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Out of Africa
Taking entrepreneurial inspiration from a trek to Ghana
On a late Tuesday afternoon in April, the management class Technology and Economic Development features a guest lecture by Nathan Cooke, cofounder of Sanergy, a startup company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a mission to bring “sustainable sanitation” to developing countries. After showing images of slum dwellers in Nairobi dumping waste into open wooden barrels and streams, Cooke, a slender young man with close-cropped hair, outlines the company’s business model, which involves franchising pay-per-use toilets to local entrepreneurs, then collecting and converting the waste into fertilizer and electricity. The 21 students, mostly sophomores and juniors, question him intently. Will Sanergy’s revenue come largely from selling the recycled waste? (Yes, Cooke says.) How many tons of waste will it take before the two-year-old company becomes profitable? (Far more than are now collected.)
Welcome to the class known informally as “Tech Trek Ghana,” offered for the first time this past spring in the Carroll School of Management (CSOM) and taught by associate professor John Gallaugher, a technology specialist.
Like a popular Gallaugher course called Tech Trek West, which follows classroom lectures with a week-long trip to Silicon Valley and visits to Google, Apple, Facebook, and other iconic technology firms, this trek will take students to West Africa to study technology enterprises in Ghana, which has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. A number of the companies the class will study are engaged in social entrepreneurship, aiming to make money through ventures that address pressing social issues such as poverty. A quarter of Ghana’s population still lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. “I don’t want students to approach these [social] issues with rose-colored glasses,” says Gallaugher. It’s “really challenging” to build companies that “sustain themselves with their own profits.”
Class meetings in Fulton Hall run from 4:30 to 6:50 p.m. once a week, beginning in March. Usually in the first hour and a half, the students hear from entrepreneurs whose companies they’re studying; after a break, class members deliver presentations on other Ghanaian companies whose leaders will address the class over the coming weeks and on firms the group will visit in Ghana. Gallaugher, generally seated at the back of the room, helps steer the discussions.
Christina Tamer, marketing and research manager at Invested Develop-ment, an investment management firm with offices in Boston and Nairobi, gave the first guest talk on a snowy day in mid-March. Tamer, who looked scarcely older than the students (she’s a 2011 graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and received her MBA there in May), spoke about “impact investing,” a subset of social entrepreneurship in which investors provide venture capital “to generate measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.” Among other projects, Invested Development is funding the production of high-efficiency, low-cost wind turbines for households and villages beyond the reach of a reliable grid. “When the sun goes down,” Tamer said, “you can’t keep your store open. You can’t study.” Many Africans use kerosene lamps, but these are unsafe and unsustainable, she explained.
Two student presentations followed. Sarah Dunnagan, the only graduate student in the class (taking MBA classes at night and working for a consulting group by day), offered cultural pointers for the trip to Africa. She noted, for instance, that if a female student extends a hand upon meeting a Muslim man, the man, for religious reasons, might not reciprocate. Following Dunnagan, Michael Lapointe ’14 shared his research on Sproxil, a five-year-old, Cambridge-based company trying to curb a developing-world epidemic of counterfeit prescription drugs.
Sproxil’s founder and CEO, Ashifi Gogo, a 30-something Ph.D. engineer from Dartmouth College, with rimless, wire-frame glasses and the build of a linebacker, joined the class the following week. Gogo, a Ghanaian native, cited a widely published estimate—700,000 lives lost annually due to fake malaria and tuberculosis drugs. The fatalities are caused by contaminants—from chalk dust to rat poison—used to make the counterfeits.
Gogo described the Sproxil solution: Consumers scratch the label off their drug packaging to reveal a verification code, which they type into a free text message. In seconds they receive a reply telling them whether or not the drug is real. Using Sproxil, consumers in Africa and India have tested the authenticity of their medicines 4.7 million times in the past two years, according to the company website. The procedure works, Gogo noted, because mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous in Africa. His startup—which makes its money from fees paid by legitimate pharmaceutical companies—is profitable.
In the spring of 2012, Gallaugher received an email from Kevin Schuster ’11. Schuster is a business development fellow at Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, or MEST, a launching pad for young entrepreneurs in Ghana’s capital, Accra. Each year MEST accepts 25 recent graduates of top Ghanaian universities into a two-year training program, and Schuster was inquiring about readings in technology that Gallaugher might recommend to share with MEST students. The economics major had never met Gallaugher but knew him as Boston College’s “go-to tech guru,” he said in an interview.
The two got together in Chestnut Hill last summer, and the question arose: “Why not do a Tech Trek to Africa?”
Less than a year later, on May 19, 2013, Gallaugher and his 21 students (accompanied by Elizabeth Strock Bagnani, a lecturer in accounting) flew to Accra, where they stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of the capital, about five minutes from MEST.
At MEST’s two-story, pale-blue stucco main building, groups of four or five Boston College students took part in workshops aimed at developing business plans initiated by teams of MEST students. One venture, called Troxki, involved an app that determines reasonable fares for taxis, in a country where haggling before riding is common. Ashley Macaulay ’14 said she spoke with the team about possibly adapting the idea to the United States, where cabs tend to be metered. For example, the app could be tweaked to find a Thai restaurant that’s less than a five-dollar cab ride away, making it possible to generate advertising revenue from commercial establishments. A finance major, Macaulay said the workshop gave her a glimpse into how “the environment drives innovation,” how a local need (negotiating cab fares) can give rise to a new product on the global market.
The Boston College students returned to the MEST campus several times during the week for panel discussions and meals with MEST students. When not at MEST, the CSOM contingent visited companies such as Sproxil whose leaders had visited them in Chestnut Hill. The group also toured local offices of firms with familiar names like GE and Google.
Lapointe, who had visited Google’s international headquarters as part of the Tech Trek to Silicon Valley in 2012, was struck by the long game that Google Ghana is playing. “It’s all about establishing markets, getting people online so they can make money in the future,” he said in a telephone call after returning to the United States from Accra.
On the third full day of their trip, the students toured sub-Saharan Africa’s first laptop and mobile phone assembly plant, in Accra (crossing paths with potential investors from Emirates National Bank of Dubai). The next day, they met with Herman Chinery-Hesse, known as “the Bill Gates of Africa,” in his second-floor office at SOFTtribe, the software development company he founded 19 years ago.
Reflecting on the trip after their return, the trekkers remarked on the entrepreneurial vitality they saw in Ghana. Macaulay, who lives in Duxbury, Massachusetts, but grew up in Nigeria and South Africa, was struck by the “leapfrogging technology”—banking transactions conducted with cellphones, for instance, in places where banks never existed. Ariam Tesfai ’15, a Maryland native whose parents emigrated from Eritrea, and whose concentrations are marketing, management, and leadership, said the combined classwork and trip gave her a larger appreciation of a phrase often heard at the Carroll School: “In a globalized world, all countries are relevant.”
Read more by William Bole