"You're going where for winter break?" was the typical response. After all, Rwanda does not tend to rank as a top travel destination. But for me and fellow GSB student Jake Bennett '06, winter break in Kigali, Rwanda was a truly memorable experience. With the support of the Social Enterprise Program's International Development Consulting Project Travel Fund, we served as short-term consultants for Rwanda's business school, the School of Finance and Banking.
It was hard to know what to expect prior to the trip. Like many Americans, my knowledge of Rwanda stemmed primarily from what the media covered and Hollywood portrayed. I braced myself to be confronted by poverty, sickness and despair. To be sure, Rwanda is a poor and developing country, still healing from the horrors of a genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people in 100 days just over a decade ago. But from the first day we landed, it was clear that another side existed as well-an optimistic and entrepreneurial side. For instance, a Rwandan entrepreneur saw his profits skyrocket when he added a nightclub and bar to his existing car wash station (the Lang Center would be proud!). Compared with the 64 day average to start a business in Africa, it typically takes an entrepreneur 21 days to start a business in Rwanda (only slightly over the 19.5 day average to start a business in OECD countries).
Far from shunning any talk of the genocide, Rwandans are extremely open about discussing it and see such candid openness as a crucial step towards rebuilding the country. After being awakened by African drums at 5am on our first day, we witnessed Rwandans engaging in a monthly holiday where Tutsi and Hutu neighbors beautify their towns side-by-side, thus building collective pride (indeed, this was by far the cleanest developing country I have ever traveled to, as well as one of the prettiest, with thousands of beautiful hills offering spectacular views around the country). Many of the young Rwandans we met were born and educated outside Rwanda, returning after the warfare ended to help in reconstruction. Indeed, there was an undeniable spirit of excitement and optimism in rebuilding the country, developing the economy and making Rwanda a better place to live.
Within this context, the Rwandan government created the School of Finance and Banking (SFB) in 2002 to help strengthen the country's private sector and human capital base. The first class of 126 business school students was admitted in 2003 and will be graduating this year. Headed by Dr. Uzziel Ndagihimana, the school's goal is to become a center of excellence in professional business training, and to thus strengthen the Rwandan financial sector. The SFB offers MBA degrees specializing in Finance, Banking, and Project Management, as well as training programs focused on Accounting.
Through our project, we helped develop key strategic initiatives for the SFB around the goals of: reaching self-sustainability; developing certification programs in partnership with the Rwandan Finance Ministry; and building student partnerships with international business programs. Reaching self-sustainability was a key goal, especially given the school's recent absorption of an undergraduate business school with 1,400 students and 46 Rwandan staff (who says mergers and acquisitions only happen in the private sector?). As part of its long-term strategy, the SFB aims to decrease reliance on government funding and at the same time decrease the tuition burden on each student. Through interviews with SFB staff, project stakeholders, and analysis of SFB's financial reports, we helped identify revenue-generating, cost-cutting and efficiency-raising opportunities. These ideas included building a Business Language Institute to be a profit center, expanding SFB's Research and Consulting Unit (where professors have consulting projects with government agencies and private corporations), and strengthening its internal teaching capacity to decrease reliance on expensive foreign faculty.
A second key goal for the SFB is to develop a certification program in partnership with the Rwandan Finance Ministry. This will better equip the SFB to provide courses that train accountants, auditors and procurement specialists-essential in strengthening both the public and private sector. Towards this effort, we worked with Rwanda's Human Resource and Institutional Capacity Development Agency (HIDA) to help procure an institutional partner to assist the SFB in training.
Finally, we helped the SFB build relationships with international business programs. Towards this end, we shared best practices of U.S. business schools like Columbia, and mapped out ways in which a partnership between both schools can continue through student initiatives (for example, through summer internships and MIDI projects).
During our stay there, Jake and I discovered that Columbia is never too far away: Rebecca Stich (MBA/MSW '04) spied Jake on Cubmail in an internet center in Kigali, and subsequently introduced herself and had us over for Christmas and Hannukah dinner. We also spoke with Staci Leuschner '99, who currently works at Population Services International in Kigali.
Of course, no visit to Rwanda would be complete without gorilla trekking in the Parc des Volcans in the northwestern part of Rwanda-made famous by Dian Fossey's work and the movie, Gorillas in the Mist. It was an absolutely incredible and magical experience that almost defies description (the picture below, taken with a tiny camera with barely any zoom, says it all!). The following weekend, we headed to Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda, which is part of the Western Serengeti. Like our fellow GSB'ers who were in Tanzania over winter break, we saw giraffes, zebras, hippos - no lions, but petting an elephant made up for it!
In conclusion, for all you MBAs who like to see figures, the final tally of the trip was: client deliverables: 3; gorillas viewed: 13; elephants petted: 1; Kinya-rwanda words learned: 15; UN parties crashed: 1; ankles sprained: 1.
To learn more about Rwanda's School of Finance and Banking, please visit www.sfb.ac.rw. To learn more about project opportunities through MIDI please visit: www.gsb.columbia.edu/students/organizations/midi.