On March 5th and 6th, 1,200 practitioners and students will join together at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School for the 2011 Social Enterprise Conference.
This past January, a group of Harvard Business School students traveled to Rwanda to work with various small businesses and NGOs on issues of social enterprise and business development as part of a school-organized Immersion Experience Program (IXP).
Projects included developing sourcing strategies for local artisan cooperatives, evaluating potential markets for high-end silk production, and creating marketing strategies for a farmer-owned coffee company. As a first-year student at HBS, I teamed with three classmates to assess obstacles that limit Rwandan private sector investment in staple crop handling and storage facilities.
Our team partnered with CARANA Corporation, which through the support of USAID, is leading the Post-Harvest Handling and Storage Project (PHHS). The mission of the PHHS is to improve food security and profit potential for farmers through increasing crop storage capacity in Rwanda. Given recent improvements in agricultural productivity and the resulting surpluses of post-harvest staple crops, these facilities will allow farmers to sell crops that are currently lost due to inadequate access to storage, thus increasing the profitability of their harvests and securing greater food stores throughout the country.
During our project work, we spent significant time in the field meeting with various actors in the staple crop value chain. Speaking candidly with Rwandan business people and farmers about their operations and learning about what changes they felt were necessary was an enlightening experience. Whether we were speaking to agribusinesses that relied on a consistent supply of maize or farmer cooperatives that were frustrated over lost profit potential, the value of storage facilities was widely recognized and held in high regard. The same sentiment was shared by the government officials, banks and micro-finance institutions with whom we met, as they too recognized that rural infrastructure development was critical for strengthening the sector and alleviating the poverty experienced by many Rwandan farmers.
Throughout our conversations, we found that everyone was eager to hear our opinions and suggestions regarding their business activities and policy initiatives; while we often felt under qualified to offer our perspectives, the enthusiasm that Rwandans shared for the development of the sector and economy as a whole was truly energizing. We have no doubt that this enthusiasm underpins the economic development successes that Rwanda has experienced over the last decade.
Through our interactions and research, we recognized that the main barriers to increased investment could be overcome with greater collaboration between banks and agriculture stakeholders in the private and public sectors. Our deliverables thus centered on strengthening the transparency of PHHS efforts, incorporating banks, employing different financing models in facility pilot programs, and establishing partnerships with local institutions to strengthen loan management training activities. Overall, our experience in Rwanda was incredible and left us excited about the opportunities to utilize our business skills and education to help alleviate poverty in developing agricultural sectors.
As we returned to HBS, every member of our team set their sights on the upcoming Social Enterprise Conference on March 5th and 6th, hosted by students of the Harvard Kennedy School and HBS. The conference will bring together knowledge leaders from across all sectors that are working to achieve sustainable social impact in the communities they serve. Given our experiences in Rwanda, I am especially excited for the panel discussions focused on gaining greater access to social capital and developing innovative financial products to serve the poor. The panels on food and water security are also of great interest, where I’ll hear how organizations are working to link small holder farmers to more efficient and reliable markets. From the panels to the workshops to the keynote speakers, I’m confident that I’ll walk away from the Social Enterprise Conference with a deeper knowledge and improved skill set to more effectively serve the rural poor throughout the agriculture sector. From there, I will eagerly await the next opportunity to return to Rwanda and continue living through change!
On March 5th and 6th, 1,200 practitioners and students will join together at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School for the 2011 Social Enterprise Conference. Please go to www.socialenterpriseconference.org to learn more, take part, and see how you can sustain impact and live change.
John Rogers is a first-year MBA student at the Harvard Business School. Previously he worked as a design engineer for Caterpillar in Aurora, IL, after graduating from North Carolina State University with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. His passions are reconnecting with his farming roots by pursuing a career in international development and agribusiness, experiencing new and foreign cultures, and enjoying fine beers from around the world.