling experience for me. And I think everyone of us can do something to make the situation better, directly or indirectly.

The best thing we can do is to not waste food. I urge you to sensitize yourself to food wastage, and make an earnest and consistent effort to not waste food. There are millions who are struggling to find food, and your efforts will make sure the situation doesn’t get any worse.

By supporting FFL CT you can make a difference in the lives of potentially many people. The biggest challenge facing us in pursuing the above mentioned goals is the inadequacy of resources, both financial and human. We are looking for people with the right vision and experience in fund raising, marketing and operations to come onboard and help us. We are also looking for generous donations, especially from overseas, to support our weekly operations. Given the fluctuations in Rand, any funding received from overseas would be a great help. You can also help us by volunteering for cooking and distribution on Saturdays.

If you are in Cape Town, join us on a Saturday to experience what we do, and how we do. Find out more on our website http://www.fflsa.org/branches/cape-town/, Facebook page (Food For Life Cape Town) and Instagram (FoodForLifeCapeTown) about FFL CT’s efforts to bring joy and smiles to different communities.

In Hanover Park. Happy team at the end of distribution
In Hanover Park. Happy team at the end of distribution
In Mitchells Plain. After a happy day's work
In Mitchells Plain. After a happy day’s work

Till next time,
santom!

From the edge of old continent!

Bonjour à tous,

I always find it difficult to write about things that require a touch of literature, melodrama and character in it. I am good at writing reports and answering questions. The best way I could think of writing such a blog was to use a question answer format. I also believe that anyone traveling to a new destination is bound to come across these questions. I have been here for almost a month and I have had the privilege to answer questions asked by people coming from various backgrounds. Here it goes:

# The landlady

Landlady: Do you speak French?

M: No, I don’t but I am learning one sentence/ word a day.

Landlady: You know everyone here either speaks French or Wolof?

M: Yes

Landlady: How will you get the work done? How will you communicate with people? How will you give directions to the taxi driver?

 M: Bonjour –>  je m’appelle Mustafa  –>  #&*!(((####  –>  $$$  –> ^&^#@!!**((   –>   Merci   –>    Jarra Jeff. It’s basically Introductions, lots of sign language/ phrases, agreeing on the price because there are no meters in the taxi and thank you in Wolof.

Landlady: I love Bollywood movies!

M: Which Bollywood movies do you like?

Landlady: I like all the movies that star Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh khan. I grew up watching Amitabh Bachchan movies. Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham is my favorite.

# Colleague at work

M: Can you suggest me a place for haircut?

Colleague: I recommend you go to a professional stylist.

M: Why?

Colleague: Don’t you see! All the men here have pretty much the same hairstyle. That’s the only hairstyle most barbers know (keeping it round and short).

# Start-up 1

Start-up 1: What are you doing here? How long are you here? What will you be doing?

M: I am an MBA student from ESMT doing a fellowship at CTIC, Dakar. I am here for 5 months. Most of time is used in talking to the start-ups, figuring out their business model and working with them on specific problem areas such as company valuation and financial modeling. Other responsibilities include helping the incubator (CTIC) with hands on approach in daily operations.

Start-up 1:  Oh you got an ESMT t-shirt. You must know all about mobile technologies?

M: No, not really.

Start-up 1: What did you study at ESMT?

M: I completed my MBA degree from ESMT.

Start-up 1: When did ESMT start the MBA program?

M: It’s been 10 years now. I was in the 10th batch.

Start-up 1: Oh man, the world knows about the ESMT MBA except for the Senegalese people!

M: It’s very well known and reputed institution in Germany.

(The air was cleared after I learnt that Senegal has its own ESMT – Ecole Supérieure Multinationale des Télécommunications. A well-known institute in West Africa for mobile technologies).

IMG-20160222-WA0010

Tea session with start-up founders

Start-up 1: What are your plans for the weekend?

M: Not much. I will most probably head to one of the beaches near Dakar and then go running in the evening. I will go the famous Charly’s bar later in the evening. If you are free then we can go to the Disco (The word discotheque is seen outside every club in Dakar and is very famous amongst taxi drivers).

Start-up 1: What do you think of the crowd here? You did go out partying?

M: I am not big fan of hip-hop/ pop music that is played at most of the places. American hip-hop artist are really well known here. Well-known joints have an interesting mix of people with a lot of Mauritanians and Lebanese.

(Some 30000 Mauritanian refugees live in Senegal and equal number of Lebanese people who settled here in the 1860’s)

Start-up 1: What else do you do in free time?

M: I generally watch a football game at a friend’s place or pub/ restaurant. Sometimes I just walk around the city with my camera clicking pcitures. Its fun watching a big game “Senegalese style” (Kids and adults stand outside restaurants/ bars watching the game, cheering and hooting, as the world goes around them).

# Start-up 2

Start-up 2: What do you think of Dakar?

M: I like the weather. It’s warm and sunny. I also like Corniche (the seafront). So far the people have been nice, helpful and courteous. I had no difficulty finding an apartment and I never felt unsafe in the city.

Start-up 2: Did you choose to come to Dakar?

M: I chose to come to Dakar.

Start-up 2: Why?

M: I like going to places that are not so much on the tourist map. It’s like going into the unexplored. I also did some research and found out that Senegal is one of the politically stable countries in the region with a deep-rooted culture for music, arts and food. I’m also doing something I like and believe in.

Start-up 2: Did you visit the real Dakar/ other side?

M: Oh yes, I did visit the other side. It resembles any other developing country. It’s like a dark underbelly under the fair and beautiful Corniche (Corniche, the seafront, houses businessmen and politicians surrounded by embassies from other countries and a French military base). The other side is the grim reality that showcases a developing country with haphazard streets, unplanned infrastructure and poor living conditions.

Start-up 2: Why did you go there?

M: I attended an open lecture for the underprivileged. I was accompanied by two colleagues who gave lectures on importance of entrepreneurship and financial planning in one’s life. (CTIC is also active in promoting entrepreneurship amongst the poorest masses in West Africa).

Start-up 2: How do you see it going forward (growth and development in Senegal)?

M: I expect it to grow because of demographic advantages, political stability and industrialization. But I also see problems in availability of natural resources and other areas such as energy. Senegal is not rich in national resources like fresh water and most of the energy resources are imported. Its not known for a big industry such as mineral ore, chemicals, or other natural commodities except for fishing. So it really needs to have a sound strategy to cope with industrialization, growing population and increasing energy needs.

M: What do you think of the economy?

Start-up 2: It’s slowly changing now. We have discovered oil off the Atlantic coast but lack of equipment, experience and oil drilling techniques resulted in Senegal settling for 10% of the total value generated. Majority of economic value should go to Senegal but international politics and lack of resources has led to Senegal settling for a small share.

M: Is it just you who feels like this because people don’t seem to be talking about it so much?

Start-up 2: No it’s the millennials of Senegal who think like this. The previous generation did not care so much about the economic resources of the country but this generation understands economics and it has access to information.

Start-up 2: Where have you been till now? Did you visit Goree islands, Saly and other beaches around Dakar?

M: I have been to Saly and the white sand beaches there. We rented out a beach house for the weekend for some team building exercise. I also visited Saint Louis (the erstwhile capital of Senegal). I plan to visit Goree islands and pink lake because it looks spectacular in the pictures.

IMG_20160126_113334

Lessons on entrepreneurship and personal finance

# Sachiko on the Beach

Sachiko: (Playing tourist and taking pictures of kids playing on the beach).

Kids: Don’t take our picture. You are not supposed to take our picture and then show it to the world.

Sachiko: But, but …(I was trying to capture the essence of Africa). Here, I deleted it.

Kids: Let us check. We need to make sure you deleted the pictures.

untitled shoot-076

Sunset at Plage du Virage, Dakar

# The morning coffee guy

M: Please don’t put so much sugar in my tea. It is too sweet for my taste.

Original Gangster: Man you are not an OG!

M: What’s an OG?

Original Gangster: You are from India and you don’t like sugar in your tea. Everybody in Senegal likes his or her tea/ coffee sweet. You are not an original gangster.

IMG-20160222-WA0009With the Original Gangster

# Colleagues at work

Colleague: Do you have family or friends in Senegal?

M: No

Colleague: So why did you choose to come to CTIC?

M: I believe that CTIC’s efforts are sustainable in the long run and the outcome of these efforts will have a higher net impact in term of economic development when compared to other non-profit models. The idea of creating a culture that enables entrepreneurs to build businesses will have a far-reaching impact in the long run. I felt that I could actually contribute to the society by doing something here.

Colleague: Do you like the food? Can you cook?

M: Yes the food is good. I usually eat croissants for breakfast and Yassa for lunch to satisfy my Indian taste buds. Evenings I usually cook something. I am slowly learning about the African spices.

Colleague: Do you like our country?

M: Yes, it’s been interesting and amazing so far. I look forward to explore it further.

To sum it up Senegal is at an interesting junction where the current policies and factors will heavily influence the future. Like most developing countries it has its share of problem. Concurrently it has the spirit to achieve something great. The current situation and state of affairs in Senegal are well summarized by the following African proverb –

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

I hope you enjoyed my blog and experience in Dakar so far. I plan to have a follow up on this once I have more question & answers to share.

Till next time, Jarra Jeff!

Cape Town Chronicles – I: Paying It Forward

A better world. Many wish it. Few take actions for it. And fewer strive to realise it. Since the beginning of February I’ve had the privilege of being an active part of an organisation that strives to make the world a better place.

Extreme poverty. Living in shacks. Congested houses, six people living in one small bedroom. Unhygienic sanitary conditions. Teenage pregnancy. Rampant gangsterism. High crime and school dropout rates. These are the harsh realities of life in a township in South Africa. Growing up as a child under such circumstances you literally grapple with life. Education and opportunity are synonymous with luxury.

Upgraded hostel
Upgraded hostel
Common room for kitchen and water faucet in a house of 3 bed rooms. Three families live in one bedroom.
Common room for kitchen and water faucet in a house of 3 bed rooms. Three families live in one bedroom.
This is about 65% of a room in an upgraded hostel
This is about 65% of a room in an upgraded hostel
One of three beds in a bedroom in a township. One bed is meant for one family of six people. Three people sleep on this bed, the man, his wife and the youngest child. The other children sleep on the floor of the bedroom and the common room.
One of three beds in a bedroom in a township. One bed is meant for one family of six people. Three people sleep on this bed, the man, his wife and the youngest child. The other children sleep on the floor of the bedroom and the common room.
Drying area
Drying area
Man preparing smileys. A smiley is the head of a sheep cooked on fire and cleaned up. It is called a smiley because the sheep's teeth are visible!
Man preparing smileys. A smiley is the head of a sheep cooked on fire and cleaned up. It is called a smiley because the sheep’s teeth are visible!
The streets lined with local beer shops
The streets lined with local beer shops

In my two weeks so far in Cape Town, I met some people who grew up in townships. One student had been an active gangster for years before he decided to change his life for better. He is articulate, passionate, energetic and aspires to be an entrepreneur. His vision is to create opportunities for young people in townships so they can choose goals over guns. Another student does hair dressing over the weekend to make ends meet. She wants to help grow her mother’s business of tailor-made beaded garments and shoes. A successful entrepreneur I met yesterday grew up with 27 other people in a three-room house in the Langa township. I found him to be an astute businessman. He has been running a successful business for over 6 years and is a motivational speaker for school children. I am sure I will meet more such people in the days to come.

These people are living examples of the kind of transformation that will create a better world. Their transformation was ignited by the Tertiary School in Business Administration, TSiBA, a non-profit private business school in Cape Town that offers bachelors degree in business administration (BBA), to underprivileged children. It is also home to TSiBA Ignition Centre, an incubation centre that supports entrepreneurs through business and leadership mentoring and training.

TSiBA strives to build entrepreneurial leaders by igniting young minds who in turn can become agents of social change. It has done this by creating a sustainable business model around the idea of paying it forward. The students and entrepreneurs at TSiBA are from disadvantaged backgrounds who cannot otherwise afford university-level education or professional business mentoring. Most of them hail from townships. Their education and mentoring is sponsored by donations, volunteering and consultation services from supporters. The beneficiaries do not pay back, rather pay it forward by creating jobs and driving social change by empowering other underprivileged people. TSiBA supporters pay it forward through their donations and volunteering support.

As part of ESMT Responsible Leaders Fellowship (RLF) program. I am supporting the TSiBA Ignition Centre. RLF is a voluntary program , which gives us ESMT students an opportunity to add value to a social change initiative by leveraging our business skills. I was convinced of the value RLF adds to society and had decided to participate in it even before I started at ESMT. During the MBA, I came up with three criteria to select the organisation for my RLF participation

  1. A cause I am passionate about
  2. Scope for leveraging skills and insights gained during MBA
  3. A culture I’ve never been exposed to before

The opportunities at TSiBA Ignition Centre fitted the bill perfectly. TSiBA is all about empowerment, something that I am passionate about. At TSiBA I have the opportunity to choose what I want to do. There are many initiatives. Skilled people who are willing and able to lend their time and effort to TSiBA’s mission are in short supply. There is ample scope for leveraging the skills and knowledge I gathered from my professional and MBA experience. Through initiatives at Ignition Centre there is opportunity to engage and work with entrepreneurs and other organisations, to share my experiences with them, and to be part of their learning journey. Interactions with TSiBA students is another exciting opportunity to learn and understand the South African culture.

At present my work spans the following:

  1. Leading an entrepreneurial initiative with the goal of setting up an emerging enterprise and building a sustainable business model to enable partnership with one of TSiBA’s donors.The project will also provide the second-year BBA students, a first-hand experience of the challenges entrepreneurs face in the real world.
  2. Profiling, screening and selecting entrepreneurs for TSiBA’s student consulting project program, done in collaboration with another university in the US.
  3. Guiding a micro-finance project, to roll out a pilot to a group of women from Zimbabwe and test the feasibility of the idea.
  4. Lecturing and mentoring students on Entrepreneurship and Leadership & Self-Development.
  5. Mentoring entrepreneurs

This is a great learning opportunity, and I have a strong sense that this will be an enriching experience. I thank TSiBA for the opportunities provided and my alma mater ESMT for the opportunity to pay it forward through the RLF program.

Till next time!
santom