Jennifer: Here’s a guest post from Jamie Aaronson (2013) who spent two weeks in South Africa for the Seminar in International Business. These seminars are designed to introduce the participants to the culture, history and business environment in various countries. Each 3-unit course is a combination of lectures and seminars at Haas, a one or two week study tour of the regions of interest and a major research project undertaken by each participant.
I’ve just returned from my first Seminar in International Business (SIB). We visited Johannesburg for one week and Cape Town for the second, meeting with local and global businesses from McKinsey South Africa to ‘Silicon Cape’ entrepreneurs. Throughout, I was struck by the excitement surrounding Africa’s untapped potential as an emerging market.
Companies like Standard Bank, one of the big 4, were piloting new programs to reach the previously unbanked. One of the most interesting programs was a bank shop initiative in which informal branches were set up throughout Africa via small grocery shops already in place. These ‘Bank shops’ were on the heels of M-PESA, which, similar to PayPal, had successfully moved banking mobile via text-enabled money transfer. One entrepreneur used a phrase that particularly struck me – ‘In Africa, airtime is currency’ – implying that money and connectivity had literally converged into one.
Despite these emerging trends, it is clear that Africa still struggles with incredible resource and infrastructure constraints particularly around Internet, water, food, housing, and power. It is hard to imagine a thriving business economy when something as ‘low-tech’ as a Webinar, as we heard from one business owner, is simply avoided due to unreliable connectivity.
Two inspiring individuals we met were Fred and Loreta. Loreta was a young woman from Soweto (Johannesburg township) who could not afford university, but was rising up as a community leader within LoveLife, the AIDS prevention organization. We met Fred at a billionaire’s dinner party (just your everyday SIB); he had started the African Leadership Academy to identify and groom future leaders across the continent.
In addition to business meetings and networking events, we made time for Robben Island, the Apartheid Museum, the Mandela house, wine tasting, and safari game. While on Robben Island, we had the privilege of meeting one-on-one with Ahmed Kathrata, one of eight anti-Apartheid activists imprisoned with Nelson Mandela.
We closed with an awards dinner (a.k.a. classmate ‘roast’) complete with traditional food, dancing, and music. Then we were let loose for one last weekend in Cape Town to shark dive, surf, watch rugby, and hike Table Mountain. The hike turned into extreme rock climbing but we luckily made it down the mountain with no more than a scratch. All in all we had an amazing trip learning about the business climate, BBE (Black Economic Empowerment) affirmative-action movement, union relations, government, culture, and the historical end of Apartheid in 1994, less than twenty years ago. As a student visitor, my hope for South Africa is that it will continue on a path of improved socio-economic conditions through effective leadership and sustainable policy enactment, enforcement, and implementation.