A tale of two economies - MBA International Business elective explores South Africa
Published 18 July 2008
‘I don’t think you could ever learn in the classroom what we learnt in South Africa in that one week.’ One student’s verdict – but echoed by others who took part this year in the first International Business in Context elective, open to students on both the Full-time MBA and the Executive MBA.
18 students flew to Capetown in May for the one-week elective run in conjunction with the University of Stellenbosch Business School, an AMBA and EQUIS partner, who provided an outstanding academic framework for the visit. The packed programme included introductory lectures from leading South African academics which set the context and highlighted issues in the country’s economic, political and social development and related business challenges. Afternoon visits then took the group to some of South Africa’s leading corporations and public sector organisations and to places of cultural and historical significance such as the Apartheid Museum in Soweto.
Off on a tour of the Cullinan Diamond Mine.
A final important component in the mix were daily reflective sessions, in which participants looked back individually on what they had experienced and then shared their views and insights with others in the group. They sometimes found that stimulating environment meant that they discovered as much about themselves and their managerial contexts back home, as about South Africa.
New ways of seeing
‘I’d not been to South Africa before and this elective really was a chance to see something new and different – a picture of South Africa I’d not have been able to get simply by travelling there as a tourist,’ says Satu Willgren, an Executive MBA student who heads up the Billing Unit at Helsingin Energia, one of Finland’s largest energy companies.
‘What I really appreciated was being able to meet and talk with local people, and visit local organisations. It was a very enriching experience. I learnt so much about the country – its history, its social and economic situation and how people see its future,’ Satu adds.
‘South Africa has problems that you’ll find also in other western countries, such as rising inflation – so much worse of course in South Africa – but some of the problems are still very ‘African’, like the AIDS problem. I’ve realised that to try and understand South Africa’s situation, I have to find a new way of looking at it – our ‘western’ way of viewing the issues is simply not adequate.’
It was not only those new to South Africa who gained fresh perspectives. Oluwafunke Amobi, a senior HR manager from Nigeria who is now completing the Full-time MBA, had made regular visits to Johannesburg while working for MTN.
‘I’m an African, I had my own assumptions and I thought I knew my facts,’ says Oluwafunke. ‘But though I’d visited the country before, I’d never really engaged with it at a strategic level. By the end of the week I’d had both my facts and my assumptions thoroughly challenged. And by digging deeper, I’d realised that my ‘facts’ were not facts at all.
Experiencing the energy of African drumming.
‘And we visited the parts of South Africa that really mattered – like Robben Island – and were able to interact with people from different parts of the community. For example, we were able to talk with former political detainees, with people who had been involved in the negotiations with de Klerk and Mandela – that felt like a real privilege. It was a unique part of my MBA, and though it was intensive, there was so much value in it.’
Two countries in one
Full-time MBA student Bemi Odunlami, a pharmacist from the UK, also gained significant insights, valuable for his long-term ambition of doing healthcare-related business in Africa.
‘One of the things South Africa did for me was to really make me understand the impact the political economy has on businesses, and how you can’t separate out the two’, he says.
‘In looking at how businesses operate in South Africa, it was a question of trying to understand what innovative methods they are using, especially because they are in effect coping with two economies. We saw how South Africa is like two countries in one – a first world economy, with all the large financial firms you find over here in the West, and a second, far poorer economy, heavily based on agriculture and where many people are working very hard just to scratch a living. The divide between the two is huge.
‘Seeing how people do business in such an environment was a major learning point for me. Whatever business model you adopt it’s always better to have one that supports the community. You can’t separate the business from the community – you have to be seen to be giving back in a big way.’
Reflecting on social responsibility
Questioning a manager at a Pick n Pay store.
‘The issues we saw in South Africa – housing, healthcare, poverty, and so on – they all exist in the UK but you don’t see them in the same way because they’re not as profound. The number of people in South Africa with AIDS or HIV, for example, creates enormous pressures. As employers we have to care for the welfare of our staff but that puts it on a totally different level. CSR was huge out there. One of the firms we visited, Pick n Pay, quickly discovered that their survival depends on the survival of the community, so they have to invest in the community in a major way. They plough 8% of their profits back into the community each year. Whereas in the UK, CSR is largely about reputation.’
‘I found the whole week really thought-provoking. The organisations we visited were very open with us, and we had access to lots of people at very senior levels.’