Incredible India: Part 1 – Educate and change

The Mission

This is the first blog I have ever written in my life, I hope you enjoy it. Sometimes I admire professional authors for coming up with hundreds and hundreds of pages in bestseller novels, because truly speaking writing is difficult…well at least for me. So, instead of trying to be all professional, I am just going to write you a story.

I have been in Bombay (Mumbai) for two full weeks now. I am here to learn and contribute, in making this world a better place, thanks to a wonderful Responsible Leaders Fellowship (RLF) programme offered by my management school, ESMT. My late president, Pres. Nelson Mandela once said, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” As such I am happy to be associated with a management school that is making change.

I am here with my classmate and friend, Sylvain Huck. We are both in Mumbai for two months to work with an organization called LeapForWord (LFW), before moving on to the next mission in Pune. LeapForWord’s mission is simple, they want to extend the English language to the rural kids of India, in the simplest and most effective manner. Having been here only for two weeks, I really do understand the need for English, both professionally and otherwise. Most people on the streets do not speak English, and thus are limiting their opportunities on getting employed in big international companies.

LFW developed a technique and method that is so simple such that ANY person can be given training for less than a week and if they are successful, they are given an opportunity to teach kids English even without any prior knowledge of English. This is the model they call the “teacher entrepreneur” model. How it works is that they train anyone who is keen and dedicated to teaching kids. These “teachers” currently get trained for free, they only buy books and teaching material from LFW (books and training material were developed from scratch by LFW). When qualified they have an opportunity to go and look for “business” i.e. admit kids in villages. Parents pay the teachers directly (usually 100 Rupees a month, which is approximately €1,32) and LFW does not take any cut from this. I really liked this model as it does not only offer kids an opportunity to learn English but also offers opportunity to rural unemployed “teacher entrepreneurs” to make a living out of teaching.

Sylvain and I basically have three deliverables:

  1. Prepare a marketing strategy and business plan for LFW that they are going to use in scaling up their services in rural Maharashtra.
  2. Prepare a business model and business plan for LFW spelling bee championship.
  3. Prepare a finance pitch presentation and help LFW pitch on the 19th of March, in front of Indian CEO’s and business’s CSR management.
Pranil (CEO of LFW) and I enjoying sweet chai tea

Pranil (CEO of LFW) and I enjoying sweet chai tea

I’ll be honest, when Pranil (LFW CEO) told me of these deliverables, the first thing that ran in my mind was, “Am I here to do MBA 2015 module 7?” It certainly feels like I’m a student again, the only difference is that this assignment is not graded, neither is it a case study. This is the real deal, the real makoya. Our grade will be the impact we leave on LFW and hopefully if they implement our recommendations they can succeed in their mission.

To make us better understand their mission, we visited one of the schools where they implement the “teacher entrepreneur” model. We took an overnight bus ride from Mumbai to Shirpur (380km apart). This was an interesting ride for me as I had never been in a sleeper bus before. I probably could have slept if it wasn’t for the crazy driving in India. After two weeks here, I still haven’t got used to it…kind of makes you feel uneasy :) During our visit in Shirpur, we met all “teacher entrepreneurs” with their students and in some cases, we met the kid’s parents too. Everyone was excited to see us, we conducted interviews with both the kids and parents to see if they liked the LFW idea and if it made a difference in general. It was impressive to learn how highly kids speak of LFW classes, and they certainly excel in English at school. Some kids can read three or four letter words in English before they could do the same in their native Marathi. It was encouraging to see that most kids embraced English as an important language in their lives, with most kids citing job opportunities and better lifestyle as they main drivers for learning English.

Meeting children and parents

Meeting children and parents in Shirpur

The City

Bombay or Mumbai, is the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra. It is also India’s financial capital. Bombay has a population of 22 million people (half the population of my native South Africa). One thing that is nice about Mumbai is that for such a big city, it is very cheap and convenient to move around. Black and yellow Rickshaws and taxis, buses, the busy Western and Central railways and Uber are my main methods of moving around the city . I would ofter use a rickshaw to get to the nearest train station, then use Western railway when I want to get up and down Mumbai (i.e. North to South). We only use Uber when its convenient at night e.g. when coming back from work late. Although the city is next to the sea and there are lots of rivers through Mumbai, there is lot of water pollution and as such drinking water is not so clean if you are not used to it. Locals drink tap water without any problems, I prefer to just buy purified water. Buying clean water is cheap. We easily get 20 litres of clean purified water delivered to our apartment for less than 1 Euro. Mumbai road infrastructure is pretty solid and in good state, although it is hardly free. Traffic is a nightmare here, if you don’t plan your trip accordingly, you will get stuck. I am using google traffic a lot before I get moving, just to see how long will I be stuck.

The Foodie

I generally love Indian food. In my home country, South Africa, we generally have fairly good Indian restaurants. I was so disappointed with Indian restaurants in Berlin. I think I tried two and I gave up. So you can imagine how excited I am to be here, and experience the real deal…the spicy Indian food, the masala India. So I told myself I’ve give a couple of weeks to get used to everything before heading for street food. It didn’t last that long though. Everything here is so inviting and you get it at every corner of the street. From all day chai tea, to sugar cane juice, to sweet lassis, street omelettes and more…we try it all when we can. And no, I haven’t been sick because of it. I think in general if you are not used to spicy food, you will get sick in India. Not because of the food, but just because your body system doesn’t accept the masala pleasure. I can safely say, Indian food is safe, and it has to be since it is all cooked and mostly fried.

In my two weeks here, I have been converted into being a half vegetarian. Every lunch meal we have is vegetarian and I have not even once complained. One things for sure, Indians do know how to make vegetable food look and taste sexy. I wouldn’t mind being vegetarian here, the masala gels so well with potatoes, dhal, peas, eggs…name it, they will make it sexy. Here is a snippet of what we have been trying so far:

Enjoying chicken tikka masala on the streets of Khar Road

Enjoying chicken tikka masala on the streets of Khar Road

From top going clockwise: Kachori, Shira and Poha

From top going clockwise: Kachori, Shira and Poha

It without a doubt that the next couple of months are going to be interesting, and I am looking forward to it. Please engage with me, I would appreciate some suggestions, myths to be busted and any interesting Indian cuisine to try.

Till next time, namasthae :)


Time with the Champions

Beautiful Nairobi. Lots of greenery, lovely weather, friendly people, great beer…what’s not to like!


As in many developing countries, income inequality, high unemployment, rural-urban migration and other issues combine to create a large population living in poverty, dwelling in informal settlements ( read: slums) like Mathare. (view from my office)

Views from my office 1Views from my office 2

Unemployment is pretty common, with a correspondingly high crime rate. The HIV prevalence exceeds the national average. Tuberculosis, malnutrition, hypertension and diabetes are also rampant.

Run by German Doctors Nairobi, BARAKA HEALTH CENTER provides quality, accessible and sustainable health services to the vulnerable population in this community of around half a million people.Picture Baraka health center

Rose has worked in Baraka since 2007, and leads the ‘community team’.  I believe it’s more apt to call them the ‘Community Champions’With the community team

The community team delivers one of the core services of this centre. Their job is to go into the dangerous streets, narrow alleys, unmarked houses and unventilated shacks with ‘flying toilets’. They follow up on patients, identify people too sick to come to the clinic, pick out malnourished children and adults, monitor drug adherence, and refer these people to the feeding centre,the health clinic, the HIV/TB care centre or to other appropriate services.

I spent one day with them on the field to help me understand the center’s work, I couldn’t take pictures to avoid undue attention. Only Rose was bold enough to make phone calls on the street, and she told me: “they see me as their mother, and no matter how ‘bad’ these boys become, they’ll still find it hard to attack their mother; but you make sure you keep your phone well”. (I kept my phone very very well!)

In my time here as an ESMT Responsible Leaders’ Fellow, I hope to contribute to keeping the centre open and running sustainably. If I ever run out of motivation….I’ll just spend another day with Rose and her courageous team-  field trip for me, daily work for her.

With Rose

Leadership lessons I learnt from my illiterate father

Leadership is a fascinating idea. Stories and anecdotes about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa and several other greats have always inspired me. During my professional career and during this MBA program I learnt about businesses that were inspired by exemplary leadership. In my opinion no worthwhile change has ever come about without inspiring leadership.

On different occasions when my friends learnt about my personal journey, in varying degrees, they all said that I should be proud of what I achieved in my life. That comment always got me thinking. I worked hard to get where I am today, but what enabled me to become what I am?

One of the ideas I’ve practised in this MBA is, taking a step back, connecting seemingly unrelated dots to draw insights. Applying this to my personal journey, it occurred to me that a key factor is the influence of my father, and I realised that I picked up some key leadership lessons from him. Here is my version of it.

Marrivagu Narsimha is my father’s name. He was born to a poor farmer in a village, Tangutur, in India. He never went to school. He inherited no wealth, but as the only boy child, was responsible for his three sisters. To financially support my grandfather, he migrated to Hyderabad city in search of a better livelihood in his teens. He worked as a daily wage labourer. He set up his family in a slum because he could not afford a decent house elsewhere. He raised 3 children under these conditions.

When he stopped working in 2005, this is what he had accomplished:
• Eldest son: merit student, electronics engineer, employed with one of the top corporate houses in India
• Younger son: gold medalist, electronics engineer, employed with India’s second largest software exporter
• Daughter: pursuing graduation in science

His monthly income at that time was INR 2,000 ($31).

Taking an outsider perspective and looking back in time, four key elements of his approach stand out to me. These are my leadership lessons from him.

1. Vision: Must be a compelling idea of a better future
We grew up in poverty. As a family we had to choose between the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter on a daily basis. Several days in a month, eating three square meals was a luxury. Sanitary conditions included defecating in the public, clogged drainage systems and sewage streams in the locality. On several occasions, I was not allowed to sit in school because either my clothes were torn, or because I was barefooted, or because I had not paid the fee due for the month. Our relatives looked down upon us and there was very little support.

These circumstances notwithstanding, my father made education a basic necessity for us. He believed very strongly, and was totally convinced, that education is the only thing that will ensure his children will not lead the life of poverty that he lived. What he used to say whenever I was sent back from school or I asked for shoes is still fresh in my mind, “Your focus should not be on the shoes, your focus should be on your studies. If you don’t eat once or if you don’t wear shoes it will still be okay. But if you don’t study well it will not be okay. One day when you are well educated all these problems will be gone. Sometimes it may not happen on time, but I will somehow pay your school fees. All you should do is work hard to be the best (1st ranker) in your class”. He would relentlessly repeat this message whenever we children asked for anything that he deemed was unnecessary.

2. Execution: Must be a relentless pursuit
He dragged us through those circumstances for about two and a half decades never showing signs of giving up. I remember him waking up early in the morning at 4, taking a cold bath and leaving home to bring some bags of metal scrap, then quickly cleaning his hands, eating something real fast and going to the metal shop where he was working, then coming home for lunch around 2, and returning in the night around 9. And early morning during weekdays and on Sundays, he would work on separating useful metal pieces from those bags of scrap to make some additional money. This was his routine. He would do this without any complaints, with same energy, consistently through all those years. He would buy groceries on credit because his income was not enough to provide for everything the family needed. At other times he would default on payment of house rent. With three children to educate, at times he had to default on our school fee too. But he strove real hard to pay the school on time. That was always his top priority.

As for our studies, his emphasis was on “focus” and “excellence” right through. I have vivid memories of how he used to look at my progress report. The first thing he would look at is my class rank. If it was not “1st”, he would never be happy. Sometimes when I was 2nd or 3rd he would say “Not good enough. Why are you not the first in class? You are not studying well. You keep playing cricket and roaming on the streets all the time. Whenever I see you, you are always with your friends. Instead if you had studied you would have been the 1st ranker. You have to be the best in your class, the best among your friends, the best among all our neighbours.” He was very insistent on this, all through my school years.

But once we got out of school, he never told us what to do. It was almost as if he had deliberately changed his strategy. He used to say “I am an illiterate, and I don’t know what is good and what is not when it comes to education. I sent you to school and fortunately you had good teachers who told you how to study. I could never help you with studies other than paying your fees and buying you books. You studied well so far and whatever you got was your hard work. From now on you have to make your own decisions. You decide what you want to study and how much to study. You just tell me how much money you need to study and I will try and arrange it somehow.

In retrospect, I see he led us holding hands when we were kids but once he realised we could take care of ourselves, he gave us freedom, the room to think, decide and execute what we thought was right for us, supporting us in every way we needed him to. He empowered us to think and act for ourselves.

3. Culture: Must emphasize values and foster excellence
The culture he built at home had “excellence” and “education” at its heart. He would let us do anything we wanted but only as long as it did not compromise the quality of or focus on our education. He would never stop me from playing cricket with my friends but as exams approached he would come looking for me at all places possible, take me home, sit me down and make me study. There were no excuses!

Other way around, whenever he or my mom needed us to do something, say buying vegetables or fetching water, we could always get excused if we said we had to study. Instead my father or my mother would go get the stuff. Whenever any one of us children had exams or were preparing for any competitive exam, that child would get decision rights to almost all things at home – how much sound others are allowed to make, whether doors and windows should be open, at what times and how long television would be turned on, when the lights would be turned off, whether my mother could sit down in front of the door and chat with neighbours, when the others should take bath, right to use all stationary, and exemption from all household work etc. It was almost as if that child had veto rights to every decision at home. My father would let us stay home instead of attending marriages etc., if the reason was studies. We could even excuse ourselves from spending time with visitors and relatives when we needed to study. Exceptions could always be made, if the reason was studies.

Given the latitude we were allowed, on the pretext of studies, it was a natural expectation that we were excellent in our studies. Sometimes during my school days, my father would even be angry with me because I was hanging out a lot with some friends who were not so bright in studies. He would let me play with them but would caution me whenever he sensed I was spending a lot of time with such friends.

4. Example: Must reflect simplicity, integrity and responsibility
All through those years he had been an unassuming person, full of integrity and responsibility. A striking example is this incident. At one time my father had left his job because of some differences with his employer. One of our relatives came to know of this and he visited us and offered my father a job in his shop. My father politely refused. The relative persisted and he tried to talk my father into his offer citing the difficulties we were facing, three children to take care of, rent to be paid and so on. My father did not budge. Later when the relative had left, my father explained to my mother that he refused the offer because that relative was not trustworthy, that his business methods were questionable, and that my father feared that if he joined that relative, he would be pressurized to help him in his dubious business methods, and that he was not willing to do such wrong things to run the family.

He was a person of absolute personal responsibility. He would never lay claim to anything that was not his. I remember him ordering me to return the extra money that the shopkeeper had given me by mistake. He would return the water to our neighbours before they reminded us. He never touched alcohol or tobacco in his life. He believed that these are addictive habits that render one irresponsible.

All through those years he stayed grounded and simple. After we had graduated and joined workforce our relatives would heap praises on him for persisting with his belief and investing the family’s future into our education. But he would never take credit for what we had become. He is not used to such praises and shows a bit of an embarrassment when people praise him. He would always reply “Whatever they have achieved is their hard work and their talent. I did not tell them that they should pursue engineering or anything like that. They chose their studies, I only paid their fees. In fact, since they started going to college they got scholarships and that helped their studies.

Thanks dad!

Cheers to Humanity

Last month I travelled back and forth between Hamburg and Berlin quite frequently. One common sight every time I reached Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (Main train Station) was the hordes of people travelling to the city from different parts of the conflict zones to seek refuse. More fascinating was the number of volunteers guiding them at station and taking them to a facility just outside station, providing free food and drinks. There was also a free bus service, possibly taking them to the official camp at Messenhalle in Hamburg. I saw the bewildered faces of very small kids and their mothers and fathers, tired from thousands of miles of journey on foot, boat, train and what not. The bustling big city was adding to the confusion and it looked like they had very little idea about what to do next.




However sight of volunteers carrying placards in four different languages and approaching them for help did bring a little smile on their faces in spite of all the thoughts about the uncertainty of the future. Some of these people, who travelled so far, had a good job and life until few months back. Now all has changed. I shuddered at the thought of putting myself in their shoes.

I am not opinionated about the current refugee crisis. I don’t know if welcoming refugees is wrong or right.  If there is a conflict back home then I would definitely like my family to move to a safer place. But we are not talking about 10 or 100 people. Looking at the sheer number I definitely felt the extent and impact of this crisis. On one hand there are people and countries that excused themselves from taking any responsibility. On the other, the support and tolerance that is shown by some, across different countries, was indeed hearting.  None of them is wrong. None of these is a long term solution. Education teaches us to take an objective view of things but this increases the dilemma in your mind.

Surely countries such as Germany that are helping are showing a great deal of responsible leadership. ESMT has also come up with some exclusive scholarships to support victims of global conflict. True, conflict brings out the best and worst in humanity.

I didn’t personally get affected by the crisis (except for selectively being asked for my ticket and ID multiple times during my train travels because of my skin color).  But if crisis deepens each one of us will be affected sooner or later. For now let’s hope things get better and nobody has to deal with the kind of ordeal faced by the people who travelled or are still stuck.

This is a big man made crisis and no one but the man has to find a solution.

Summer Grill, July 3rd 2015

As planned, on July 3rd ESMT hosted a BBQ in the garden to honor the Kofi Annan Fellows and to present this year’s RLFs (Responsible Leadership Fellows) who have just returned from their 6-months mission. Apart from the Kofis (Kofi Annan Fellows) and RLFs, Friends of ESMT, ESMT professors and the Ambassador of Nepal also attended. The event was initiated and hosted by Prof. Wulff Plinke and his colleagues in ESMT.

Overview of the Summer Grill

Overview of the Summer Grill

Meet and Greet

Meet and Greet

After some casual greetings, Prof. Plinke started by telling a brief history of KABSF and the birth of the RLF. In a nutshell, KABSF (Kofi Annan Business School Foundation) was established to give a chance to talented students from under-developed countries to pursue higher education in leading six business schools in Europe. The RFL (Responsible Leaders Fellowship) is a program initiated to give ESMT graduates the opportunity to give back to the society through skills-based volunteering. The selected fellows are to provide a 6 months service to a deserving organization depends on mutual agreement between both parties.

This year’s RLF graduates are Mariana Helguera, Sergey Ten and Sherzod Abdujabborov who volunteered their services at TSiBA Education in Cape Town. Another fellow, Rahul Jain, worked with Welthungerhilfe in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique. The four fellows shared their experiences, challenges, highlights and the priceless life lessons they learned with the crowd.

Left to Right: Rahul, Sergey, Sherzod, Prof. Plinke, and Mariana

Left to Right: Rahul, Sergey, Sherzod, Prof. Plinke, and Mariana

Next on the agenda, Prof. Plinke introduced the current Kofis who were present on the day. Due to the short notice of the event and different locations of KABSF business schools, there were only fellows from ESMT represent, but we strongly hope that the next event will be able to host Kofis from the other five business schools. Prof. Plinke, who is a leading factor in the formation of the Kofi Annan Alumni Association (KAAA) and who had drafted the KABSF First Years Report, introduced the six current fellows who are from MBA and MIM class. Each of them shared their experiences of being a Kofi, and how they expect their education in Europe to impact their future endeavours.

Left to Right: Prof. Plinke and ESMT MBA Kofis: Siyabonga Gobingca and Adeola Olatunji

Left to Right: Prof. Plinke, Siyabonga Gobingca and Adeola Olatunji

Ana Desiwijaya, another ESMT MBA Kofi, introduced herself and shared her experiences as a Kofi

Ana Desiwijaya, another ESMT MBA Kofi, introduced herself and shared her experiences as a Kofi

Left to Right: Prof. Plink and ESMT MIM Kofis: Matida Ndlovu, Sopha Nem, and Nelly Ogonda

Left to Right: Prof. Plinke, Matida Ndlovu, Sopha Nem, and Nelly Ogonda of the MIM class

It was a beautiful summer afternoon with good wine, good food, and good spirits. It had been a few months since we had last met up (as MIM students are doing internships), and everyone was delighted to see one another again. Old friends were reunited, new friends made, and endless laughter echoed until late evening.

Once again, we sincerely would like to thank KABSF, Prof. Plinke, Friends of ESMT, and others who are not mentioned here for providing us the opportunity to receive such a distinguished education and learning experience.

We are proud to be Kofis and RLFs!